A couple weeks ago, I was craving chocolate cake. The problem? I had no eggs, butter or milk in the house. I hadn’t been shopping in a while—blame the grocery-delaying habits I developed during the pandemic—which meant I was low on just about everything you need to bake. Luckily, baking isn’t a zero-sum game; there are a number of substitutes for each of the most common baking ingredients, including flour, milk, butter, eggs, and baking soda and baking powder.
If you are desperately seeking chocolatey treats or other baked goods but don’t have all the ingredients, don’t despair: There are a wide variety of substitutions available for most every baking staple, though the ideal choice will vary depending on what you are trying to bake. Let’s review.
As we’ve written before, you can make your own self-rising flour by mixing in 1 ½ teaspoons of baking powder and ¼ tsp of salt to one cup of all-purpose flour. You can also make your own cake flour and bread flour from all-purpose flour.
For cake flour, measure out one cup of all purpose flour and remove two tablespoons of flour. Then, add in two tablespoons of cornstarch, and sift well.
For bread flour, you’ll want to measure out one cup of all-purpose flour, then remove 1 ½ teaspoons of flour. Add in 1 ½ teaspoons of vital wheat gluten; you’ll then whisk the two together for use in recipes that call for bread flour.
In place of milk, there are multiple shelf-stable options that might be lurking in your pantry. One possibility is you can use shelf-stable milk in the form of evaporated or powdered milk. If you find a dusty can of evaporated milk, you’ll want to dilute it with water in a 1:1 mixture. Powdered milk will require mixing up an equivalent amount of the fresh milk. your recipe calls for. You can also use canned coconut milk as a 1:1 substitution for cow’s milk.
Other possibilities include using water to stretch out your milk if you don’t have enough. Use a 1:1 ratio of milk to water and add in a tablespoon of butter or oil to help with the fat content.
In baking, there are a number of butter substitutes you can use, the choice of which will depend on what you are baking. These substitutes, which can generally be substituted for butter at a 1:1 ratio by volume, include applesauce, avocado, mashed bananas, greek yogurt, and nut butters like peanut or almond butter. You can also use pumpkin puree, though if you go that route, you’ll want to substitute just 3/4 of the amount of butter you would use.
Given that these substitutes have different taste profiles, you’ll want to pick one that will work with what you are trying to bake. And you might need to experiment a bit with the amount of liquid you use in order to keep your baked goods from getting too dry.
In baking, the most common substitute for eggs is one tablespoon of vinegar with one teaspoon of baking soda, a strategy that has been employed in a lot of recipes to good effect. The Kitchn also breaks down some of other common substitutions, rating them on their effectiveness. One of their top recommendations is to use two teaspoons of baking powder, one teaspoon of oil and two tablespoons of water. Their other top suggestion is to substitute ¼-cup carbonated water for one egg, which they report produced superior results. Who would have guessed?
If you don’t have baking soda, you can use baking powder, at three times what the recipe calls for. So if a recipe calls for one teaspoon of baking soda, use three teaspoons of baking powder. Baking powder also contains a little bit of salt, so it’s a good idea to then halve any salt the recipe calls for.
The drawback with substituting baking powder for baking soda is that you run the risk of your baked goods tasting too bitter, so it’s important not to use too much.
Substituting for baking powder is a little more complicated. If you have baking soda but you don’t have baking powder, you’ll need to use baking soda plus an acid, such as cream of tartar. For every teaspoon of baking powder in the recipe, substitute in ¼-tsp of baking soda with ½-tsp of cream of tartar. If you don’t have any cream of tartar, you can also substitute one teaspoon of baking powder with a mixture of ¼-tsp of baking soda plus ½-tsp of either vinegar or lemon juice. For liquid acids, such as vinegar or lemon juice, mix it in with the wet ingredients.
How I solved for my own chocolate craving without eggs, butter or milk
For my particular problem outlined above, the answer turned out to be depression cake, which is an eggless, milk-less chocolate cake recipe made popular during the Great Depression, when milk and eggs were scarce to come by. (Shades of The Great Ingredients Shortages of March/April 2020, anyone?)
Normally depression cake is topped with a dusting of powdered sugar, but I was craving chocolate frosting, which usually requires butter and some milk. Instead, I substituted, at a 1:1 ratio, ghee for butter, almond milk for cream, plus a pinch of instant coffee, which intensified the flavor of the chocolate powder. When I make the frosting again, I may try substituting peanut butter for regular butter.
The result? Rich, moist chocolate cake, topped with an intense chocolate icing. No butter, eggs, or milk required.
This article was originally published in April 2020 and updated on May 10, 2021 to add additional substitutions for baking soda and baking powder, and to update pandemic contextual references.