Today I want to discuss substitutions in baking. I get lots of questions about how to substitute for various ingredients that people can’t or don’t want to use. I am happy to help when I can, but I wanted to have a little chat about what substitutes can and cannot do.
First and foremost: substitutes are what they sound like–they are substituting for the preferred item. So, most of the time they are not going to behave, taste, or feel EXACTLY like the preferred ingredients. Think about substitutes in other realms. For example, substitute teachers are fine in a pinch, but they don’t do the job that the permanent teacher does. It’s the same with food substitutes. If they did the same exact job in the same exact way, they wouldn’t be substitutes–they would be the preferred thing. This blog is already all about a big substitution: gluten-free flour used in the place of wheat flour for baking.
It takes time to develop a recipe and I go the extra mile to make sure that it is the best it can be. And part of this development process is choosing the ingredients carefully. Therefore, I do get frustrated when, for example, someone asks me for ideas on an egg substitute in a recipe full of eggs–and then that person comes back to me complaining that the egg substitute didn’t act or taste exactly like an egg. To which I say, “Of course not. It isn’t an egg.”
This reminds me of a funny (and kind of horrifying) comment I saw on one of the mass recipe sites where someone complains that the recipe she followed didn’t work because she substituted vanilla ice cream for the mayonnaise. They are both white, reasoned the reader, so she thought it would be OK. And, of course it wasn’t OK and the reader was mad and complained that the recipe didn’t work. This is an extreme example, but this is what happens all the time for us recipe developers. I’m never quite sure what’s going on here. I’m guessing that people forget that substitutes are substitutes.
I also think that people tend to forget that there are many different approaches to gluten-free baking. My type of gluten-free baking has the goal of mimicking classic wheat baking. It’s not vegan, it’s not whole grain, it’s not sugar-free, it’s not paleo. All of these approaches to gluten-free baking are valid and good, but they are quite different from each other. So, if you use substitutes in my recipes with the goal of making them sugar-free or paleo or whole grain or dairy-free or whatever, you are not going to end up with a cookie that tastes the same as the one I created. In addition, the substitute ingredients you use may or may not behave the same or work well in the recipes.
I would like to ask everyone who uses cookbooks and blogs and recipe sites to use some common sense when approaching ingredient substitutes. Realize that a substitute is a step away from the preferred ingredient. It is going to be, at the very least, slightly different from the preferred ingredient, and at the most, quite different from the preferred ingredient.
Below I have listed the ingredients that I have used as substitutes for various ingredients. If the substitution is not listed, then I haven’t tried it and therefore, I can’t recommend for or against it. Also, please realize that you may need to do some experimentation on your own to find out what substitutes you like best.
Butter really is the best in baking if you can use it. It tastes good and has a good mouth-feel. That said, there are a zillion butter substitutes out there. Margarine is the most common substitute. My family can’t eat soy because Girlfriend is allergic to soy. Also, hydrogenated margarines are really (really) bad for you, so I avoid hydrogenated oils. My preferred butter substitute is Earth Balance Soy-Free Butter Spread. Because it is a “buttery spread,” it is softer than butter. Therefore, if you use it for pie crust or something else you need to use cold butter for, you need to monitor the temperature a bit more. And it’s more salty, so you will need to adjust the salt in the recipe. Some people use coconut oil in the place of butter. I do not do this in my baking because I think it adds a coconut flavor. I do use it to popcorn, though–it’s yummy for that purpose.
Sigh. Eggs are one of the most difficult things to replace in baking. Eggs provide structure to baked items in addition to binding. Without eggs, your baked items are going to be flatter than they would be with eggs. If you are sensitive to chicken eggs, I would recommend asking your doctor if s/he would recommend that you try duck eggs. Duck eggs are a terrific substitute for chicken eggs if you can tolerate them, and they are bigger than most chicken eggs–so they naturally replace the “extra-large egg” I recommend in most of my recipes.
If you cannot tolerate duck eggs, my next preferred egg substitute is ground flax seeds mixed with hot water. For 1 extra-large egg, I recommend mixing 1 TBL of ground flax seeds with 3 TBL of hot (not boiling) water. Whisk together and then let sit for 15-20 minutes in order to make a gel. Then use this gel as you would the eggs–you can beat it with your mixer. Of course, it won’t work for a meringue or for a sponge cake or pâte à choux (which rely on eggs for the leavening), but it will substitute for eggs in many regular baked items. The flax will provide a bit of a nutty flavor, so be prepared for that. I know there are many other substitutes, but these are the ones I use if I need an egg substitute.
I have already provided a gluten-free flour substitution for wheat flour in the form of my Jeanne’s Gluten-Free All-Purpose Flour Mix. And yet, people ask me for substitutes for the substitutes. Please be aware that my mix is truly one of the reasons my recipes work so well. And therefore, be aware that substituting flours for the flours in my mix will give the mix a different taste and a bit of a different texture. Here’s what I recommend if you must use substitutes:
Brown rice flour: substitute sorghum flour
White rice flour: substitute millet flour
Sweet rice (also know as glutinous rice) flour: substitute potato flour (not starch)
Tapioca flour: substitute potato starch (not flour)
Note: all of these flours are available online. Even so, people always ask me where to find these in their hometown. The answer is: I’m not sure–I don’t live in your hometown. Many are available at stores like Whole Foods, health food stores, Asian markets, and even regular grocery stores depending on the town or city. The one thing that is imperative to do is to get flours that are labelled “gluten-free.” If something isn’t labelled “gluten-free,” there is a chance that it is cross-contaminated with gluten. If you are celiac or wheat allergic, this is not acceptable.
