Don’t panic; improvise when an ingredient is missing

Sacramento BeeNovember 19, 2013 


Pumpkin-pie spice, an ingredient in many holiday recipes, is actually a mixture of other spices: cinnamon, powdered ginger, nutmeg and allspice which you probably have on hand for a quick substitution.


  • More great substitutes

    Cookbook author Mark Bittman, who wrote “How to Cook Everything,” offers these handy substitutes:

    • For 1 tablespoon of baking powder, use 2 teaspoons baking soda and 1 teaspoon cream of tartar.

    • For 1 cup of brown sugar, use 1 cup white sugar mixed with 2 tablespoons molasses.

    • For 1 cup of cake flour, use 7/8 cup of all-purpose flour sifted with 1/8 cup cornstarch.

It happens to the best-organized cook. During the flurry of feast preparation, a necessary ingredient is missing.

Don’t panic. In some cases, you may already have the next-best thing.

Kristen Sturt, senior editor of, goes to soured milk as a stand-in for buttermilk. Add 1 tablespoon of white vinegar to 1 scant cup milk at room temperature. It works, especially with recipes that rely on a chemical reaction between baking soda and buttermilk.

“It’s easy, it’s convenient,” she said.

Pumpkin-pie spice, an ingredient in many holiday recipes, is actually a mixture of other spices: cinnamon, powdered ginger, nutmeg and allspice.

“You probably have those on hand already,” Sturt said.

If a recipe calls for 2 teaspoons of pumpkin-pie spice, substitute 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon ginger and 1/4 teaspoon each nutmeg and allspice. Leave one out, it’s a little less spicy – just don’t skip the cinnamon.

Poultry seasoning – a must for turkey stuffings – is a little more complicated. Mixes vary, but a typical poultry seasoning contains (in descending order) thyme, sage, marjoram, rosemary, black pepper and a dash of nutmeg.

Substitute fresh herbs (finely chop and double the dried measurements) or any mix of the dried ingredients adding up to the total called for in the recipe. Skip the marjoram and rosemary, if needed. Oregano can replace marjoram. Or just use thyme, sage and parsley.

How much? Stuffing typically calls for 1 teaspoon of dried herbs to 3 cups of breadcrumbs.

Speaking of stuffing, it’s all about bland starch – usually toasted breadcrumbs – that can absorb flavors, including soaking up the juice and fat from the bird. Other possibilities for bread: diced day-old rolls; crumbled cornbread; tortillas torn into little pieces; white, brown or wild rice or couscous prepared outside the bird.

Short on crumbs? Fill out the stuffing with diced green apples, onions, celery, chard, mushrooms, chestnuts, walnuts, oysters, prunes or cooked sausage.

Short on sausage? Mix in another variety (chorizo, link, Italian, brats, etc.), cut or diced small. Diced salami or pepperoni can sub for sausage, too.

Need whole milk? Add 2 tablespoons melted butter to low-fat milk. Plain yogurt is a straight switch with sour cream.

But not all substitutes work. Don’t use fresh pineapple in gelatin recipes that call for canned pineapple in syrup; the Jell-O will never jiggle.

Of course, these stand-ins may alter a recipe’s flavor or texture. But in a pinch, they beat a midnight dash to the convenience store.

Last-minute tips from experts

The key to Thanksgiving kitchen sanity: Don’t wait until the last minute.

“Get as much done ahead as possible,” said food expert Elaine Corn of NPR-affiliate Capital Public Radio in Sacramento, Calif. “I know that judging by the lines in grocery stores … that do-aheads are an illusion. But try.”

Sacramento food writer and former restaurateur Peg Tomlinson-Poswall echoes that sentiment.

“I am the do-it-ahead girl,” she said. “Blanch green beans a couple of days ahead, toast bread for stuffing a day before. Gravy can be done ahead and then add the pan juices (on Thanksgiving Day).

“You can make the mashed potatoes ahead and nuke them,” Tomlinson-Poswall added. “Put a raw egg yolk in them (before reheating); it makes them extra good.”

The No. 1 Wednesday task: Set the table.

And before you run back to the supermarket, shop your pantry. You may already have the ingredients or substitutions you need to finish the meal.

CPR’s Corn likes to get a jump on Thanksgiving by preparing some casserole dishes the weekend ahead and popping them in the freezer. They'll get reheated on the big day.

Making everything magically come together at dinner deadline can melt down the cook. Don’t sweat it.

Enlist helpers. Delegate. Get more people involved. (They'll do what you say – they want to eat.)

“The readiness of your finished dishes will undoubtedly be uneven,” Corn said. “Even so, food stays hot longer than you think, and food doesn’t have to be so piping hot that it burns the roof of your mouth.

“Relax about setting out a buffet,” Corn added. “Let the sides that finish first wait for the ones that are taking a bit longer. If the gravy is hot, everything will seem hot.”

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