8 Expensive Recipe Ingredients That Are Easy to Replace


As an avid home cook and baker, I've certainly had my fair share of mishaps in the kitchen. I've also learned some tricks along the way to make my hobby more rewarding and less expensive. As a vegetarian who favors vegan dishes, I've also become accustomed to substituting and swapping out certain foods. Eventually, I learned some pricey ingredients can be taken out of the picture entirely without compromising the finished product.

Here are eight ingredients you can do without (along with some substitution notes).

1. Vanilla Extract

Pure vanilla extract can get expensive if you do lots of baking. Now, I admit that hardcore bakers may very well disagree with me, but if you're in a pinch, I've found that leaving out vanilla extract doesn't impact the texture of a cookie or cake, for example. The flavor will be less intense if there aren't many other ingredients in the recipe.

I usually just leave out the vanilla, but if liquid proportions are a concern, I add an equal amount of water to the mix. If I have another extract on hand, I sometimes substitute it in as well. The same goes for omitting and substituting most other extracts.

2. Arrowroot

This ingredient is a starch used to thicken a variety of recipes, and it's particularly favorable to corn, potato, and other starches because it's nearly flavorless. Still, if you find yourself with a recipe requiring arrowroot, you can substitute in another starch (equal ratio) or even use double the amount needed in all-purpose flour. (Just note that arrowroot is often used in gluten-free baking, so that last tip might not work if you have an intolerance.)

3. Fish Sauce

Many Thai dishes (red curry, for example) call for fish sauce to give them a more complex flavor. As a vegetarian, I always leave out this ingredient, and my fish-loving husband doesn't notice much of a difference. I either omit entirely or sometimes add an equal measure of low sodium soy sauce or even teriyaki sauce in its place.

4. Mirin

Similarly, mirin is a Japanese rice wine used for flavor in traditional dishes as well as glazing. Thing is, many of us don't have it on hand — especially if a recipe just calls for a few tablespoons. You can leave this ingredient out and swap in its place an equal measure of dry sherry or sweet marsala wine. I've even used whatever wine I have on hand before resorting to plain water to keep the liquid balance.

5. Cream of Tartar

I had to ask my mom what cream of tartar actually is, as I didn't know. She told me it's the sediment that forms at the bottom of barrels when making wine. There's a lot of science to its use, but if your recipe calls for cream of tartar as a leavening agent in baking (cookies, for example), you may be able to leave it out entirely. If the tartar is being used together with baking soda, simply leave it out andsubstitute baking powder for both ingredients.

I've also seen this ingredient listed in frosting recipes, but I've always left it out without any ill results. If you're whipping egg whites into meringue, however, you'll likely want to use what's called for in the recipe.

6. Sour Cream

Though sour cream isn't particularly expensive, it's an ingredient I don't usually stock in my refrigerator. If I find myself needing sour cream in baking (or even just on the side with some quesadillas), I usually use an equal portion of plain Greek yogurt or even plain, unsweetened yogurt. The taste and texture is different, but only slightly so.

7. Ghee

Those of you who venture into Indian cooking have likely encountered ghee in ingredients lists. It's basically a clarified butter, which you can make at home by melting unsalted butter and then separating the milk solids via strainer or cheesecloth. You can also use olive oil (same ratio) in a pinch, although it may not tolerate high heats as long without burning.

8. Tahini

If you love homemade hummus, you might be pleased to learn you don't necessarily need to stock expensive tahini. You can make a simple, satisfying chickpea spread using just garbanzos, water, lemon juice, and spices. I don't miss the tahini and save tons of money by making my hummus this way.

What high-priced ingredients do you leave or swap out of recipes? We'd love to hear your suggestions in the comments!

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Guest's picture
Baker Tom

Just a couple less expensive alternatives to omitting:

Vanilla: get yourself a bottle of imitation vanilla. It's dirt cheap and while I know it sounds improbable, experts almost unanimously agree there is no discernible difference in the final product. Some even preferred the fake stuff. I didn't believe it either... but google it.

Tahini: if you love the flavor it adds to hummus, which I do, it could not be easier to make the exact same thing for a LOT less. Buy bulk raw sesame seeds, toast them for 10 minutes in the oven, and then grind them in the food processor until they are a smooth paste. Done.

Ashley Marcin's picture

Excellent suggestions, Tom! Thank you! I'll have to give these tips a try!

Guest's picture

I made vanilla extract by infusing grade B vanilla beans (12 beans for ~$4 on Amazon) in a cheap bottle of vodka (our liquor store had one for $6.99!). It takes about 6 weeks before it's ready to use, but for about $12, I'll have enough vanilla to last us years!

Guest's picture

i love adding peanut butter to my hummus as a replacement for tahini. it gives the same creaminess and nuttiness in my opinion. give it a try!