There may be times when you are missing one or more ingredients for a recipe, want to swap out ingredients to change the flavor profile of a dish, or would like to make a particular recipe healthier. Some cooks are hesitant to stray from a printed recipe, but with a little practice, creativity, and knowledge about how ingredients function in a recipe, you may come up with a number of new favorites.
If you are missing an ingredient for a recipe, you need to first determine what role that ingredient has in the recipe. Is it for adding moisture, flavor, texture, leavening, color, or some other function? You can then brainstorm possible other ingredients that can do the same thing. For instance, if you are trying to reduce the calories in a quick bread recipe, instead of the higher calorie oil as the liquid ingredient, you could replace some or all of the oil with fat free buttermilk or yogurt plus a little milk. Both would provide additional nutrients as well.
Changing the nutrient profile of a recipe is a common reason for swapping out ingredients. In some cases you may want to reduce or change ingredients that are less healthy and/or add ingredients that provide important nutrients. Examples of less healthy ingredients might be those high in sodium, saturated fat, added sugars and/or that provide calories with minimal nutritional value.
When it comes to reducing sodium content, you can purchase lower sodium versions of the ingredients. This might include broth, canned or jarred products (beans, tomato sauce, some condiments), salty seasonings, etc. Instead of buying premade marinades or salad dressings, consider making them from scratch where you have total control over the contents. In place of high sodium seasonings, you could use fresh or dried herbs, mustards, vinegars, unsalted rubs or other seasoning mixtures.
Processed meats and cheeses are other sources of sodium (and saturated fat). Limit the use of these in your recipes by cutting down on the amount used and filling in or replacing them with unsalted protein foods. An example would be a pasta dish that calls for sausage. One idea is to use a lower sodium/lower fat version. Another would be to use mostly cooked chicken or fish/seafood with only a small amount of the higher sodium sausage for flavor.
In the case of saturated fat, besides processed meats, sources you may also want to limit would be other high fat meats, the skin on poultry, coconut oil, and high fat dairy products (cheese, cream, butter). For the meats, you can replace them with skinless white meat poultry, pork tenderloin, fish/seafood, beans/lentils, or soy products.
Instead of butter or coconut oil, you can use olive or canola oil (or other unsaturated oil). If you want the taste of butter in a recipe, use mostly heart-healthy oil and just a very small amount of butter. The oil will then have a buttery taste. Besides heart healthy oils, nuts, seeds, and avocado are better fat options than the saturated fats.
Instead of large amounts of high fat cheese in a recipe, you could use low fat cheese or use a light grating of strongly flavored cheese like Parmesan (since it has a more concentrated flavor, you would need less). For chowders or sauces that call for cream, try using evaporated skim milk which is more concentrated than regular milk so has a creamier texture (and contributes some protein/calcium).
To reduce the added sugars in a recipe, in most cases you can use much less than what the recipes says. You can also add sweetness by adding fruit, extracts, citrus zests, or sweet spices. For recipes calling for flavored yogurt, you can use half plain and half flavored to cut back on the added sugar.
As noted, you may also want to make ingredient substitutions to increase the nutrient content. Examples might be fiber, calcium, protein, and the many nutrients found in fruits and vegetables. For fiber, in most recipes you can replace a high percentage of the white flour with whole grain or bean flour. Another idea would be to grind up oats and nuts to use in place of some of the white flour. This works well in quick breads, muffins, and pancake/waffle batter.
Adding beans or lentils to a dish really boosts the fiber content, as well as the protein. They could either replace the animal protein or be in addition to it. Another easy swap is to replace a refined cooked grain with a whole grain version – brown rice, whole grain or bean pasta, farro, quinoa, etc. can usually be interchanged.
Adding fruit or vegetables to a dish also increases the fiber content. They also contribute a wealth of other important nutrients. Examples might be using pureed pumpkin or butternut squash in a soup, quick bread, or pancake batter. You can add a number of fruit options as toppings or ingredients in many sweet and savory dishes, as in a grain bowl or salsa recipe.
To add calcium, you can use low fat milk instead of water to make cooked cereals. Try a topping of yogurt and fruit instead of syrup on French toast (made with whole grain bread, of course), pancakes, or waffles. Almonds are one of the few nuts that contain calcium. Add these to salads, hot cereal, cooked grains, and baked goods. Dark leafy greens contain calcium. These can be used in salads, sandwiches, soups, or sautéed as a bed for eggs or other protein foods.
An easy way to boost the plant-based nutrients is to increase the proportion of fruits/vegetables used in a recipe, which often lowers the calorie content as well. This works great for soups, pizza, stir fry, salads, grain bowls, wraps, pita pockets, or other one-dish meals. Using various cooking techniques when you cook the vegetables to add to a dish can create variety in flavor and texture. For instance, roasted or grilled vegetables might be nice change in a salad, wrap, or on a pizza.
So, be brave and have fun with making some substitutions in your recipes for better health!
Pam Stuppy, MS, RD, LD is a registered, licensed dietitian with nutrition counseling offices in York, ME and Portsmouth, NH. She has also been the nutritionist for Phillips Exeter Academy, presents workshops nationally, and provides guidance in sports nutrition. (See www.pamstuppynutrition.com for more nutrition information, some healthy cooking tips, and recipe ideas).