Tips for using common baking ingredient substitutions successfully

Swapping in flax eggs and nut flours can work well if you consider a few things.

Swapping in flax eggs and nut flours can work well if you consider a few things

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

So you're eager to bake and you've got a recipe, buuut you want to make a few adjustments. Maybe you want to use dairy-free milk, replace the butter with oil, or lose the nut flour.

Baking substitutions are fun to think about, but tricky to implement. What if things don't turn out? As bakers we're taught to play by the rules, but here's the thing: you become a better baker when you tinker. 

Beyond ratios and amounts to use when you're substituting (a quick Google search will tell you that), there are guidelines for substituting key ingredients in baking; if you keep them in mind, you can have great success with your swaps. Just remember it may take a few tries to get it right, so don't expect perfection the first time — and always, always test recipes before making them for a party or potluck! 

Here's what you need to know when you're using these go-to substitutes.

Replacing eggs with flax 'eggs'

Ground flax can sub in for eggs as long as the recipe doesn't rely heavily on them for structure. (You may run into trouble if you replace more than two eggs in a recipe.) Generally, you can mix a tablespoon of ground flax with three tablespoons of water to replace each whole egg in your dough or batter. But depending on the recipe, this substitution may involve trial and error.

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You'll have a much higher chance of success if you try this with baked goods that have a gooey centre — like brownies and blondies — or for muffins, which have a smaller surface area to set. 

Be sure to soak the ground flax in water until it thickens, about five minutes. This softens the hull and creates a gluey substance similar to egg whites. The oils in the flax mimic the fat in the yolks, which is why the whole thing works. 

If you don't have ground flax, you can grind whole seeds in a spice grinder or powerful blender before soaking. And if you don't have any flax on hand, try chia seeds. They work in a similar way, but don't require grinding. 

Replacing nut flours with all-purpose flour

If you want to swap all-purpose flour for nut flour, it's fairly straightforward and usually a 1-to-1 ratio, but keep in mind nut flour contributes both flavour and fat, adding a richness you may miss. Consider adding a tablespoon or two of milk powder (instant or non-instant), to keep your baking tender. 

Try adding vanilla extract or increasing the amount; toasting your sugar (which may sound odd, but it's totally worth it); or using nutty whole-grain flours like rye, kamut and einkorn to replicate the depth of flavour of nut flour. 

Replacing nuts with seeds

Replacing nuts with seeds in an equal amount is doable in baked goods, but be aware that seeds — like pumpkin, sesame, sunflower and hemp — tend to be more bitter. To combat that, you may want to bump up the sugar or add an assertive flavour, like chocolate or honey, to balance things out.

Replacing all-purpose flour with gluten-free options

This swap can be one of the more difficult ones. Gluten helps baked goods hold their shape and without it, they can crumble. 

For best results, use a combination of gluten-free flours like rice, sorghum or millet; a starch like tapioca or arrowroot; and perhaps milk powder to replicate the protein and starch in all-purpose flour and get the taste and texture you're after. Sometimes you may need a stabilizer like xanthan gum or guar gum too. 

You may get away with using just one type of flour when you're making a recipe with lots of eggs to hold it together, like fudgy brownies or a ricotta cake. In these instances, try using a hearty flour like coconut or almond, which add bulk and absorb liquid well — sometimes too well, so it may take some fiddling with the ratios. 

Start with a 1-to-1 swap and go from there. You can make your own gluten-free mix or buy one that's already prepared. 

Replacing (some) sugar with fruit juice 

If you want to decrease the amount of refined sugar in a recipe, adding a little fruit juice can sweeten things up. But keep in mind you're also introducing liquid, so it's not a 1-to-1 swap.  

Start by adding three-quarters of a cup of juice for every cup of sugar. Although sugar adds a bit of moisture to recipes, you'll likely have to reduce the amount of liquid in the recipe to compensate for the liquid from the juice.  

With their higher sugar content, white grape, apple and orange juices can work well. Consider how the flavours pair with your recipe and look for juice that's made with 100 per cent fruit and no added sugar. 

Replacing some fat with applesauce or sweet potato

Applesauce or puréed sweet potato can stand in for some of the fat in recipes, providing some of the moisture that would have come from the oil or butter. But if you replace too much of the fat, your cakes, muffins and cookies could end up dry. 

You'll have more reliable results if you replace no more than half of the fat.

Replacing butter with oil

Knowing you can substitute oil for butter is handy, especially in vegan baking, but you'll need to consider a few things. 

It won't always be a 1-to-1 swap: butter contains water, while oil doesn't. So perhaps start with one-quarter less oil than the amount of butter. For example, for every cup of butter, you'd use three-quarters of a cup of oil — or even a half cup for cookies if you find they're turning out greasy.

Also, does the recipe require the fat to be solid at room temperature like butter? This is the case when there's a creaming step or for a pie crust where pockets of fat are key to flakiness. In these types of recipes, coconut oil works since it's solid at room temperature.

And don't forget the flavour of the oil you're using. You don't want it to overpower your recipe.   

Replacing milk with dairy-free alternatives

You can readily replace dairy milk with alt-milks — like oat, nut, soy and coconut — at a 1-to-1 ratio. As Stella Parks at Serious Eats points out, the milk's main purpose is usually "to provide hydration first and foremost — plus some boosts to browning with lactose."

If you need to whip the cream, refrigerate a can of full-fat coconut milk for a few hours; scoop off the thick top layer, saving the watery part for another use; and transfer it to a chilled bowl. Flavour it just as you would whipping cream, with a bit of sugar and vanilla, and whip with either a stand mixer or hand mixer. The result won't be as fluffy as regular whipping cream, but it's a good stand-in with something you may already have in your pantry.

Jessica Brooks is a digital producer and pro-trained cook and baker. Follow her food stories on Instagram @brooks_cooks

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