6 Swap-Outs That Will Save You in a Pinch

We’ve all been there before.  That sinking feeling that strikes when you’re knee-deep in putting together a cake and open the cupboard to find that you’re out of brown sugar.  Or when company is 20 minutes away and, because you’re all out of it, your buttermilk mashed potatoes will be reduced to simply “mashed potatoes”.

I think we’re all in agreement that using the real thing 100% of the time is the best way to go.  But sometimes, life just doesn’t work out that way.  That’s why keeping a cache of “swap-outs” in your back pocket can turn potential culinary ruin into a quick fix that keeps everyone none-the-wiser.  Check these out:


Buttermilk’s origins are just as its name says – it was originally the milk that was leftover after butter was churned.  While you can still find it made that way occasionally nowadays, more common labels read “cultured buttermilk”, as whole or low fat milk is treated with lactic acid and allowed to ferment slightly, creating the tangy yogurt-like flavor that adds such delicious richness to things like mashed potatoes or biscuits.  You can make a quickie buttermilk at home by stirring together 1 cup of milk with 1 tablespoon of white vinegar.  Allow the mixture to sit at room temperature for 5 minutes and you’ll have yourself some “in a pinch” buttermilk.


I always equate allspice with one of those exotic, “used once or twice a year” spices that ends up finding a cozy home under dust in the back corner of my pantry.  Don’t get me wrong – it’s delicious!  It’s just one of those things that only pops up in a recipe occasionally.  If you find yourself fresh out of it next time you’re whipping up an apple dessert or spice cake, mix together equal parts ground cinnamon and ground cloves with a dash of nutmeg and you’ll have “all the spice” you’ll need.


Rach and I are for sure in agreement that chili powder is one those magic spices that just makes everything better.  Rubbed on meats before cooking or added to biscuits and cornbread before baking, this guy knows no boundaries.  While everyone has their favorite variety – hot or sweet or smokey – if you’re all out (or even want to experiment with making your own), stir together 2 parts ground cumin, 1 part cayenne pepper or smoked paprika (depending on your preference of hot vs. smokey sweet), 1 part dried oregano, and 1 part garlic powder.  This will get you through that next pot of chili and maybe even open the door for you to create your own perfect homemade “secret recipe” chili powder.


While this tip isn’t for one ingredient in particular, many recipes like gravies and stir fry sauces use a thickener like cornstarch or flour to get that perfect “saucy” consistency.  While each of them thickens a little differently and may appear in different recipes for different reasons, know that 1 tablespoon of cornstarch = 2 tablespoons of tapioca starch = 2 tablespoons of all-purpose flour = 2 1/2 teaspoons of arrowroot starch.  You can swap these out for another, just make sure that you’re still following the recipe method exactly, as some of these (the starches in particular) need to be dissolved in a liquid before stirring them into a sauce base.


Cream of tartar, in my book, plots a course similar to that of allspice.  It’s very effective when used in cooking preparations but not commonly found in many recipes.  Cream of tartar is based with tartaric acid, which is actually what develops on the inside of wine barrels as wine is fermenting.  It’s used mostly in baking applications when whipping eggs or egg whites, as the tartaric acid relaxes the proteins in the eggs, allowing them to be whipped to a greater volume.  Should you find yourself in the throws of a lemon meringue pie with no cream of tartar for your meringue, swap out 1/2 teaspoon of cream of tartar with 1 1/2 teaspoons of lemon juice or vinegar.


Brown sugar is one of my favorite things to use in both sweet and savory applications.  Being that it’s white sugar that has been mixed with molasses, it retains the moisture in baked goods, keeping them tender for longer.  When added to savory dishes like salad dressings or chili, it adds a bit of sweetness while highlighting the deep flavors that already makes those recipes so delicious.  If you’re fresh out of brown sugar (or you’ve left your box in the pantry so long that it has hardened on you), use 1 cup of white sugar and add 1 tablespoon of molasses for “light” or 2 tablespoons for “dark”.

Patrick W. Decker’s life revolves around food. Always has. Probably always will. As a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America and past member of the culinary team on Rachael’s daytime talk show, he now works as a food stylist and producer in NYC by day, and a food writer and recipe developer at his home in New York’s Hudson Valley by night. You can see what he’s up to by following his latest twEATs on Twitter at @patrickwdecker or visiting his website at

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