Substitutions and Wild Creativity

November 14, 2017 in Cooking & Baking Hints, Health, Uncategorized by Joyce Bunderson

Today, a granddaughter and a few of her friends are coming over for a little cooking lesson. I’m going to involve them in three recipes; a stir-fry (same technique used to make fajitas); minestrone soup; and a super easy soup.

I chose the recipes; recipes that will help them learn techniques that can be used in multiple recipes. One of the issues I hope to instill in them is substituting. You do not need to be an excellent or even an experienced cook to take advantage of the recipes that are already developed. Once you decide that you want to eat in a certain way, for example, you might like to follow principles such as:

  1. Excluding processed grains;
  2. Seeking low/no sugar recipes;
  3. Seeking to lower total salt while keeping it yummy;
  4. Using a certain kind of healthy fat such as extra virgin olive oil and avoiding unhealthy fats such as coconut oil.
  5. You can edit and add to your list of principles.

Having such a set of principles, you can use recipes already developed by a seasoned cook, and make substitutions to reduce the use of unhealthy ingredients, while seeking equal or even enhanced yumminess.

Many cooks think substituting is just a technique used when the cook does not have a certain ingredient in the pantry; but today I want to write about creative substituting for improved health, and just possibly, increased yumminess.


Just because a recipe directs you to sauté in butter doesn’t mean that if you change it to a healthier (far less saturated fat) that the recipe won’t work. I almost always use extra virgin olive oil or canola oil; but you can use what you have on hand (safflower; corn, soybean, sunflower, or generic vegetable oil). If regular butter is being replaced and your dish might miss butter’s saltiness, you can add a little salt.

Baking is a little trickier. Having said that, I’ve been baking quick breads (muffins and nut breads) for years with my mild tasting extra virgin olive oil or canola oil. The texture is nice and, of course, there’s not much saturated fat.

If you search around on the Internet, you can often find a recipe already designed to use the type of oil that you want to use.

Soups, stews, stir-fries and other sautéed recipes will all work well with the fat that you’re trying to substitute. Remember, coconut oil is loaded with saturated fat.

Whole grains:

The use of whole grains instead of refined white flour is a good example of substituting. I’ve been making quick breads for decades with no white flour at all; with excellent results. You can take your favorite recipe and experiment with it if you’re afraid to go to 100% whole wheat at first. You can do it in steps starting with about three-fourths of the flour being whole grain before going all the way.

My story with yeast bread is not quite as slick and easy. I worked and worked to get a good loaf of 100% whole wheat bread. I eventually accomplished my goal, but it was definitely not pain free – it was lots of work. You can use the same technique as above with quick breads, but I’d advise starting with at least half the flour white. Some other techniques that I use are: adding egg to the liquids; adding dried milk solids to the flour and using a tiny bit of dough conditioner.

Making homemade noodles or dumplings with 100% whole grains is not a problem.

Many cookie recipes lend themselves to whole grain.

If you don’t have brown rice cooked ahead in the refrigerator and you don’t have the 50 minutes to get it cooked, try quinoa as a substitute. The flavors are wonderful; it’s fast to cook and the nutrition is tops.

Protein foods:

As I’ve mentioned many times, we don’t normally eat red meat at our home; so when I find a recipe or we have a family favorite recipe I substitute. When a recipe calls for ground beef, I frequently use boneless, skinless chicken breasts. I take the partially frozen breasts cut into chunks and run them in the food processor to grind them up. I actually like a course grind a little better than too fine. Even if you do eat red meat, you can use this technique to reduce the saturated fat in red meat, by choosing a lower fat cut of red meat and grinding it yourself.

I make recipes that include sausage; the way that I get around using the fatty ground pork sausage itself is to make the ground chicken breast described above and add extra virgin olive oil and spices to give a spicy sausage taste. It has been very well received.

When I make tacos, I often make it with tofu. If you haven’t tried tofu, this may be a good place to start. Just take a drained block of extra firm tofu, and crush it into a skillet with vegetable oil. Break the pieces into crumbles about the size that you’d normally have with hamburger. Then brown the tofu (it takes a while for the liquid to cook off) with some taco seasoning of your choice. That’s it. The texture is a lot like similar meats.

Tacos also lend themselves well to beans, fish, ground chicken or ground turkey. Unleash your creativity! If you’re feeling timid and insecure, then you’ll find a thousand recipes for tacos on line.

Vegetables and fruits:

Substituting vegetables for pasta is a terrific substitution to increase the nutrients while reducing the calories. You can substitute low calorie vegetables while reducing the more calorie dense intake of pasta – brilliant stroke! Have you stumbled upon the Veggetti spiralizer yet? It turns vegetables like zucchini into vegetable spaghetti. If you don’t have a spiralizer, another way to accomplish the substitution is to grate or dice the vegetables and use instead of pasta in casserole style recipes. You may want to consider replacing only part of the pasta at first. In either case, if you freeze or cook wet vegetables like zucchini, it is wise to drain off some of the vegetable liquids to improve the final product. Have you ever made lasagna with eggplant? That’s another substitution that popped into my mind some years ago and has been a family favorite. We even gave it a name – Angasal (lasagna spelled backwards) it is a reminder that we turned the ratio of refined white flour to healthy vegetables and whole grain pasta upside down – or at least backward.

At our home, we have what Vic has named reverse omelets. That just means that I chop a big batch of vegetables (bell peppers of any color, onions, eggplant, mushrooms, and/or squash); after the chopped vegetables are sautéed, I add whipped eggs on top. The reason he calls the recipe ‘reverse’ is that the proportion of egg and vegetables is completely reversed from what is served in restaurants when you order an omelet. To us, they use vegetables as garnish rather than as main ingredients.

Increasing fruit in our regular intake is mostly accomplished by adding it to our oatmeal (or shredded wheat, cracked wheat, or wheat berries); or on salads. If a meal is just a little shy of being enough, I almost always add a little dish of fruit to round out the meal. Don’t forget how nice berries, grapefruit, apples, grapes and oranges are on salads.


Nonfat Greek yogurt is a staple in our refrigerator; it just sits there waiting for a recipe that needs cream or sour cream. It’s surprising how often it comes in handy to substitute for sour cream. Because Greek yogurt is thicker than regular yogurt, it is very handy as a dairy substitute. I just used it this past week to make a butternut squash soup creamy. The substitute from cream to Greek yogurt not only decreases the saturated fat in the original recipe, but in addition, nicely increases protein content.


The main trick with lowering salt in a recipe is to increase flavorful ingredients; many vegetables can help with this goal; also herbs, spices and lemon or limejuice. As you know from past articles, I could write an entire article on this one issue.

The ideas above are just a jumping off point; hopefully it will get the wheels turning in your creative mind. There are thousands of ways to improve a healthy eating plan by substituting; let your creativity go wild.