Substitutes save the day

Has the following scenario ever happened to you? In the middle of measuring ingredients to make a cake, pie, or batch of cookies, you realize that you are out of one of the key ingredients: cornstarch, baking powder, baking soda, or something else that you could have sworn you had in stock. When this happens, you can be stuck – without a leavening agent your cake will be a hockey puck, and without a thickener your pie will be a runny mess. Chances are, however, that you have a suitable substitute in your cupboard so you can press on with the recipe. 

baking soda and baking powder

Indexed magazine Taste of Home has the key to substituting if you are out of baking soda. You can use baking powder instead, although the amount you need to use may surprise you. It takes 4 times as much baking powder to replicate the leavening effects of baking soda. You may need to adjust the amount of salt in the recipe too – check your baking powder ingredients to see if there is any sodium in it and cut back on the salt accordingly. 

The reverse substitution is a bit more tricky. If you are out of baking powder, you can substitute baking soda alone but only if there is an acidic ingredient in the batter or dough to react with the soda. Also remember to use only 1/4 of the amount of baking powder called for in the recipe, unless you want your cookies to look like a volcano. For recipes that do not have an acidic component, you can make a close cousin to baking powder by combining baking soda and cream of tartar. Bon Appetit gives us a ratio to go by: for each teaspoon of baking powder in your recipe, substitute 1/4 teaspoon baking soda and 5/8 teaspoon cream of tartar.

When it comes to thickeners, there are many more options if you are out of the one specified in your recipe. Cornstarch, wheat flour, arrowroot powder, tapioca starch, potato starch, and rice flour can all be used to thicken gravies, pies, and liquids of all types. Each has its best use, of course, but you can make substitutions in a pinch. All-purpose flour and rice flour can be used in place of cornstarch or other thickeners, although you will generally have to use twice as much since neither flour has the same amount of thickening power as cornstarch. 

Arrowroot powder is an excellent thickener that is useful in a number of applications and can be substituted for cornstarch. Some sources say the substitution is good at a 1:1 ratio, while others suggest that 2:1 arrowroot to cornstarch is better, and a few even recommend using less arrowroot than cornstarch. My experience is that a 1:1 ration works for most applications. According to The Spruce Eats, arrowroot and instant tapioca are interchangeable. The advantages of arrowroot powder are that it stands up well to acidic ingredients and it doesn’t make the liquid that it’s used in turn cloudy, and it withstands freezing without breaking down. These attributes make it an excellent choice for fruit pies.

However, arrowroot will result in a slimy texture if used to thicken dairy products so choose a different alternative for those items. Arrowroot thickens at a low temperature, althtough it will lose its thickening power if exposed to high temperatures for a long period of time. Adding it toward the end of cooking can help mitigate that issue. 

Potato starch can be used as a 1:1 substitute for cornstarch. Similarly to arrowroot, it tends to lose thickening ability with prolonged cooking so it’s best to add toward the end of the cooking time. A number of additives such as xanthan gum and guar gum are also excellent thickening agents if you happen to have them on hand.

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