Save Money with These Subs for Expensive Ingredients

Photo: ilenore/flickrReducing your weekly grocery bill is not simply a matter of spending less. You also need to cook smart to get the most for your money while producing meals the whole family will enjoy. When ingredient prices are higher than the New York City roof of One World Trade Center (tallest building in the US), sub in cheaper alternatives and save dough without sacrificing deliciousness.

General Principles of Substitution

Substitute ingredients with similar properties and flavor profiles. (For example, dry cottage cheese makes an acceptable replacement for ricotta; both are semi-solid and mildly cheesy tasting.) This is especially important when certain chemical reactions are necessary to make your cake or cookies rise. Baking soda, for instance, is activated only when combined with mild acid such as fruit juice or brown sugar.

Much depends on the texture of the dish you'd like to create -- a "loose" mixture like salad or Bolognese sauce is a great deal more forgiving than a soufflé.

Some ingredients can be left out altogether if necessary, particularly those used for seasoning and garnishes, with only a slight loss of flavor. When the vanilla a recipe calls for is beyond your budget, we strongly recommend omitting it rather than using artificial, highly inferior vanillin.

Texture as well as cooking times may also be altered by using substitutes. If the missing ingredient is the highlight of the dish, try another recipe. As with all cooking, don't attempt major changes when preparing food for an important event such as a formal dinner party.

As your experience grows, so will your substitution self-confidence. Using what you have on hand or can afford will become a way of life; if you have a little red wine leftover, you'll use that instead of wine vinegar. If you have a bit of wine vinegar, you'll use that in place of wine (in a dish where the extra acidity is acceptable.) BTW, leftover wine can be frozen for future use.

Sample Substitutions

Balsamic vinegar. Save big time by subbing in good quality vinegar made from fruit, sherry, or red wine.

Candied fruit. Use dried fruit, chopped fine, instead. This makes for a healthier, tastier fruitcake. Ring some additional changes by subbing drained juice-packed pineapple for part of the fruit. (Save the juice to rev up a fruit salad.)

Frozen pie crust. Making your own is a hassle, but you can save time and money by doubling or tripling the recipe to produce several crusts assembly-line-style. Stack the excess crusts, unbaked, and freeze. When you're ready to use one, fill while still frozen. Cover with streusel topping, if desired.

Ground beef. Cheaper ground turkey has a similar mouth feel, fewer calories, and more iron. For a heartier taste, mix in a 50:50 ratio with ground beef. Alternatively, cut down the amount of ground meat in chili or burritos; make up the difference with cooked beans or millet.

Instant oatmeal packets. Make your own convenient single-serve packages by adding ¼ teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon cinnamon, and ¼ cup each of raisins and chopped walnuts (or more if desired) to 3 cups quick-cooking oats. Stir and bag as ½ cup servings.

Sour cream. Replace measure for measure with plain, unsweetened yogurt. Lower price and less fat!

Unsalted butter. Unsalted butter is often preferred for baking because it helps control the amount of salt in your finished product. However, the less expensive, more readily available salted version can be successfully substituted if you reduce the recipe's salt by one-half teaspoon per cup of butter.

Our Most Memorable Tightwad Subs

Peaches in season + extra spice = mango chutney.

Plums = berries for a deliciously tangy pie filling.

Streusel = ground nuts for dessert topping.

White part of celery + dill = fennel.

Homemade bread crumbs (freeze leftover ends of good bread, crusts removed if you wish, then thaw and buzz in the blender when you have enough) = Panko a la Penny Pincher

Stretching chocolate or cocoa powder by using leftover coffee as the baking liquid. Making citrus pulp and juice for sorbet go farther by adding in its zest.

Laura Firszt writes for

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