Added note: people always ask me about flours from Asian stores. Many of the flours available at Asian stores aren’t labeled gluten-free. This means that they may or may not be cross-contaminated with gluten-containing ingredients. But, other than contacting the company to find out about their practices, there isn’t any way to guarantee that they are gluten-free. Therefore, if you are gluten-free for a health reason and cannot have cross-contamination, I recommend that you avoid anything that isn’t labeled gluten-free.
Another added note: I get my flours from Bob’s Red Mill or from Authentic Foods. If these aren’t available in your town, you can order them online. Also, these products are available on Amazon–and if you have Amazon Prime, the shipping is free.
Substituting for sugar is tough for baking. Sugar does so many things in baking. It provides sweetness, of course. It also gives a good mouth-feel to your baked goods. It’s a preservative, so it allows for your baked items to stay good for a few days. It attracts water, which is why the tops of muffins get a little gummy after awhile. But it also keeps baked goods moist inside. I pretty much bake with sugar. I don’t really have any experience with sugar replacers like Splenda, so I can’t really recommend any. The chemistry of sugar replacers is complicated and creates a chain effect of issues throughout the baking process. Below is my experience with the following natural sugars:
Maple sugar is a nice alternative to cane sugar. It behaves the same as cane sugar, but will add a slight maple taste to baked items.
Palm sugar is another nice alternative to cane sugar. It comes in many forms. The granulated form can be used in baked goods.
Honey and agave are hard to use in the place of sugar in baked goods. They are a bit sweeter than cane sugar and they are liquid. So, when you use them to substitute for cane sugar in a recipe, you need to adjust for sweetness and for liquidity–meaning you will have to reduce other liquids in your recipe. I don’t really have any single ratio for how to use honey or agave as a substitute for sugar in recipes–you will need to do your own experimentation for it.
Xanthan Gum and Other Gums and Pectin
I use xanthan gum as the “gluten-replacer” in my baking. I truly feel it is the best product available for creating baked items that taste and feel like their wheat counterparts. It not only has the binding and structure building properties of gluten, it is the most elastic of the gluten replacers. And you only need to use a tiny amount of it per cup of gluten-free flour (about a 1/4 teaspoon).
There is a lot of misinformation going around about xanthan gum. So much so that it is hard to talk to many people rationally about it. Xanthan gum is the resulting product when the xanthomanoas campetris bacteria is grown on a sugar medium. Often that sugar medium is corn, but it can also be tapioca or even wheat. According to the food scientists that I’ve spoken with, xanthan gum should not contain any of the growth medium–corn, tapioca, or wheat. It should be completely processed out. It’s kind of like when you eat an apple–if you were tested, you wouldn’t test as containing apple because your body has converted it into skin and organs and blood, etc. That said, if you are allergic to the growing medium of the xanthan gum (usually corn), then I would ask your doctor if s/he recommends that you eat it.
There is no truly good substitute for xanthan gum in the kind of baking I do (to mimic the taste and feel of wheat baking). Some people use guar gum (from the guar plant), but I find that it’s not quite elastic enough for my purposes.
Other folks use flax seeds, chia seeds, and psyllium husks as gluten substitutes. In my experience, these don’t behave in the way I want my gluten replacer to behave. And they add a significant taste to baked goods. In the experiments I’ve done with the seeds, they have created a good looking product, but the product is gummy (because you have to use a relatively large amount of the seeds for them to work well), and then after a day or two, the product is crumbly in a gummy way (yes, it’s weird).
Also, I can’t use flax, psyllium, or chia in my baking because they are all strong laxatives and you need to use a relatively large amount of them in baked goods (several tablespoons) to get the desired result. They wreak havoc on my body. As someone whose digestive system is already pretty loose (ahem), the last thing I need is more laxatives in my diet.
This is all to say that I don’t really have (at this point) any useful advice for substituting seeds for the gums. Please use the below resources for information on how to do that. In addition, I don’t have any advice on how to use pectin in the place of gums.
ADDED 12/13/12: I have heard that some people have tried to use pectin and gelatin as their gluten-replacers. These don’t work that well because they are binders but not really structure builders. And they aren’t elastic the way you need them to be. So, they are better as egg replacers from what I can tell.
Here are a few resources and blogs (in no particular order) to check out that can help you with many of the substitutions mentioned here. Please note that this list is not in any way exhaustive. Please let me know if you have other books and sites that you have found particularly helpful for the substitution process:
Elana Amsterdam: Elana’s Pantry
-Elana is a genius with baking dairy-free with almond flour, coconut flour, natural sugar substitutes, and no gums. She has written two cookbooks that are excellent:
Karen Morgan: Blackbird Bakery
-Karen is a whiz at gluten-free baking with guar gum. And her book is awesome:
Peter Reinhart and Denene Wallace
-Peter Reinhart is one of my baking gods. I have several of his wheat bread baking books (they are must-haves) and I have learned a lot from them. He is a wheat baker, but has found that gluten-free baking is a nice break for his body. I had the honor of meeting him one year at the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference after a baking session he taught. He just co-wrote (with Denene Wallace) a gluten-free, grain-free, and sugar-free baking book that is due out this month. I have an advance copy of the book and it looks fabulous. I’m guessing it will become a classic on the grain-free and sugar-free baking shelf:
The following blogs are excellent sources for cooking and baking gluten-free and other other-allergens-free:
Karina Allrich: Gluten-Free Goddess
Shirley Braden: Gluten-Free Easily
Heidi Kelly: Adventures of a Gluten-Free Mom
Nancy: The Sensitive Pantry
(Clip art from: www.rookno17.com/2011/11/free-vintage-cooking-baking-clipart.html)