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Complements and Substitutes in Baking


Homemade Oreos with the filing decorated for Christmas. Recipe from Smitten Kitchen:

“Milk is on sale, so I bought Oreos!” PJ exclaimed when I came over to babysit his daughter.

What?! Well it is simple: milk and oreos are complements. When the price of one decreases, you want more of the other item (or visa versa). So, as milk prices were falling, PJ wanted to buy more Oreos.

I’m sure you can think of number of examples of complements. Chocolate chips go on sale, so you buy flour and butter to make chocolate chip cookies. (Wait, you don’t do that?) Apple pies at the front of the store are marked with special prices, so you go and buy ice cream.

While it is true that you can eat oreos without milk and most people will (on occasion) have a glass of milk without eating oreos, there are also examples of perfect complements. Things that need to go together in exact proportions. You can’t have one without the other. For example, your mixer isn’t going to work without beaters. If you have a Kitchen Aid stand mixer, you need exactly one mixer and one beater. Neither is much good without the other. If you have a handmixer, meanwhile, you will need two beaters for each machine. Simple? It is!

To me, there is no better example of complements in baking than almond and cherry. The flavors of the two go beautifully together. I made a cherry pie yesterday and added a teaspoon of almond extract to it. The result was amazing. Check out the recipe here.


Substitutes are everywhere in baking. A substitute is just what it sounds like – goods that can be used in replace of other goods. Stevia is a substitute for regular sugar. White sugar mixed with molasses is a substitute for brown sugar.

In economic terms, a substitute is one where as the price of a good goes up (or down) you buy more (or less) of another good. Imagine you want to make chocolate chip cookies and went to the store for chocolate. At the store, you find that semi-sweet chocolate chunks are on sale for half the price of semisweet chocolate chips. I bet you’ll substitute towards buying the chunks.

There are also perfect substitutes. Again, there are lots of these in baking. If you are out of baking powder, you can substitute with a quarter teaspoon of baking soda and half a teaspoon cream of tartar. Or, if you can’t find buttermilk, you can mix a cup of milk mixed with a teaspoon of lemon juice or vinegar. In each of these instances, you need to keep your proportions exact in order to substitute for them.

So, next time you are at the grocery store and something is on sale, see what your follow-on reaction is – do you buy more or less of anything else? Is it a complement or a substitute?

My Favorite Biscuits

I’ve been using this recipe for years from the blog “Everybody Likes Sandwiches." I've given substitution options for most of the ingredients below.

2 cups flour (could also use 1-for-1 gluten free flour)

4 tsp. baking powder (or 1 tsp. baking soda and 2 tsp. cream of tartar)

½ tsp. salt (no substitute)

½ tsp. cream of tartar (if you use the substitution above, it will be a total of 2 ½ tsp. cream of tartar)

1 tsp. sugar (stevia?)

½ cup cold butter (vegan butter?)

2/3 cup buttermilk (2/3 cup milk + 2/3 tsp. (approx) vinegar or lemon). The blog also suggests almond milk with vinegar. Another substitute!

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Stir together the dry ingredients. Then cut in the butter. I like to chop up the butter and then use two knives to cut. If you have pre-cut the butter, you can also use your hands to incorporate the butter. Be sure and leave big pieces and don’t let the butter get too warm.

Make a well in the middle of your ingredients and pour in the milk. Using a fork, mix gently until the milk is incorporated.

Either in the bowl, or on a floured countertop, knead the dough until it comes together.

Flatten into a rectangle onto the floured countertop (I just use my hands, but you could use a rolling pin if you really wanted). Fold over into a square. Repeat with the dough one or two times.

Once done, cut the dough into desired biscuit sizes (they will expand when baking).

Bake for 8 to 12 minutes depending on the size of your biscuit. Take out when just turning slightly golden brown on top.

Enjoy with breakfast, Thanksgiving dinner, or anywhere in between!


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