Filed Under: Baking Science

Why I Hate Baking Substitutions

By Tessa Arias
  |  
November 4th, 2019

As a professionally trained chef and cookbook author, I’m discussing Why I Hate Baking Substitutions in recipes and why most of them just don’t work well. Please read the full post!!

I have never written a post like this before and to be honest… I’m a little scared. I’m about to say a few things that most bloggers never would.

I’ve been blogging for over 10 years (!) and in that time I’ve been asked thousands of questions and have received a lot of comments about baking and recipes.

The most frustrating question I get is definitely about baking substitutions: swapping out ingredients, techniques, or equipment.

It’s even more frustrating when the comment isn’t posed as a question but instead goes a little something like this:

“I made this recipe and followed it to a T except [insert substitution here] and it didn’t turn out. Disappointed.”

Granted, this is more rare. Luckily the amount of positive comments I receive far outweighs these ones.

But I’ve refrained from speaking my true feelings on this subject for fear of offending someone. Or fear of bringing even a hint of negativity to my usually joyful corner of the internet.

But as my audience grows (which I’m eternally grateful for) this theme has become increasingly common.

So I want to say once and for all…

I HATE BAKING SUBSTITUTIONS.

They drive me crazy.

They simply won’t achieve the same taste and texture as the original ingredient, equipment, or technique called for in the recipe 90% of the time. They basically just waste YOUR time, money, and food!

DISCLAIMER: I realize some of you are working with serious food allergies and I understand that substitutions can’t be avoided in those cases. For those of you dealing with that, you probably know what will work, what won’t, and how the results will be different than the original. You don’t expect identical results without using identical ingredients unless you undergo rigorous testing with trial & error.

I feel the need to underscore something because it’s a question I get asked often: I don’t publish allergen-free recipes. I don’t publish diet recipes.

Why?

Because right now at this time in my career I don’t want to. I only publish recipes and content I’m actually passionate about and excited to share.

I don’t have much experience with these other topics. There are PLENTY of bloggers and publishers online who do and have far more expertise and their advice would be much better for you than my educated guesses.

But I also simply can’t accommodate every recipe for every allergen or diet.

One – because I simply don’t have the resources.

Two – because I know baking is a science. And swapping out even one ingredient can completely alter the chemistry of the recipe, often with less than stellar results. Just check out my infamous Guide to Chocolate Chip Cookies.

This is something I address specifically and in depth in my Magic of Baking online class. Take a peek at a few baking substitutions side by side below:

Diving into Cake Flour 101 - A fun visual guide to cake flour including what it is, how to substitute, and side-by-side comparisons so you can see how it works in action!

(Learn more about Cake Flour here, and why the DIY sub doesn’t really work.)

Muffins made with oil vs. muffins made with applesauce. Applesauce muffins are tough and chewy in texture
(From my Ultimate Muffin Guide.)

Once you understand how baking ingredients work you’ll understand that something as simple as reducing the sugar in a recipe, for example, doesn’t just reduce the sweetness or calories.

Sugar can also contribute moisture, tenderness, lightness, and is involved in complex chemical reactions that give us flavors and textures that are essential to some sweets.

Occasionally you can reduce the sugar (typically by no more than 20%), but sometimes even a small reduction will completely compromise the integrity of the recipe.

Often someone comes along and reduces the sugar then complains the cake turned out dry and doesn’t understand the connection. Which of course is frustrating for both of us! This is just one example.

I’ll say it again: Baking is a science. The more you understand that the more you can customize recipes and tweak them with success.

But when you come to me asking about subtitutions, it’s disheartening.

I work tirelessly on developing my recipes. I have a whole process that involves a lot of time and effort to make sure I’m creating recipes that will be successful for my readers.

Tessa in the kitchen pouring flour into a bowl

When you want to change something to a creation that I’ve worked so hard on, and when I know the result likely won’t be as good, it’s hard not to get disappointed.

Especially since it’s a challenge to keep up with the amount of comments and questions I get on ALL the platforms at all hours every day.

That’s why I’m enacting a NO SUBSTITUTION POLICY.

Moving forward, if I know a substitution will work because I have personal experience with it, I will include that information in the recipe post.

However, if I haven’t personally tested that substitution then I can’t in good conscience give an answer to your question because I can’t guarantee it will be accurate.

It would simply be my educated guess and would likely require you to trial and error your way through it which takes time and ingredients.

So when I say “no subs” I simply mean I won’t be making it a habit of attempting to answer questions on this topic.

You, of course, are free to bake my recipes any way you want and use Google as your tool to get possible answers to your specific questions!

