Have you ever looked at a recipe and thought, “What’s kosher salt? I only have regular salt” or “I don’t have a lemon, what could I use instead.” Have you looked in your pantry and wondered, “Why do I have five kinds of vinegar?”
These technicalities make recipes unapproachable to an inexperienced cook. And, more experienced cooks will end up with a pantry full of similar ingredients.
Each type of salt, sugar, acid, or fat exists for a reason. That reason was it was available at a particular time and location in the past when someone created the dish.
Nowadays, especially in the United States, we cook meals that represent many cultures. But this should not mean requiring cooks to own the staple ingredients from every part of the world.
A new cook who is creative and adventurous might switch apple cider vinegar for white wine vinegar, and everything will work out. But why does the chef call for one kind of vinegar or another?
This simple guide will help the beginner cook get off the ground, covering the basics. The actual amount of substitutions are limitless.
Salt — Kosher, Sea, Iodized, Himalayan Pink, and Fleur de Sel
Salt is a necessary ingredient for human survival.
Kosher and sea salt are pure salt. There are differences in the size of the crystals, but not the flavor.
Kosher salt can be extra flaky, and sea salt can be coarse. When you measure salt by the teaspoon, fewer crystals will fill your spoon because of their large size.
Table salt or iodized salt has iodine added to help prevent thyroid diseases common in the past. Most chefs will tell you that you can taste the iodine in iodized salt, which you can, if you only have salt in your mouth.
When Himalayan pink salt became available at every Trader Joes, you would sometimes find it in recipes where it wasn’t contributing much to the finished dish.
Himalayan pink and Fleur de Sel have minerals that are naturally inside the salt crystals. You can taste them when the flavor doesn’t compete with lots of other ingredients.
When does it matter?
Usually, the type of salt doesn’t matter, but there are two times when it does.
Salt is sometimes the featured ingredient, for example, focaccia bread with coarse sea salt on top. Or a dish with few ingredients, like an heirloom tomato, topped with “fancy” salt. You will taste the flavor of the salt.
The other time is when measuring salt by the teaspoon. The size of the salt crystals will affect your measurements. The smaller the crystals, the more salt will fit into your spoon.
You can still use the salt you have on hand, but you will need to adjust the measurement.
Always taste your food. Start with less, and you can add more later. You can’t take the salt away.
Acid — Citrus Juice and Vinegar
One of the flavors your tongue detects is sour. The sour taste from acidic components gives a dish balance.
Lemon or lime juice or vinegar is the main acidic ingredients in most recipes. Although there are limitless options for acidic components that you could use, vinegar and citrus juice will get us started in basic cooking.
Vinegar is the liquid that results from alcohol converting to acetic acid. Any fermented alcohol product can become vinegar when it is cultured with acetobacter. (The alcohol percentage does need to be low enough, so it doesn’t kill the bacteria.)
The quality of the alcohol will affect the flavor of the vinegar.
The main selection of vinegar at a major grocery store will include white distilled, apple cider, rice wine, red wine, white wine, and balsamic. Also, there are numerous specialty vinegars, including sherry and malt vinegar, that you might find.
Each vinegar has a distinctive taste that adds flavor to the dish, but the acid is the critical component to balancing the flavors in our mouth.
When a recipe calls for a specialty vinegar, I understand the chef chose if for a reason. But I also understand, I can make the recipe work with what’s already in my pantry.
I also use lemon and lime juice interchangeably with each other, and I will use vinegar in place of lemon juice when I don’t have lemons or limes at home. I will even make salsa with a splash of vinegar if that’s all I have.
When does it matter?
All vinegar has a different acid level.
If you are changing the acidic ingredient in a recipe, start with less than the designated amount, then taste, and add more as you need it.
Sweets — White Sugar, Brown Sugar, Honey, Maple Syrup, Agave
Sugar helps to balance the flavors in a recipe. It enhances the natural sweetness of the food, and it helps with caramelization.
For “non-baking cooking,” all these natural sweeteners are the same. Examples are sugar added in a salad dressing, marinade, roasted vegetables, or meat recipes. These are all places where you might find a teaspoon or two of added sugar.
The brown sugar, honey, and maple syrup all add their respective flavor. Agave nectar is more neutral-flavored. If a recipe calls for one of these and you want to substitute a different one, you can.
And for that matter, if you want to leave it out, you can do that too. I know that many people are reducing the added sugar in their diet. In these types of savory recipes, the sugar primarily adds balance to the dish’s flavors.
When does it matter?
In baking recipes, you cannot substitute even quantities of white sugar and the liquid ingredients. Honey, maple syrup, and agave all have moisture in them that will affect the baked goods’ moisture balance. They can be used, but you won’t get the same result without adjusting the other dry ingredients.
Fat — Oil and Butter
The choices of oil at the grocery store are endless.
Without getting into any details about which one is better, let’s talk about what to look for if you need to substitute one for another.
I divide the oils into two categories, expensive oils with flavor and neutral-flavored oil.
Extra-virgin olive oil is the oil from the first pressing of the olives, walnut oil, and toasted sesame oil are all fats that you want to use in moderation because of the taste and cost. Use them in small quantities and don’t cook out the flavor. With extra-virgin olive oil, there are different levels of quality within this category. Let the cost be your guide. If it is less expensive, taste it and use it as you can afford to.
Use neutral-flavored oils interchangeably. Olive oil, pure olive oil, or pomace olive oil are the products that are refined from the olives after the first pressing. Canola, corn, vegetable oil, plain sesame, and peanut oil don’t have flavors from their starting origins. You can substitute these oils for each other in most recipes.
Coconut oil It is a solid at room temperature, so you might need to melt it to mix it in a recipe.
Butter has, in addition to fat, water, and milk solids, that can add flavor to a dish or cause problems depending on what you are doing. If you’re not quite sure, don’t substitute butter for oil in a recipe.
When does it matter?
For baking and deep-frying, any neutral-flavored oil will work.
If you are using a few tablespoons of fat to sauté vegetables, meat, or stir-fry grains, you can substitute any neutral-flavored oil and end up with the same thing.
For salad dressings and garnishing dishes, this is where the oils with flavor become noticeable. Use your specialty oils here.
Taste, Taste, and Taste Again
When looking over a recipe, know that you can make changes to adjust the ingredients to what you have on hand.
For salt, evaluate the crystals’ size when you measure them and only use the specialty salts to finish a dish.
Vinegar and citrus juices have different acid levels to consider.
When adding a sweetener to a savory dish, you can freely interchange honey, maple syrup, and brown sugar, but consider each item’s additional flavors.
All fats are not equal, but for sauteing, use what you have on hand.
Don’t let the terminology of the ingredients intimidate you from trying to cook.
Taste first and add more if needed, then taste again.
Julie Moreno is a chef and writer, now trying to get more people to cook their own food and understand where it comes from. She lives in the middle of California, where she’s learning to landscape with fruits and vegetables. Find her blog at The Wooden Cutting Board on Twitter @juliehouse and Facebook @thewoodencuttingboard