Sometimes a recipe is based upon a pricier ingredient and it’s worth it to splurge. Other times, it’s just not that big of a difference, really, to substitute one ingredient for another or hack it together yourself. If you’re thinking about substituting one ingredient for another, ask yourself a couple of questions:
Do I know what this ingredient actually tastes like? The flavor and properties of an ingredient can vary depending on how you cook or incorporate it into a recipe. If you’re trying to substitute something in an individual recipe, it helps to know how it will react in any given situation.
Do I have high expectations of recreating something I’ve tasted before? If you’re trying to recreate a dish you have memories of, substitutions can mess with that nostalgia. If you’re open to an interpretation of a dish you’ve had before — especially in the name of being cost effective — a lower-budget substitution can be a great way to make a special-occasion favorite into a weeknight favorite.
Do I have a sense of adventure in the kitchen? Substitutions are kind of like experiments — sometimes, they don’t come out right. If you can laugh about something gone awry, you’ve opened up a whole world of substitution solutions! Start with these seven budget-friendly swaps for their more expensive counterparts, and then go forth and substitute at will.
1. Mascarpone cheese
This Italian soft cheese is creamy and subtle and just a bit on the sweet side. It can be a bit hard to find in many grocery stores, and when you do find a little tub of it, it’s not cheap. The most famous application for mascarpone is, of course, tiramisu, which can call for at least 8 ounces of the stuff. Rather than tracking down and splurging on a little tub of the stuff, substitute the cream cheese cut with something thinner and more subtle, like sour cream or plain yogurt.
Since cream cheese is a bit thicker and tangier than mascarpone, a truer substitution can be developed by mixing 2 parts cream cheese with 1 part low-fat sour cream or plain yogurt, as described in SF Gate. For a tiramisu, that would be 6 ounces of cream cheese softened and mixed with 2 ounces by weight (about a quarter-cup) of sour cream or yogurt.
Radicchio is a bitter red, leafy vegetable in the chicory family. It’s often eaten raw in salads to add extra depth against a fruit like pear, but it’s mellowed substantially by roasting or grilling.
There are a couple of ways to go about swapping radicchio. If you’re using it to add a bitter bite to a dish, throw in a different green like arugula or mustard greens, recommends Gourmet Sleuth.
If you’re roasting or grilling it, use a red cabbage in its place, as suggested by Mollie Katzen in her book The Vegetable Dishes I Can’t Live Without. If you’re less attached to the slight bitterness radicchio brings to a salad and more interested in the beautiful red color it provides, you can use the thinner parts of red cabbage leaves instead.
Saffron is known as the most expensive spice in the world. The red threads are actually the stigma, part of the female reproductive system of plants, of a flower in the crocus family. Each of these flowers produce only three stigmas (saffron threads) per flower. The saffron must be collected by hand. It’s a popular ingredient in Middle Eastern, Indian, and Spanish cuisine, but it can also cost $5 for 0.4 grams.
It’s difficult to approximate the exact aroma and flavor of saffron with other spices because it’s so unique, but if you’re just looking for something to give your paella that gorgeous golden glow, turmeric can be substituted in small quantities, says The Kitchn, with the smallest pinch of sweet paprika.
4. Arborio rice
Arborio is a variety of rice made specifically for making risotto. As Fine Cooking explains, arborio is used for risotto because of the profile of its starches and its pearly, plump grains. The particular starches, amylose and amylopectin, are what give risotto its creaminess. The amylose is an exterior starch, released immediately when introduced to hot liquid, while the amylopectin is the reason you have to stand there stirring constantly — it’s an interior starch that releases when you damage the rice grains.
While it won’t have the same plump grains, any short or medium-grain white rice from the supermarket will behave similarly in the pot with its dual-action starches.
5. Goat cheese
At up to a dollar or more per ounce, creamy, tangy goat cheese isn’t always cheap. It can be hard to substitute goat cheese for a lower-budget ingredient when it’s eaten raw and crumbled as it would be in a salad, but there are options if it’s being cooked.
For a mock goat cheese log crusted in herbs and pepper to serve with toast or crackers, Southern Living mixes together cream cheese for a creamy texture and feta for a briny tang. If you’re baking or cooking with a recipe calling for goat cheese, try substituting strained, plain Greek yogurt (straining makes it less watery), or cream cheese with a splash of lemon juice or cider vinegar.
Endive is like a tightly wrapped torpedo of bitter leaves similar to radicchio, and it’s seeing the spotlight these days. One of the popular uses for the vegetable is to use its sturdy leaves as little edible cups. Rather than splurging on endive, unwrap hearts of romaine lettuce until you get to the sturdier inner leaves and use those instead for recipes like Smitten Kitchen’s Endives with Oranges and Almonds.
For recipes that feature cooked endive, this recipe from The Food Network for Stuffed Belgian Endive suggests substituting small wedges of cabbage. When choosing cabbage to replace endive, go for a paler one, like tendersweet.
7. Filet mignon
If you’re looking for an everyday replacement for tender, lean filet mignon, Food & Wine recommends asking the butcher for a teres major, also called the “mock tender.” It’s fairly similar to the tenderloin, which makes it a great substitute. Don’t overcook it, though, because it can get tough at temperatures too high.
It may be a crime to marinate or otherwise adulterate a filet mignon, but with a cheaper cut like teres major, a slightly acidic marinade (balsamic vinegar and Worcestershire sauce are contenders) can tenderize the meat even more.