When my husband and I were first married, we treated cooking as a hobby. We followed recipes in fancy cookbooks and shopped at Whole Foods and other specialty (expensive) stores for only the finest gourmet ingredients. Then we had kids! And our high-priced food addiction had to change.

Up until that point I was a great cook, but only when following a recipe. If I veered from the clearly written instructions, it spelled disaster! Or so I thought. I had an epiphany one afternoon while scouring recipe books looking for one that matched the ingredients I had on hand. Big surprise, there wasn't one recipe that fit that criteria.

Knowing my in-laws were coming for dinner, which was only an hour away, and having no chance to get to the store or money to buy anything else, I made a snap decision that has irreversibly changed the way I think about following recipes and cooking forevermore. I decided to use (gasp!) substitutions in my recipe. I wanted to make cornbread to accompany the chili I had on hand in the freezer. But I didn't have the eggs or the cornmeal–two of the key ingredients.

On a lark, I googled food substitutions. To my surprise a whole slew of sights popped up listing all sorts of possibilities to replace those two ingredients. I learned you can use applesauce in place of eggs. Who knew? And surprise, I had corn grits in my pantry that would apparently work just as well as plain old cornmeal. It's just ground a bit coarser. I told my mother-in-law I made "rustic, apple" cornbread! She was delighted, but not nearly as much as I was.

That afternoon's dilemma opened up a whole new approach to cooking for me. I realized I could save loads of money by using what I have on hand in my pantry/stockpile to create my own unique and fresh recipes. Out of butter and need to sauté something? No problem! You can use a few tablespoons of flat beer or wine for every tablespoon of butter or oil. The possibilities are limitless!

Some of my other favorite substitutions used over the years:

  • Eggs in baking: applesauce, mashed banana, yogurt
  • Eggs in cooking: mayo
  • Ketchup: for 1 cup, use 1 cup of tomato sauce, 1 teaspoon of vinegar and 1 Tablespoon of sugar
  • Prepared Mustard: for 1 Tablespoon, use 1 Tablespoon dried mustard, 1 teaspoon water, 1 teaspoon vinegar and 1 teaspoon sugar
  • Hot Sauce: ¾ teaspoon of cayenne pepper and 1tsp of vinegar
  • Red Wine: beef broth, apple cider, vinegar, or just plain water
  • Milk: thinned out yogurt, water, cream, half and half
  • Buttermilk: one cup of milk plus 1 Tablespoon of lemon juice or Apple Cider vinegar (be sure to let sit for five minutes after mixing)
  • Sour Cream: plain yogurt (if it's really thin yogurt, drain water off in a sieve)
  • Soy Sauce: kosher salt mixed with granulated sugar dissolved in hot water
  • Vinegar: lemon and lime juice, white wine
  • Bread Crumbs: cracker crumbs, oatmeal, or matzo meal
  • Cottage Cheese: farmer's cheese or ricotta cheese
  • White Sugar: brown sugar, confectioner's sugar, honey or corn syrup
  • Jam: canned fruit drained and mashed
  • Baking Soda: use baking powder but triple the amount
  • Molasses: ¾ cup of brown sugar and 1 teaspoon cream of tartar (per cup of molasses)
  • Mozzarella (for pizza or lasagna): jack cheese and parmesan combined or separate
  • Pepperoni: salami
  • Allspice: 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon ginger, and 1/4 teaspoon cloves (per teaspoon of allspice)
  • Beef or Chicken Broth: bouillon mixed with 1 cup of boiling water, vegetable broth
  • Butter: margarine, shortening, lard
  • Unsweetened Chocolate: 3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa plus 1 tablespoon shortening or vegetable oil

Now, not only do I save money, I accomplish my own brand of recipe that sometimes, believe it or not, is better than the highly touted, gourmet one! Remember–results will vary, but try to have fun experimenting and channeling your inner chef. Good luck and get creative!

This has been a guest post by Mary Jo from Denver, CO
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