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Easy Equivalents and Recipe Substitutions for Cooking By The Seat of Your Pants

Updated on April 3, 2013

Creative Cooking

I'm the kind of cook who makes up recipes as I go along. I cook by the seat of my pants.I use a pinch of this and a bit of that . I decide what's for dinner when I know what's in the fridge that needs to be used up. I'm not big on doing exactly what a recipe tells me and i am always making creative substitutions and changes.

I'm all about throwing leftover veggies into the soup pot along with some spices without consulting a cookbook. I cook by the seat of my pants whether I am cooking for a crowd or just for myself....., and though my days of putting three family meals a day on the table are long gone, I still find using up whatever is around and altering recipes on the spot to suit my need by substituting carrots for beans or beans for whatever, an exciting way to exist in the kitchen.

I think of this as culinary creativity and have no wish to change. I know I am not the only cook who feels this way so in the interest on solidarity, I thought I would share some of my hard won knowledge with my fellow "seat of the pants cooks" here on Hubpages by giving a list of equivalents ( you know, like 4 quarts = a gallon) and some tips on things you can substitute for other things that you figure out you don't have on hand only when you are in the middle of a recipe that calls for them.

So, off we go.

What Equals What

Lets say you have three rapidly rotting bananas sitting in your kitchen and you decide you want to make banana bread to use them up. Out comes the cook book and you find you have all the ingredients to proceed-- but the recipe calls for " two cups of mashed bananas" and you don't know if your three bananas equal two cups or not. Actually, three large bananas equal two cups of mashed banana-- at least for those of us who cook using pints, pounds, and cups. Those of you who use the metric system can skip ahead to the next section where I'll share some easy substitutions that come in handy when you figure out halfway through making something that you don't have one of the key ingredients and you need a quick substitution.

But back to equivalents. How about when you are making a chocolate cake and the recipe calls for one ounce of unsweetened baker's chocolate which you don't have, but you do have a tin of unsweetened cocoa. Yes you can-- you can substitute the cocoa for the unsweetened chocolate squares. Three tablespoons of cocoa mixed with one tablespoon of oil or melted butter equals on ounce of unsweetened chocolate. How about that for alchemy?


Honey Instead of Sugar

Want to sweeten with honey rather than sugar? As a rule of thumb, a cup of honey equals one and a half cups of sugar. Did you forget to buy garlic? You can use garlic powder instead. A quarter of a teaspoon equals one medium fresh clove

.Some things absorb water and expand in cooking, others boil down to less. You need to know these equivalents too. For example, one cup of elbow macaroni will give you two cups cooked. A pound of dry oatmeal yields five cups of cooked porridge. Three medium potatoes will provide you with about two cups of mashed while two cups of dry white rice will make a whopping six cups cooked. On the other hand a pound of fresh rhubarb will boil down to only two cups. ( Ohmygosh I love stewed rhubarb) but I digress.

Dried herbs can always be substituted for fresh, but you need to remember that the dried ones are much stronger so use only half as much as you would fresh. And last but not least, " the juice of one orange" is six to eight tablespoons of OJ out of the carton, while one lemon or lime is the same as two to four tablespoons of juice.

Emergency Substitutions

Oops the recipe calls for brandy and you don't have any, never fear, Substitute a teaspoon of Vanilla extract diluted with fruit juice ( lemon, orange, whatever) I know it sounds crazy but it works.

You don't have buttermilk? Use the same amount of low-fat yogurt instead. Need sour cream but don't have any? Add a tablespoon of lemon juice to a cup of evaporated skim milk and nuke in the microwave for 30 seconds on high to speed the curdling. You need tomato juice but only have a can of tomato sauce. Dilute the sauce with equal parts water and cook away, just remember not to add any salt-- the tomato sauce is already salty enough. This works great for making Bloody Marys Got a recipe that calls for a splash of vinegar? Use lemon juice instead. Just double the amount as lemon juice is not quite as strong as vinegar.

For the inventive cook, who is cooking by the seat of her pants, substitution is the name of the game. It's part of the fun and sometimes the substitution creates a whole new dish with new and even better flavors.You experiment and you learn by doing.

One small warning-- if you really do not know how to cook at all, do not try improvising and substituting until you have learned the absolute basics by following recipes and learning a few basic techniques. That said-- come on in and welcome to the society of seat of the pants cooks.


