Learn the foods you can substitute using these key principles of cookery, and grow your kitchen confidence as you put them into practice

Knowing whether it’s OK to substitute lemon juice in a recipe for lime juice, or whether your muffins will collapse if you replace yogurt with buttermilk largely boils down to learning a few important rules. Once you know the basics, you’ll be able to diverge from recipes when you don’t have – or simply don’t like – certain ingredients. With the help of our food editors and Waitrose & Partners Cookery School tutors, we’ve devised some key principles to show you how. Soon you’ll feel bold enough to branch out, adapting, improving – and even creating  – dishes according to need or plain old desire.

"Firstly, ask yourself what the ingredient is bringing to the dish," says Kendall Zaluski, chef tutor at the cookery school in Finchley Road, north London. "Is it texture, acidity, saltiness or spice?" Once you understand what an ingredient does in terms of texture and flavour, you’re on your way.

Perhaps one of the simplest elements of a dish to play with is texture. Think of a sprinkle of toasted seeds on a summer salad or a scattering of crispy croutons over a bowl of soup. They’re mostly there to give contrastive crunch so replacing chopped hazelnuts with walnuts, or pumpkin seeds with sunflower seeds, is unlikely to end in tears. Likewise, if a recipe calls for chickpeas and you’ve only got haricot or cannellini beans, don’t fret – they’re largely interchangeable. It works for some fruit and vegetables too: swap peaches for apricots, say, or kale for cavolo nero, spring greens or chard where the texture and flavour are similar. 

Add crunch to soups and salads

Try any of the following for a final flourish: chopped or whole nuts (walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds or macadamias); croutons (made using ciabatta, flatbread, or tortillas); toasted seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, chia); toasted breadcrumbs (try making pangrattato, breadcrumbs fried in olive oil to add crunch to simple pasta dishes); Cook's Ingredients crispy fried onions; sliced pancetta or streaky bacon, grilled until crisp and crumbled. 

Bean substitutes

In salads, soups and stews that call for beans, use cannellini, borlotti, haricot, flageolet, butter beans, chickpeas, lentils or a mixture of these. 

Sweet solution

Want to add texture to an easy summer pud of grilled fruit (nectarines, peaches, plums or apricots) or macerated berries? Scatter over some meringue pieces, crushed amaretti biscuits or freeze-dried raspberries. A shop-bought posset or panna cotta can be made extra special with some homemade shortbread.

"In my opinion, one of the most important aspects of refining a dish involves the use of acid," suggests Kendall. Of course, acid takes many forms from the lip-puckering hit of citrus juice to the unmistakable lactic tang of yogurt. Think about the depth of flavour you’re trying to create; there’s a difference between the short-lived tingle you get from a light spritz of lemon juice added to a finished dish and the long-lasting but more nuanced taste of lemon zest used earlier in the cooking process. 

Flex your salad dressings

In dressings, you can use citrus juice (lemon, lime or orange), white wine or sherry vinegar, white wine or even the juice from a pickle jar such as onions or cornichons for an acid kick. Simply replace one for another in equal measure. As a general rule, for dressings, use a 2:1 ratio of oil to acid but for marinades go with 1:1 as you want the acid to tenderise and add flavour. 

Top alternative toppings

Love a jacket potato topped with soured cream and snipped chives? Try it with crème fraîche, fromage frais or natural yogurt. For a vegan alternative, coconut yogurt works well here too, especially on a baked sweet potato.

"I think as people begin to experiment and diverge from recipes they often struggle with food tasting a bit bland or lacking focus which is where seasoning with salt can help," suggests Kendall. But there’s another way to give your dishes some oomph without simply adding salt. "Soy sauce, aged cheeses, tomatoes, Marmite, smoked bacon, miso, yeast flakes: they’re all sources of umami, the savoury flavour that makes a dish so moreish," says Helen Carey, chef tutor at the Waitrose Cookery School, King’s Cross. These ingredients combine saltiness with a depth of flavour that’s useful for the home cook. "One of my favourite sources of umami is parmesan," continues Helen: "I particularly like simmering the leftover rinds in a stew or stock in place of a stock cube. It’s a great way to reduce waste too – simply store them in the freezer until needed."

Changeable cheeses

When looking for a salty cheese to finish a dish, use Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padano, Pecorino, Manchego, vegetarian Italian hard cheese or halloumi, which is usually suitable for vegetarians. If texture isn’t key, a crumble of feta can work well. 

Vegan variation

For a dairy-free alternative to parmesan, Partner and Food Editor Silvana Franco suggests whizzing roasted cashews in a blender with garlic salt and yeast flakes until finely chopped: "It’s really delicious and packed with the necessary umami. I keep a jar in the fridge."