It would be impossible for me to test every recipe to see if it would work without eggs, gluten, or dairy, or to try out a vegan, keto, or other dietary version.

Luckily I have a few seasoned readers in my community who like to share the results of their allergen-free or special dietary baking. Join my Facebook group if you’d like to see their tips and posts.

I also have a baking substitutions guide you can download here.

However, as I mentioned, I can’t guarantee any substitution will work as well as the original ingredient.

Little details are what makes the difference between average desserts and stellar desserts. That’s what the experts know. So when you don’t want to go back to the store to get an ingredient in the recipe and try to make something else work instead, just keep that in mind.

You can also search the comments of a recipe to see if anyone has reported success using a substitution.

TIP: use Control+F, or Command+F on a Mac to bring up the Find feature so you can pinpoint any mention of “gluten free” or whatever you’re looking for on the page.

If that’s a problem for you, I’m sorry. There are PLENTY of bloggers focused on creating content that might be a better fit for you.

My hope is that enacting this policy will allow us to continue to cultivate a positive and joyful community of people who love traditional baking.

LOVE YOU!
Tessa

First image by Constance Mariena. Portraits by Lauren Hansen.

Tessa Arias
Author: Tessa Arias

I share trusted baking recipes your friends will LOVE alongside insights into the science of sweets. I'm a professionally trained chef, cookbook author, and cookie queen. I love to write about all things sweet, carb-y, and homemade. I live in Phoenix, Arizona (hence the blog name!)

Tessa Arias

About Tessa...

I share trusted baking recipes your friends will LOVE alongside insights into the science of sweets. I'm a professionally trained chef, cookbook author, and cookie queen. I love to write about all things sweet, carb-y, and homemade. I live in Phoenix, Arizona (hence the blog name!)

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  1. #
    Nancy — August 19, 2022 at 5:40 am

    I’m not sure if this is the correct place to ask this question. Since butter has become so expensive, I usually buy the store brand butter. Could this possibly be the reason a number of cookie recipes I try turn out flat? I’ve followed the instructions to avoid this i.e. oven thermometer, chilling dough, butter temp when creaming, additional egg yolk, a couple of Tbs additional flour, etc.

    Thank you!

    • #
      Kiersten @ Handle the Heat — August 19, 2022 at 1:44 pm

      Hi Nancy! It’s honestly possible that it is the butter you’re using, as we have seen some disparity in baked goods based on the type of butter used. However, I have a couple potential other thoughts, too. Firstly, how do you measure your ingredients? I would recommend using a kitchen scale, if you’re not already, to ensure accuracy. Tessa talks about how to best measure ingredients in this article here! I also want to check on your leavening agent. If your baking/soda powder are not fresh, they won’t do their jobs and your baked goods cannot rise properly, spread too much, fall after baking, and much more. Tessa talks about the science behind leavening agents, and how to test for leavener freshness, in this article here! I also recommend using bleached flour, if you aren’t already. Bleached flour allows more moisture to be absorbed in a batter/dough to prevent excess spread. It improves the structure and height of baked goods! Lastly, I just want to mention butter temperature. I know you mentioned you are aware that your butter needs to be a certain temperature, but this time of year, it can’t hurt for it to be a little cooler, to account for the warm weather! Normally we recommend creaming butter when it’s around 67°F, but when it’s warmer, Tessa recommends around 65°F when creaming, just because it’s so warm out!! I hope something here helps you! If not, please send us an email at [email protected] so we can help troubleshoot further! 🙂

  2. #
    Elizabeth — September 17, 2021 at 3:01 pm

    Just stumbled on your blog with this post & I love it! A friend just advised me to sub out sugar with applesauce or pureed dates and felt frustrated. They were mixing up basic reasons to sub these things- applesauce isfor oil sub, not sugar. (Nor have I done either, the chemistry issue plus didnt see value of subbing fructose for sucrose health wise). Also hav friends who simply never follow a recipe, e.g. if it calls for a yolk or just whites, they consider wasteful and just throw in whole egg then don”t understand why it didn’t work. If asked will explain but often they think I’m being a geek and continue the weird subs lol.
    I might decrease sugar as u mentioned, esp for some Southern recipes that are super sugar heavy, but that’s it.
    I did attend pastry school then was diagnosed with Celiac, had to relearn how to bake sans gluten, still in progress. Many of the commercial mixes like Cup4Cup seem to work well as straight across swap, depending on what the product is. I love love love trying to adapt recipes and I don’t particularly flow gluten free blogs, I like technique blogs!!! Thabks for this post it’s awesome Following u now

    • #
      Emily — September 20, 2021 at 4:46 pm

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Elizabeth! It definitely sounds like you’re in the right place! We love sweet treats sprinkled with science! 🙂 With any of our recipes that you experiment with, please comment on the recipe post with the changes you made as it may help other readers!

