Food Science: Kitchen Swaps

We’ve all had those tense moments in the kitchen: you’re in the middle of baking your favorite cake and you realize you have no more baking soda/powdered sugar/unsweetened chocolate etc. But with a little food science, you’re never far away from a substitute! Here are some helpful swap outs:

For cake flour:

What is cake flour? Cake flour is a different subset of wheat. It has a lower protein content than the wheat we find in regular all-purpose flour (7-8% VS 10-12%), and it is ground more finely. That protein becomes gluten as the flour reacts with liquid around it. Cakes need less gluten to stay together than bread. And knowing that can save you in a pinch. Swap out two tablespoons of your all purpose flour for two tablespoons of cornstarch, that will lower the protein content and increase the starch ratio (eliminating some gluten formation and creating a light and soft cake).

When it comes to sugar we have a lot of options:

For superfine sugar, run your granulated sugar in the food processor for 30 seconds. Beware of spinning it too long, the heat from the motor can start molecular breakdown (caramelization).

For powdered sugar, run 1 cup of sugar and one teaspoon of cornstarch in a spice mill. Why the spice mill instead of the food processor? The smaller volume of the container on a spice mill means the grains of sugar are hitting the blades more often, eventually becoming more pulverized than they would with a food processor with all its vacuous space.

For brown sugar, mix one cup of granulated sugar with one teaspoon of molasses in your food processor.

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Dairy products:

Ever found yourself troubled over buttermilk? Buttermilk tends to be an ingredient that we don’t have on hand, but when we need it, we really need it! As with other ingredients, understanding what buttermilk really is will help us make a substitution. Buttermilk, traditionally is the liquid left behind after churning butter out of cream. Things to remember about buttermilk: it is tart and it is thick. What makes it tart? Acid, specifically lactic acid produced by bacteria fermenting lactose. Lactose is the sugar found in dairy products, notice anything familiar about the name? Let’s take a quick Latin lesson

So, if we’re looking to replace a thick, slightly tart, acidic dairy product, what do you think makes sense? Yes! Milk with a touch of vinegar or lemon juice. We have to add it, then let it sit for 5 minutes in order to let the milk clabber. The lemon juice will simultaneously lower the pH of the milk (acidification) while it begins to unfold casein (the milk protein) which thickens the liquid. We did this when we were making ricotta, but in that case we also added energy (which is to say, heat). That energy helped the rapid unfolding and reconstruction of curds, but in this case (without energy) the proteins don’t act so quickly. For one cup of buttermilk, let one cup of whole milk stand with one teaspoon of vinegar or lemon juice for five minutes.


There is one major chemical we use to help give lift to our baked goods. Sodium Bicarbonate, also known as baking soda. But what about baking powder? Anyone know what it is? Why is it called double acting baking powder? Baking powder is nothing more than sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) with tartaric acid (also known as cream of tartar). Why is it double acting? Sodium bicarbonate is a weak base, and cream of tartar is an acid. When they react, we see the release of carbon dioxide. This is often demonstrated by pouring vinegar over baking soda, we see the classic grade school volcano experiment. But baking powder is perfect in baked goods that don’t have an additional acid content. We need acid to react to the base in order to release carbon dioxide. Well, plain water will dissolve the tartaric acid in baking powder, releasing it to react freely with the sodium bicarbonate and releasing carbon dioxide, giving lift to cakes and cookies. If you run out of baking powder use this instead: for one teaspoon powder, swap in 1/4 teaspoon baking soda plus 1/2 tsp cream of tartar.

Last, but certainly not least, CHOCOLATE.

Baking brownies or a chocolate cake and realize too late that you don’t have any unsweetened chocolate squares? Try this instead: for one ounce of chocolate, mix 3 tbs cocoa powder with one tablespoon butter, margarine, or oil.

Why does this work? Because unsweetened chocolate is nothing more than cocoa solids and fat mixed without the benefit of sugar. Cocoa powder is cocoa solids without fat or sugar. Add some fat into the mix and you’re ready to rock.

To learn more about my recipes, you can check my website at Renegade Kitchen