Cooking substitutes for cream, salt and other recipe ingredients

Making a recipe, but you're out of an ingredient you need? How to find great substitutes for common ingredients like cream, salt and oil.
July 10, 2023
Looking for some oil and salt to better bake chicken parts? Use crushed potato chips; they sport just enough of both. There are also options that serve as good substitutes for cream, milk and other ingredients.
Looking for different versions of oil and salt to better bake chicken? Use crushed potato chips; they sport just enough of both. Photo by Bill St. John, for UCHealth.

“Out of it” may mean one thing in politics or parenting. But the phrase has a truly different — and at times unhappy — meaning in the pantry.

There you are, frittering away at preparing dinner, and you run dry on the bottle of vegetable oil or hit the bottom of the salt cellar or need butter, and all you have is a half-moon of brie.

Aaargh. Who wants just to pop off to the grocery at a time like that? Who can?

Chances are that what you’re out of, you’re truly not. Kitchen basics come in many garbs; you merely need to know how to assess the dresses.

More great tips and recipes from Bill St. John.

The recipe here, for example, adds the abundant oil and salt in crushed potato chips to coat chicken pieces as they bake into golden awesomeness in the oven. No need to pan-fry the chicken in a film of oil; no need to salt them as they cook.

You can make fruitful substitutions from your pantry by attending to the element or ingredient that you seek in whatever it is that you’re lacking or missing. Saltiness or sweetness, for example, don’t arrive merely via white crystals. Or a smooth, creamy texture isn’t to be found only in cream.

Places to look in your pantry: substitutes for ingredients in case you don’t have what you need on hand 

Substitutes for salt: Ubiquitous in the everyday pantry, salt comes abundantly in soy sauce and miso pastes of any color and in foodstuffs that are preserved in or prepared with it, such as capers, anchovies, many mustards, Worcestershire sauce and bacon. Of course, you will introduce other flavors in addition to salt when you use any of these, but (yes, bacon!) that may be desired.

Substitutes for sweetness: Like salt, the many sugars (fructose, glucose, sucrose, and so on) are in or constituent of many pantry foods. The obvious substitutes are honey, molasses, agave or corn syrup, and the many granulated sugar substitutes so-named, such as aspartame, stevia or monk fruit crystals. All of this is common knowledge.

But if you’re really pressed to add something sweet to a cooking preparation, and you don’t have at hand any true sugar (or its synthesized equivalent), remember that using dried fruit, heavy cream, fruit juice, maple syrup or applesauce adds significant sweetness. It also adds other flavors that, again, may or may not be appropriate.

Substitutes for cream or milk: I consider myself a lucky cook because I almost always have on hand some homemade whole-milk yogurt. I make it a gallon at a time, and it stores well and lengthily. I use it as-is for many a meal (smoothies, say, or bircher muesli), but I also use it when I need a small amount of milk or cream and I have neither on hand. I simply water the yogurt down to the consistency I desire. I need to watch merely for its tendency to curdle if the (now) “cream” is added in volume. I am guessing that well-made commercial whole-milk Greek yogurt would act similarly.

I also always have homemade ghee on hand. This form of clarified butter keeps in the refrigerator for months and tastes and acts nearly 100 percent just like regular, unclarified butter, but with no burning in the sauté pan or skillet to boot.

If you’re looking to add a diary for its creaminess, richness or just plain milky flavors, those characteristics do not appear merely in milk or cream. The fresh cheeses mascarpone, Neufchâtel, farmer’s cheese, crème fraîche, queso fresco, quark, sour cream and Greek yogurt all substitute for cream (again, sometimes with added flavors or tartness), as do many an unaged bloomy rind cheese such as, for but one example, French or American-made brie.

Substitutes for fats: Many of the vegetable or fruit oils (olive, canola, corn, avocado, coconut, and so on) are interchangeable, but for attention to their individual flavors and smoke points when heated. Solid, animal-based fats such as butter, lard or schmaltz (chicken fat) are a whole other book and are largely not substitutes for each other.

Need something for a recipe but don't have it on hand. There are options for substitutes for cream, milk, salt, fat and other ingredients, like in this chicken recipe that uses chips to get the salt and oil components.
Need something for a recipe but don’t have it on hand? There are many great substitutes for cream, milk, salt, fat and other ingredients. For example, this chicken recipe uses potato chips instead of oil and salt. Photo by Bill St. John, for UCHealth.

But fats or oils also are found around the kitchen and pantry, perhaps just labeled in the list of ingredients or nutritional “fine print.” Fats and oils are in snack chips from potato and some grains, as the preserving element in many a jar of artichoke hearts or sun-dried tomatoes or mushrooms, or in any confit (of duck leg, for example). I’ve used the olive oil from a couple of rounds of preserved goat’s cheese for the base of a delicious salad dressing.

Obviously, chips made of potato, nut or grain don’t carry along any fat or oil if they are prepared or cooked that way to begin with and say so, for example, air-fried chips or any chip labeled “fat-free.”

Recipe: Chicken baked in potato chips

Choose the potato chips for this recipe for whatever flavorings you want that they advertise about themselves: “barbecue” adds BBQ flavor, “sour cream and onion,” those flavors, and so on. Of course, “plain” works just fine too. Makes 4-6 servings.


6-8 pieces skin-on chicken (breasts, thighs, drumsticks)

Freshly ground black pepper

1 cup all-purpose flour

2-3 large eggs, whisked

2 cups crushed kettle-style (not air-baked or fat-free) potato chips

2 tablespoons ghee or clarified butter

2 tablespoons flavorful extra-virgin olive oil

In a large bowl or inside a zipped plastic bag, crush the potato chips well and add the black pepper, stirring it in. Heat the oven to 375 degrees.

Arrange three plates side by side, with the flour in the first, the eggs in the second, and the crushed chips and pepper in the third. In turn, dredge each piece of chicken in the flour (shaking off any excess), then in the eggs and then the chips, pressing down on the chips so that they adhere.

Place the chicken pieces in a baking dish or sheet large enough to fit them all but ensuring that they do not touch each other. Melt the ghee or butter with the olive oil and drizzle it over the pieces and bake the chicken for 40-45 minutes or until the juices run clear.

You may turn over the pieces halfway through; you also may remove the breast pieces 5-10 minutes before any dark meat pieces. Serve topped with chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley or lemon wedges or zests or other favorite condiments.

Reach Bill St. John at [email protected]

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.