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Guide to Cooking Substitutions

Sometimes we just don’t have what it takes… not to be a good cook, trust me that comes as a bonus from experience, I mean sometimes you need an egg or some buttermilk and the cupboards are bare. I know that these days there is a 24 hour supermarket open somewhere fully stocked with the weirdest of ingredients but often you don't need to go to all that effort, just check what else is already in your cupboards.


Call them hacks, substitutions, or culinary voodoo - scroll down and let us save the day!


What to use if you have no EGG:

Dried egg (still technically an egg I know but you can’t beat the real thing!) very worth having in the cupboard for the rainy egg-less days! Use as per the packet instructions.

Try 2-3 tbsp of apple sauce/mashed banana per egg for baking cakes and cookies.

Chia seeds gel (mix 1 cup water + 1 tbsp seeds, leave 15 mins). Mimics egg white well for binding pastry or breadcrumbs.

Ground Flax seeds gel, similar to chia gel (mix 1 tbsp seeds + 3 tbsp warm water, leave 10 mins).


Alternatively our Apple Scone Cake recipe doesn’t require any eggs at all!


What to use instead of CREAM:

Use a splash of full fat milk in a quiche filling or for mashed potato (use less than you would cream since it’s much thinner).

Blend melted butter with regular milk to make your own double cream

Canned coconut cream goes well as a replacement to dairy in soups, curries, and risottos.


See also our Cheats No-whisk Whipped Cream if you have real cream but nothing to whip it with...


Alternatives to BUTTER:

Try using apple sauce instead (for sweet recipes).

Spread some avocado on your toast instead of butter if you like it, or whatever else fruit or veg you feel would work to your taste... Think bruschetta. Sadly I'm not an Avo lover but enough folks swear by it so there you are!

Olive / Sunflower / Coconut oil all work just as well as melted butter.

Lard or other hard animal fat work well for pie pastry or dumplings.

Vegetable shortening is a great addition to the cupboard as it keeps a long time at room temperature – better flavour than animal fats for sweet pastry and breads, even if you’re not vegan a beefy jam tart isn't great.


Our Carrot Cake recipe uses oil instead of butter!


What to use instead of BUTTERMILK:

Buttermilk is useful more because of its acidic nature which is used to activate baking powders than it’s buttery flavour.

Add 1 tbsp lemon juice / white vinegar to 1 cup of milk, leave for 5 mins at room temperature.

If you make your own thick strained yogurt save the water and use that instead.

Of course if you have double cream you could always shake it until the fats compact into butter and then you have the real deal… and quite possibly the best butter you’ve ever tasted!


Alternatives to dairy MILK:

Try a nut milk instead like almond/coconut milk.

A carton of non-dairy milk ‘drink’ usually lasts a long time at room temperature so again makes a good addition to the store cupboard. We like Rude Health, the cashew milk drink being the most neutral flavoured like dairy milk in our opinion.

Powdered milk - OK yes it's dairy milk but if you have a tin of it in your cupboard then your problem is solved! Powdered milk is especially useful for pre-mixing pancake and bread recipes into zip-lock bags for easy camping cooking. In my experience it's best to make a pint up in advance so it can be chilled, which also seems to lessen the powdery texture people dislike and gets rid of the lumps. (skimmed milk powder has a longer shelf life than whole milk powder as it's the fat content that oxidizes in time)


What to use instead of SOUR CREAM:

Yogurt is generally close enough in both texture and sharpness to satisfy your sour cravings.

No-whisk lemon ‘whipped’ cream is a tasty, albeit decadent, alternative.


What works instead of SOFT CHEESE:

Strained yogurt has the right texture and creaminess though is slightly sharper than real cream cheese, I was successful in making a cheese cake with half of the required cheese substituted with strained yogurt and it was very tasty! (Lay a double layer of muslin or similar cloth in a sieve and scoop yogurt into its centre. Gather the edges of the cloth, tie together, and allow water to drip into a bowl below leaving much thicker yogurt curds behind).

Cottage cheese works well for dunking veg or spreading on crackers or toast.



See above, cream cheese or other soft cheeses work just as well for most recipes.


How to make your own SWEETENED CONDENSED MILK:

Thoroughly blend:

115g or 1 cup milk powder, 150g or 2/3cup sugar, 42g or3 tbsp melted butter, 125ml or 1/2cup boiling water

(makes equivalent of 1 can).



Combine ¼ tsp bicarbonate of soda + ½ tsp cream of tartar.


