Improvising In The Kitchen

By Chelle Cordero

August 15, 2013 5 min read

You may wonder how some cooks seamlessly pull the impossible out of a cupboard and always are ready for company. With a few basic staples in your kitchen, you can lay claim to that reputable tag, as well.

Marilyn and Sheila Brass -- cookbook authors, television personalities and culinary historians with more than 120 years of combined home baking and cooking experience -- say, "We think it's great to be able to substitute different foods or ingredients for ones you don't have in the house, but we still believe that it is better to use the ingredients originally called for." The Brass sisters authored the "Heirloom Cooking" and "Heirloom Baking" cookbooks.

The Brass sisters agree that there are occasions when you are caught short. "Sometimes if you're snowed in or need that extra bit of maple syrup or have run out of milk, you can substitute honey for the missing syrup. You can use evaporated milk instead of whole sweet milk." Marilyn cautions that the finished product might be slightly different when you use a substitute so you might want to test the amount you are using.

"Let's not forget recipes that call for buttermilk," Marilyn says. "Not everyone has buttermilk in the house, but you can use regular milk soured with the addition of lemon juice."

Marilyn and Sheila suggest certain staples in the kitchen to make most recipes work even with substitutions.

"Boyajian garlic oil is good to have on hand to sprinkle over a stir fry or to use with regular olive oil when frying vegetable or meat. Adding it to vegetable or beef stews is also good if you don't have garlic in the house. Boyajian's has a whole line of flavored oils. Their lemon oil is good if you don't have lemon extract in the house. ... A squeeze of lemon juice is good when lemon extract is needed for baking or for a vinaigrette salad dressing."

"Saltines and Ritz crackers are good to substitute for breadcrumbs in toppings or coating, although the texture will be different. Saltines make flakes rather than crumbs." Marilyn also points out that a box of crackers makes a good, quick base for serving unexpected company when paired with cheese or another spread. "A jar of good tomato or spaghetti sauce is good to have in the house. It can be used for pizza sauce. Canned plum tomatoes are good for making spaghetti sauce when tomatoes aren't in season. Italian or French dressing is good for brushing on chicken or chops before baking."

"Ordinarily, we wouldn't use dried onion flakes in cooking, but we do find in a pinch that adding them to tuna salad and letting the salad sit in the refrigerator to chill does allow the onion flakes to soak up any extra fluid in the tuna salad."

Marilyn offers more tips: "When making a quick stir fry of vegetables, a quarter of a cup of dried onion flakes give the stir fry the onion flavor you might want."

A few more easy substitutes include dried onion, parsley flakes and powdered cheeses (parmesan and cheddar). Use chocolate morsels for recipes that call for broken chocolate bars. If you ran out of butter or are looking to eliminate dairy or reduce fat, use 3/4 cup of canola oil (or other light oil) instead of 1 cup of butter. Three tablespoons of cocoa is healthier than 1 ounce of chocolate in baking. Honey and molasses are basically interchangeable in recipes. Out of both? Use 1 1/4 cups of sugar and 1/4 cup of water for every cup of honey. Add 1/2 teaspoon of creme of tartar (optional) to imitate the thickness of honey.

Marilyn Brass cautions against substituting yogurt for sour cream in sauces and cooked dishes because it may separate from the heat. She says that if the recipe calls for self-rising flour, you can add salt and baking powder to regular flour. Both Marilyn and Sheila agree to use whole eggs in recipes; however, many other professional cooks say you can use 1 whole egg plus 2 egg whites instead of 2 whole eggs in a recipe. Marilyn also recommends substituting hot flavored tea instead of water to plump raisins when baking for additional flavor.

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