Use coffee to make gravy

To make a delicious gravy in no time at all, Helen recommends adding a combination of freshly brewed coffee, soy sauce and sherry vinegar to vegetable stock or Swiss bouillon. The bitterness of the coffee mimics the caramelised surface of roast meats, the soy sauce adds depth and the acidity of the vinegar will balance out the savoury flavours. Thicken the gravy with a little cornflour.

A pinch of sugar added to a homemade tomato sauce; a tablespoon of clear honey used in a dressing; a heap of gently caramelised onions as the base for a curry: they all bring a welcome note of sweetness that helps to round out some of the other flavours. In the same way you might reach for the salt and pepper to season a dish, it’s important to ask whether something sweet could, for example, cut through the acidity of citrus or tomatoes, or soften the spicy heat of a chilli con carne. "When making meat gravy, my favourite secret ingredient is a spoonful of redcurrant jelly added at the end," says Silvana. "The sweetness really balances it out, helps to thicken it slightly and gives a lovely glossy finish."

Add some sweet to savoury

In any savoury dish that calls for a little sweetness, such as sticky ribs, stir fries (nasi gorengKorean bibimbap) or miso aubergines, swap sugar for honey, agave nectar or maple syrup, all of which will add more depth of flavour.

Sugar swaps

Light soft brown sugar can be used instead of dark soft brown sugar in cake and biscuit recipes as they’re similar in sweetness though the colour and flavour may vary; likewise, light muscovado can be swapped for dark muscovado. 

No caster sugar?

You can blitz granulated sugar in a food processor where a recipe calls for caster sugar. Demerara will add crunch so is best for sprinkling on top of crumbles or roasted fruits.

While some spices add instant heat to a dish, others – such as cumin, paprika, ground coriander – bring a gentle warmth, so think about the pungency you want to achieve. A teaspoon of dried chilli flakes sprinkled over your favourite pasta will give a lip-tingling kick while a pinch of cayenne pepper with seafood – think smoked or potted fish – or eggs provides a background hum. Helen says: "One of my favourite ways to boost flavour and heat in a dish is to add a condiment: for example, mango chutney will bring rounded sweetness, acidity and well-balanced spice, while a dollop of kimchi added to a stir fry instantly amplifies the heat and brings great depth of flavour."

Feel the heat

If you reach for the hot sauce at almost every meal, it’s worth knowing that sriracha, sambal oelek, gochujang chilli paste, hot pepper sauce and classic Tabasco are all pretty much interchangeable. "Some are hotter than others, so add them gradually and taste as you go," advises Partner and Food Editor Alison Oakervee.

Spice trail

No ground cumin? Try using about half the amount of ground coriander instead. Run out of allspice? Reach for a mix of nutmeg, cinnamon and ground cloves. Can’t find caraway seeds? Fennel seeds have a similar aniseed flavour. 

Speedy pastes

Unless you have an enviable range of spices, it’s worth keeping a few pastes handy. For example, harissa paste packs in half a dozen spices plus onion, garlic and roasted red peppers making it ideal for rubbing on fish, meat or vegetables before cooking or for adding instant flavour to a tagine. Also try zhougtomato pasteshawarma paste or any one of the wide range of curry pastes available. 

As with all rules, there are, of course, exceptions. Unlike many areas of cooking where experimentation often reaps rewards, the more precise nature of baking means that it generally pays to follow a recipe; it’s just a question of working out which one. Don’t be deterred if you’re out of flour - check out flourless cake recipes instead. Used the last of the baking powder? Look for a recipe where egg whites and air alone create the rise, such as this chestnut cake. While you’re unlikely to ruin a tart by swapping apples for pears, or wreck a tray of biscuits by using dried cranberries instead of raisins, it usually makes sense to change the recipe and not the ingredients. 

No self-raising flour?

Add 2 tsp baking powder to 150g plain flour to create your own. In turn, you can make baking powder by combining ½ tsp of cream of tartar with ¼ tsp of bicarbonate of soda. 

Use up the flour you have

Experiment with different flours if that’s what you have in the store cupboard. Spelt is a good, slightly nutty alternative to plain flour and works well in baking and pancakes. Rye flour adds great flavour and texture to homemade bread and produces the happiest sourdough starter. Swap white flour for its wholemeal counterpart when making cakes and cookies. 

Buttermilk alternative

Buttermilk is often used in baking recipes, for example in soda bread where it reacts with bicarbonate of soda to help the dough rise. To make buttermilk at home, add 1 tbsp of lemon juice to 250ml of whole milk and leave for five minutes. "For things like cakes and muffins where soured cream/buttermilk/yogurt/fromage frais is called for, these are all pretty universal as they have the same chemical effect on the recipe," says Kendall.