What to use instead of CREAM OF TARTAR

Substitute ½ tsp lemon juice / white vinegar

(add to recipe with bicarb separately else it will fizzle immediately! Incidentally the mixture makes a great drain cleaner if you make that mistake...)


Alternatives to SUGAR:

Honey / Maple syrup / Agave nectar

Apple sauce sweetens baked products like brownies nicely, 

Apple or orange juice can also work well to sweeten raw flapjacks and for glazes.

(remember to reduce the moisture content elsewhere in your recipe if using liquid substitutions)

Xylitol made from Birch Trees is a lower calorie sugar substitute that looks and acts (mostly) like the real thing! Not something that you're likely to have if you've run out of sugar, but useful if you're looking for a way to reduce your intake of sugar. 

Vanilla extract helps to sweeten a recipe whilst using less sugar - cut 2 tbsp sugar and replace with ½ tsp extract!


What to use instead of GOLDEN SYRUP:

Use Honey or Maple syrup instead (both tend to be runnier than golden syrup so use slightly less wet ingredients in recipe/leave flapjacks to set longer)


How to make your own BROWN SUGAR (light/dark):

Add 1-2 tbsp mollasses per cup of sugar, mix well.

If you don’t have molasses just use the regular white sugar as it is, in many recipes you’ll hardly notice anything ‘missing’. (see above if you don't have any regular sugar either!)


For a sugar alternative we use Sukrin Gold, a lower calorie sugar substitute that looks and feels a lot like the real thing! Sometimes you need something that looks the part to sprinkle a crunchy topping on your cookies and cakes.


If you don't have any CORNFLOUR:

Use arrowroot powder instead as it behaves very much the same way.

For thickening gravy & sauces use a roux (plain flour mixed with butter/fat, add water/stock gradually to avoid lumps).

Adding pearl barley to a stew helps to thicken it without flour, though you need to have realised at least 40mins before serving time.

Finally if you have none of the above and need a thicker gravy, puree a portion of the stew or veg to create more texture.


Make your own GLUTEN-FREE FLOUR:

Gluten-free baking is an art in itself and not an area I’ve personally explored, that’s why I’ll hand over to the expert Nicole Hunn for this one CLICK HERE> who I would dare say is the leader in gluten free baking techniques and recipes - isn’t the internet marvellous? 



Add 2 level tsp baking powder per 225g plain flour.


Need COCOA POWDER but only have solid chocolate:

4 tbsp. cocoa powder is equal to 1oz/28g dark chocolate bar (decrease fat in recipe by ½ tbsp)


Need MELTED CHOCOLATE but only have cocoa:

Combine 3 tbsp cocoa powder with 1 tsp vegetable oil = approx 1oz/28g of melted chocolate

(increase the sweetness in your recipe to compensate for the missing sugar usually in a chocolate bar)



Grated cauliflower stands in well for some of the rice which can also help to lower the carbohydrate content of the meal, though is best when only partially substituted for flavour reasons...



Pearl barley expands well like risotto rice to a soft yet chewy texture, include what risotto rice you have since it's really not a direct replacement.



Baked and pulled spagetti squash / courgette or carrot ribbons make a healthy and flavoursome substitution for some or all pasta.

Alternatively make your own real pasta using a fine flour and egg! 



Boil cauliflower / turnip / carrot / parsnip / sweet potato or similar with what potatoes you do have, then drain & mash together. Add butter, salt, and milk to your taste.


LEEKS / CHIVES / SPRING ONION / WILD GARLIC = each works equally well in place of the other in many recipes.



Try a yogurt based dip instead. It’s a tad tangy, not something I’d dip my chips into but works well for potato salad / salad dressings.

Hummous satisfies the fat cravings that makes mayo so enjoyable! 

Alternatively if you have a blender, some oil, and an egg, you can make your own real mayonnaise!


TIP! For best results remember that substituting half of something is hardly noticed over completely replacing an ingredient, if you can. Of course don’t expect to be able to sub the butter, egg, milk, AND sugar in the same recipe and have it remain recognisable or edible…!


Don’t forget to bookmark and share this page for future reference! Let us know how you got on with these substitutions and share any tips of your own with other readers in the comments below.


Sources used:

... not forgetting personal experimentation in The Waki Way kitchen…!


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Sarah is an artist and writer with a lifetime interest in camping and survival techniques.

Living the #vanlife since before it was a hashtag and touring on two wheels with her husband Ryan, they have a wealth of camping and motorcycling knowledge to share, and know a thing or two about packing light! read more

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