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    • robie2 profile imageAUTHOR

      Roberta Kyle 

      8 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Glad you enjoyed the hub, Giselle, and thanks for stopping by and leaving such a " meaty" comment:-)

    • profile image

      Giselle Maine 

      8 years ago

      Great cooking substitution tips here! I personally have never bothered with baking soda - I always use baking powder instead. Recipes which call for both of these always annoy me! I've always had this substitution work, but it puzzles me that this is the case, otherwise why do recipes specify one or the other (and even both sometimes)?

      Thanks for the info about fresh vs dried herbs - that was new to me and it's quite relevant as I have both fresh and dried at home, so it helps to know to use them in different amounts.

    • robie2 profile imageAUTHOR

      Roberta Kyle 

      9 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Thanks for stopping by, princess, me too-- I find it very exciting. I've made some delicious discoveries and some real boo boos, but there is never a dull moment:-)

    • prairieprincess profile image

      Sharilee Swaity 

      9 years ago from Canada

      Love it! I am definitely saving this one for myself. I am "seat of my pants" cook, too, and I find it very exciting to be that way. Such an enjoyable read. I am sharing and voting up and more!

    • robie2 profile imageAUTHOR

      Roberta Kyle 

      9 years ago from Central New Jersey

      that's great to know, Jama-- thanks for sharing and thanks for dropping by-- always good to see you

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 

      9 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      Something I never knew and only learned recently: when making a box cake (or anything from a mix that calls for eggs), the size of the eggs makes all the difference in how it turns out.

      The instructions intend for one egg to equal 1/4 cup.

      If you're partial to extra large or jumbo eggs (which I am!), you'll be adding way more yolk AND liquid than intended, which will adversely affect the end result. If you're not sure about the eggs you have on hand, break one into a 1/4 cup measuring cup and adjust accordingly. ;D

    • robie2 profile imageAUTHOR

      Roberta Kyle 

      9 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Hello all of you and thanks for all the great comments. I have been gone most of the day and am delighted to know that cooking by the seat of one's pants has so many great adherants-- thanks to you all for stopping by and commenting and feel free to add any of your favorite substitutions here in the comments.

    • Frieda Babbley profile image

      Frieda Babbley 

      9 years ago from Saint Louis, MO

      I'm a major fan of cooking by the seat of my pants. I see I'm in good company. I agree, don't try this method until you're really comfortable with cooking. My greatest recipes have come from cooking with substitutions. I especially love substituting vinegar with lemon, and substituting sour cream with yogurt. I've been doing both of those for years. Great hub robie2.

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Marshall 

      9 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      I love cooking by the seat of my pants! I often forget things at the grocery store, or I realize at 6:00 p.m. that I don't know what I am making for dinner, so I make do with what is in my pantry. I like making up salad dressings and casseroles - and my kids usually enjoy it. :-) Rated up!!

    • Sally's Trove profile image


      9 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      "The Society of Seat of the Pants Cooks." Love it! Count me in. :) Another interesting, lively, and very useful Hub. The video had a surprise or two...Greek yogurt as a substitute for icing? Might be fun to mix a little cocoa powder/butter in there to make chocolate icing. Up and useful, Robie!

    • Princessa profile image

      Wendy Iturrizaga 

      9 years ago from France

      Very good. I usually head away from a recipe out of impatience, I cannot spend Two hours stirring a pot so just go for the minimun. The same when there is a long list of ingredients, just thinking about measuring all of them puts me off and end up just adding ingredients "au piff" like they say here. Sometimes it works, other times... well other times lets say that I have to use a new name for the finished dish!

    • Sunshine625 profile image

      Linda Bilyeu 

      9 years ago from Orlando, FL

      I toss out the bananas or feed them to my bunny. Very good ideas! Thank you for sharing!!

    • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

      Marcy Goodfleisch 

      9 years ago from Planet Earth

      Very good ideas for pinch-hitting and avoiding a needless purchase. I've also substituted mayonnaise for various things, such as sour cream in a cake or banana bread recipe. Since I don't use Worcestershire Sauce, I sometimes use soy sauce to get a similar effect. Voted up and across!

    • robie2 profile imageAUTHOR

      Roberta Kyle 

      9 years ago from Central New Jersey

      thanks so much sg-- I like to try new recipes too and am always having to make changes because I don't check first to see if I have all the ingredients--not that not having all the ingredients would stop me, you understand LOL

    • sgbrown profile image

      Sheila Brown 

      9 years ago from Southern Oklahoma

      Great hub! I like to try new recipes but find that I will be missing one small ingredient. Now I know some items that I can substitute. Good information, thank you for sharing with us! Voted up and useful. Have a wonderful day! :)


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