Over the next few months a lot of recipes will be added to the website. Many are recipes I’ve been using for years — old family recipes, mostly. Most are recipes that I’ve developed myself after lots of trial and error. With baking and cooking, even the errors are fun, because you can still eat them! I always encourage people to follow the recipe exactly as written the first time around, and then add things or take away things, and make it your own.

A Note About Baking

Baking is usually an exact science, so ingredients like baking powder and baking soda are important to get right. You can’t substitute one for the other, and increasing or decreasing the quantities beyond what’s listed in a recipe can produce disastrous (bad-tasting) results. Baking soda and baking powder control browning and leavening — how high something rises.  Mess with this and you may end up with a pallid flat cake, or one that tastes horribly of soap. Also, pay attention to pan sizes. Making the batter for a 9″ cake pan and then dumping it into an 8″ pan can result in a mess spilling over into the oven, and a ruined cake. If you don’t have the correct size pan, try this link and see if you can use a different type of pan instead.

However, there are times when substitutions are acceptable, and these are a few that I recommend:

Buttermilk: Use an equal amount of regular milk and add up to 2 teaspoons of apple cider vinegar or lemon juice. When it appears curdled and weird — you now have the equivalent of buttermilk. The reason why buttermilk is used in place of regular milk is the acid it contains, so adding acid to regular milk ends up doing the same thing in the recipe. This concoction is also called “sour milk” in some old-fashioned recipes, not to be confused with milk that has gone bad — please don’t ever use that in anything.

Yogurt: For every cup of plain yogurt (non-Greek) required, you can substitute sour cream, buttermilk, or crème fraîche. If your sour cream is really thick, like the consistency of Greek yogurt, thin it out a little with a tablespoon or two of milk.

Cream Cheese: Really, there’s no substitution for a really good cream cheese frosting. However, if you’re like me and the cream cheese is the one ingredient you left at the supermarket while buying all the things to make a cake…don’t despair. Making a regular buttercream frosting and adding 1/4 cup of sour cream to the mix will give you a similar taste — in fact, for one of my chocolate cakes, I use this recipe instead of cream cheese frosting.

Flour:  Cake flour is often used to give a light, airy crumb to muffins and cakes. If you don’t have cake flour, remove 1/4 cup of all-purpose flour and use that instead. It won’t be exactly the same, but most people won’t notice.

Chips and other Add-Ins: No raisins for your oatmeal-raisin cookies? Try dried cherries or dried cranberries instead. No chocolate chips? Break a bar of dark chocolate into bits and use that. No pecans? Try crushed almonds or walnuts.

Coffee: Where coffee is not the star ingredient, but a minor background player, it’s fine to mix some instant espresso or instant coffee with hot water and use that. Generally I use whatever leftover coffee is sitting in the pot, and will often substitute coffee in a chocolate cake, instead of using water. You don’t actually taste the coffee, but it makes the chocolate taste richer and more…chocolate-y.

Sugar:  I don’t care what the recipe says, you cannot bake properly using turbinado sugar as a substitute for brown or granulated white sugar. Nor can you substitute white sugar in place of brown sugar, or the other way round. If a recipe calls for granulated white sugar, use that. Same with brown sugar. (However, you can swap light brown for dark.) But using turbinado sugar in place of regular white sugar will produce a grainy product, as it doesn’t melt properly. Save turbinado sugar for your coffee or for using on top of cookies or muffins to add a little sparkle and crunch.

A Bad Idea – Baking Soda and Baking Powder: There are ways to make baking powder from baking soda and cream of tartar, but I don’t recommend this at all. I did this once and the results were beyond disgusting. Baking powder is cheap, so there’s no reason to have it in your pantry — just go buy baking powder instead of making your own.

A Few Things to Leave at the Store

I have to shake my head and wonder about some of the things I see in the grocery store. I guess for some, convenience is more important than taste — but that takes the fun out of experimenting in the kitchen, right? Cake mixes and canned frosting are two things that come to mind. They’re full of chemicals and god knows what else, and throwing together a cake really isn’t that time-consuming, when you consider that most of the time involved is oven and cooling time.

A few other things to avoid buying:  Coconut and lemon extract. One will make your desserts taste like tanning oil, the other of furniture polish. If you’re not willing to buy a fresh coconut and mess with it (don’t worry, I’m not willing, either…) — just buy some unsweetened coconut in the bag, and use that instead. Yes, you’ll get the texture of the coconut, but it’s better than eating something more suited to slathering on your body at the beach. For a lemon (or other citrus flavor) use zest. Grab your lemon, and a zester (or fine grater, or a microplane) and zest away. Just remember to not use the white part of the peel, it’s bitter. Tastes like actual lemon, not furniture polish! Hooray!

Also, there’s no reason whatsoever to buy fake vanilla extract. Never. Buy the best real vanilla you can afford — even the cheapest store brand real vanilla will taste better than any brand of imitation vanilla. If it says “imitation” on the label, leave it alone.

We should also talk about baking chocolate. Most of it is terrible, and should be avoided. Any time chocolate is the star of the show, you should use good-quality chocolate. I like Guittard’s chocolate chips, even the white chocolate chips…and I don’t really care for white chocolate. I also like using Lindt, Green & Black’s, or Ghiradelli chocolate bars. For recipes calling for dark chocolate, or unsweetened, I use 80-90% cacao dark chocolate bars. Milk chocolate is the same, and for recipes that call for semi-sweet chocolate, I use 60-70% cacao dark chocolate. If you wouldn’t actually eat the chocolate plain, don’t use it in baking. If you really want to be fancy, Valrhona and Callebaut make amazing chocolates for cooking and baking, as do many small-batch American companies. Go wild with chocolate, just leave the Baker’s brand in the supermarket where it belongs.