The Understudies: How to Substitute Baking Ingredients

January 2, 2019

I always insist on following a recipe exactly as directed, especially when it’s my first time. Because there’s so much chemistry and physics behind the baking process, it’s not always easy to predict how using a different ingredient will affect your cake. If at all possible, it’s best to stick to the original plan.

Because there’s so much chemistry and physics behind the baking process, it’s not always easy to predict how using a different ingredient will affect your cake.

However, there are times when you simply have no other choice. I’m sure all the ladies will agree when I say, sometimes you just have to fake it if the real thing is impossible to get. Despite the increasing number of specialty baking stores in Metro Manila, there are instances when even these havens will let you down. If you’re like me, the need to substitute ingredients usually comes from improper planning or late night baking binges. I’m embarrassed to admit how many times I’ve started measuring out ingredients, melt chocolate, only to realize that I don’t have the right kind of sugar in the pantry for my brownies.

It takes more than a sugar shortage to keep me from my baked goods, though. The good news is if one ingredient is not on hand, you usually have an option to swap it out with something else. The key is understanding how the switch could change your end product and making adjustments based on those changes. This is what this guide is for.


Butter vs Margarine vs Shortening

From a baking point of view, there are two things that matter when talking solid fats: water and fat content. Fat coats and weakens the gluten bonds in flour. Water, which turns to steam, helps in the leavening process, and also causes your dough to spread more.

Butter is between 18% to 20% water, with the rest being butter fat. Shortening, on the other hand, is 100% vegetable or animal fat. When substituting the latter for butter, you may need to add water. With margarine, things get a little unpredictable. Its fat content can be as low as 10% or as high as 90%. You have to choose your margarine carefully, taking the time to read the label, if you plan to bake with it.

The different compositions of butter, shortening, and margarine will significantly impact your baked goods. If you simply swap out one for the other without taking precautions, you may ruin what you’re making. For instance, cookies made with shortening will be thicker and higher, butter-based cookies will spread out more, while results with margarine will vary, depending on the water to fat ratio of the brand you use. A higher water content will result in cookies that spread and burn too quickly.

“Shortening, yummmmm.” – said no one ever. (photo from Bake Happy)

The other factor that needs to be considered is taste. You don’t need a taste test to tell you that butter wins this one hands down. Shortening is tasteless in its basic form, but it now also comes in butter-flavored varieties. Margarine, for its part, bases its entire marketing campaign on the premise that it tastes just like butter (it doesn’t). The “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” and “You Butter Believe It” taglines we’re all familiar with are  proof of margarine’s inferiority complex.

When substituting one solid fat for another, do keep in mind that the density, texture, color, and taste of your finished product could all change. Also, a substitution that’s imperceptible in some recipes (self-contained goods like cakes) can result in disasters in others (cookies).


Most baking recipes call for either canola or vegetable oil, as these are generally neutral tasting oils. I’ve substituted one for the other with no noticeable impact to the final product. Do not use olive oil as a substitute for any of these two, though. For all its health benefits, the strong and distinct olive taste will ruin whatever you’re baking (unless of course you’re making an olive oil cake).


When substituting brown for white sugar or vice versa, the conversion is pretty straightforward: one cup white equals one cup packed brown sugar. But the type of sugar will impact more than just the color of your baked goods. Brown sugar has molasses, which not only gives it its color, but also its slight butterscotch flavor. It is also why cookies baked with more brown sugar than white have a chewier texture, versus those baked with more granulated sugar. Molasses is a liquid, and more liquid means more moisture in your baked goods.

Photo from Wikipedia

Powdered sugar (or confectioner’s sugar) can’t really be substituted with anything else. Trying to sub in normal sugar will just leave you with sandy frosting. Fortunately, it’s easy to make your own. All you need is some white sugar, a bit of cornstarch, and a blender.


Mercifully, most recipes call for all-purpose flour, which is, as you can tell from its name, pretty versatile and widely available. But if you bake a lot, you will come across recipes that will require different types of flour. My go-to red velvet cupcake recipe uses cake flour, Alton Brown’s legendary The Chewy calls for bread flour, and a lot of recipes from British or Australian chefs will call for self-raising flour.

A flour’s protein turns into gluten with the help of heat and the liquid in the batter.

There are a lot of other varieties of wheat flours (and a whole lot more non-wheat ones) and the differences between each lies in their protein content. A flour’s protein turns into gluten with the help of heat and the liquid in the batter. Cake and pastry flours are made from “soft” wheat that have a lower protein content (6-8% for cake, 8-10% for pastry). Baked goods made from this type of flour have a delicate, softer crumb, and a lighter color. On the other end of the spectrum, bread flour is made of “hard” wheat and has 12-14% protein. The high gluten ratio makes it best-suited for recipes that use yeast.

When substituting one flour for another, it’s not a simple one-to-one swap. To use all-purpose in place of cake flour, some of the AP flour is replaced by cornstarch to reduce the protein content. Conversely, you need two additional tablespoons of cake flour to match one cup of AP flour. You can refer to resources here and here for other flour substitution measurements.


Eggs are all the same, right? Well, no. More recipes now specify the size of the egg to use. Ina Garten is partial to extra-large (and organic, of course) eggs, but large eggs are usually the norm. If the recipe only uses one egg, then using a medium one instead of an extra-large will not result in any perceptible difference in your cake. But when the amount of eggs required increases, the previously insignificant difference multiplies as well.


Image from Get Cracking

As an example, four extra large eggs equals five large, six medium, or seven small eggs. Using the correct amount of smaller or larger eggs (with the help of this ) could be the difference between a soufflé that is as light as a cloud or as dense as a pound cake.

Have you had any disasters from improper substitution during baking? Discovered any new or unusual replacements for hard to find ingredients? Share your stories below!

Katrina Iriberri Katrina Iriberri

Katrina is a finance worker bee who would never say no to anything flavored salted caramel. When she’s not baking something with chocolate or cream cheese in it, she’s either reading Austen, or Googling the best places to eat in NYC or Paris. She dreams of watching the El Classico at the Bernabéu one day (with Real Madrid winning, of course) and of being adopted by Ina and Jeffrey Garten, if only to inherit Ina’s barn and kitchen.

3 comments in this post SHOW

3 responses to “The Understudies: How to Substitute Baking Ingredients”

  1. Vincent Maldia says:

    two of the frustrations in following foreign chefs are weird ingredients and budget

    wtf is a courgette? wtf is an aubergine? Its funny when you find out what it is. where can i get bussels sprouts? quinoa is pretty much unavailable except in S&R and its expensive . WTF is kale? WTF is rocket?

    recipe calls for butter? too expensive, use cheapest available margarine. REcipe for salad dresing calls for olive oil? too expensive, use palm oil.

    And don’t get me started on cheese. Parmesan, ricotta, cottage cheese, mozarella, provolone, etc etc. Everything gets substituted with either cheese whiz or one of the cheaper solid cheeses

  2. Ren says:

    I understand that some ingredients are ought to be substituted for health reasons. However, for desserts, I believe it should deliciously sinful. Indulgent. <3

  3. While shortening produces the flakiest pie crusts and is most stable for deep or shallow frying, one must keep in mind that it’s hydrogenated oil. Whether party or fully one should steer clear as after processing these oils are only one molecule away from being plastic. Butter would be relatively healthier.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Keep on