Baking Substitutions Guide

Baking substitutions save the day when you've run out of an ingredient or you want to make a healthier choice. Substitutions, however, can alter the taste, texture or appearance you want to achieve with your final product. The key to making the right baking substitutions is understanding what they're use for-binding, flavoring or rising, for example-and then choosing the right amount of comparable ingredients that result in the same or similar effect.

The Science of Baking Substitutions
When most people think about substitutions for cooking and baking, they're halfway through a recipe only to discover they've run out of butter, milk or flour. Other cooks take a more conscious approach to recipe alteration in order to reduce fat or sugar or avoid food allergens.

Whether you need to make a change on the fly or you're planning your holiday baking, the rules are the same: know what each ingredient does in the recipe before you choose a substitution.

Flours, for example, give structure to baked goods, define their texture and during the mixing process, help bind ingredients together. The component in flour that makes this possible is protein and different types of flour have different levels of protein. Choosing one at random is a risky proposition unless you understand how to compensate for the difference in protein content.

Vegetable Oil Substitutes
One of the most common substitutes people make is for vegetable oil and when it comes to baking, you have more options available to you than you would for a sauté. While it's possible to substitute a cooking oil that's higher in monounsaturated fats for vegetable oil, be sure you choose an oil that has a neutral taste (you may not notice a taste difference with canola oil, but you'll know if you baked brownies with olive oil).

The most widely used substitute for vegetable oil in baking is applesauce. It can be used in a wide variety of recipes, cuts the fat and doesn't compromise the moistness you're looking for in muffins or brownies. Unsweetened applesauce is best and the general rule for substitution is ½ the amount of oil the recipe calls for. If cakes don't rise as high as you'd like when you bake with applesauce, try adding a teaspoon of baking powder to the recipe.

Other fruit purees can be equally effective substitutes if you don't have applesauce on hand. The stronger the fruit's natural flavor however, the more likely it will come through in the finished dish. For holiday baking, consider using pumpkin puree, especially if you'll be baking with complementary spices like cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, allspice and nutmeg.

Brown Sugar Substitutes
Brown sugar is nothing more than white granulated sugar combined with molasses. The use of molasses increases the amount of sweetness brought to the recipe and also delivers a bit of moisture.

If you've run out of brown sugar, simply make your own. If you choose to use plain white sugar as a substitute, keep in mind that you may have to use more to get the flavor you're looking for and the end result might be drier without the added moisture from the molasses. 

Butter Substitutes and Shortening Substitutes
Serious bakers bake with butter and if there's none to be found, they'll most likely go to the supermarket or not bake at all. If you're in a pinch, try applesauce or fruit purees but be careful the puree isn't too thin. It's the comparable consistency between it and fat that makes it a good substitution in some recipes. Use ½ cup of fruit puree for every cup of butter called for. Whatever you do, try not to use margarine which contains unhealthy trans fats.

Butter can be used as a shortening substitute and the only place you may notice the difference is if you're baking cookies. Besides the obvious change in flavor, you'll want to place raw cookies farther apart on the cookie sheet. The butter will make them spread more. You may also notice that your cookies brown more deeply than if you'd used shortening. Use butter in equal amounts as shortening (1 cup of butter = 1 cup of shortening).

Flour Substitutes
Whatever your reason for needing a flour substitution, you'll need to pay careful attention to its protein content and how that affects its physical and chemical properties. When flour proteins are combined with heat, they produce gluten, which is what helps baked goods form and hold their structure. These changes extend beyond the types of flour used in baking-all-purpose, cake or pastry, for example-to flours made from rice, soy or spelt.

Next to protein content, the most important thing you'll need to know is how much your flour substitute weighs. Protein content is based on volume and 1 cup of all-purpose flour doesn't weight the same as 1 cup of rice flour. As an added precaution, you may want to measure your flours out by weight to help you make the most accurate substitution.

Generally however, you can make the following flour substitutions easily:

  • Substitute 1 cup of all-purpose flour with 1 cup plus 2 Tbs. of cake flour
  • Substitute 1 cup of pastry flour with 2/3 cup of all-purpose flour plus 1/3 cup cake flour
  • Substitute 1 cup of cake flour with 3/4 cup all-purpose flour plus 2 Tbs. of cornstarch
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