  3. #
    Beth Davis — June 4, 2021 at 3:45 pm

    I absolutely agree with you on this, and please dont hate me for asking, but I am so curious on your opinion. I’m a chef, and I never sub anything besides buttermilk which I simply never have, and I tend to bake for myself on a whim. In this one case I have been told that using milk with lemon juice or vinegar curdles it and scientifically has the same result. I have never had a problem with it, and even if I did I wouldnt dream of commenting on a recipe I had changed, other than to say that I loved it or warn other readers against trying it. Does this sub count in your no sub rule or is it an exception for you too?

  4. #
    Carolyne Holland — March 28, 2021 at 12:44 pm

    BRAVO!!!! I am NOT a baker, but I still try. I know how sensitive well-written, well-researched recipes are when it comes to baking. I want to learn from TRUE BAKERS, like yourself. Everytime I scroll down to comments/questions areas of a recipe, I see EXACTLY what you’re talking about. I SO GLAD that you take a stand so that my money, time and efforts are NOT wasted. I’ve ALWAYS achieved great results with your recipes.
    THANK YOU!

    • #
      Tessa — March 29, 2021 at 12:16 pm

      You absolutely just made my day, Carolyne! I’m absolutely thrilled I’ve helped you with your baking! It is my JOY in life, and I’m so glad to share it with you!

  5. #
    Lourdes Heinzle — February 28, 2021 at 12:48 pm

    Love this article. I agree. Oftentimes, I’ll look up a recipe and it’ll be rated 5 star or 3 star or 1 star and then I read the reviews and the reviewer has changed the recipe. It definitely skews the ratings! Reviews should be on actual recipe, not someone’s corrections.

    • #
      Tessa — March 1, 2021 at 11:40 am

      So glad you feel the same!

  6. #
    Rah Alena-Maria Hornbaker — February 18, 2021 at 10:50 am

    Thank you so much for your eloquence, vulnerability and knowledge! We appreciate you!

  7. #
    RnTexas — January 16, 2021 at 11:23 pm

    Thank you. Well said. Amen.

  8. #
    Emma — January 7, 2021 at 1:15 pm

    I’m in the UK; do you know what “cake flour” is known as here? I’ve never heard of it before and I know your stance on substitutions so I just want to do things right!

  9. #
    Habiba — September 2, 2020 at 10:59 pm

    I’m one to use substitutes. Do it all the time although I do try to stick to the recipe the first time around. Then I customize for my personal taste. But i did find it interesting to read your view on this.

    Thanks

  10. #
    Cynthia — August 28, 2020 at 5:05 am

    I couldn’t download the baking substitution 🙁

  11. #
    Alice — July 27, 2020 at 1:00 pm

    I agree with you .
    Don’t blame you if the sub.
    They are young bakers not the seasoned bakers, lol

  12. #
    Vickie — July 27, 2020 at 6:25 am

    I love your post! I agree that baking is a science, it’s not like cooking a meal where you have the liberty to change the recipe, like adding something or taking something out I come from a family of professional bakers. Each ingredient plays a part in of how the recipe will turn out. So I am totally with you on following the recipe as written.

    Or at least don’t complain if you decide to change said ingredients and it doesn’t come out the way you expected. Because if ingredients where changed how could anyone say, I followed the recipe to a T……but…..you actrually did not follow it to a T, if said ingredients were changed.

  13. #
    Bettie Blauser — July 25, 2020 at 5:34 pm

    Substitues
    I HATE THEM ALSO!!
    I am known for the cookies I bake. I make them often for the locate Sheriff’s Department. They know me so they will eat them. (especially now a days.). I’ll give someone my recipe and they com back and the cookies didn’t come out as good as mine. Why did I give them the correct receipt. HAHAHAHAHAHAHHA. yeah, they made the substitution. I just roll my eyes at them and laugh. Most of them get it right away…..

    Thank you for your amazing recipes. I love them. And follow them to a T!!

  14. #
    Susan — July 25, 2020 at 6:21 am

    I agree with you 100%! I don’t like it when someone asks for your recipe because it was really good and then tell you how they made with changes/substitutions and it was much better. Good for them but I didn’t realize that by sharing a recipe I was automatically in a bake-off competition!

  15. #
    Maria Victoria C San Juan — July 24, 2020 at 11:58 pm

    This is a very good article. As much as I would want to bake a certain recipe I wait until I have right ingredients. No substitution for me. What I love about your recipes and articles is that they were created because it is a science by itself. Thank you Tessa.

  16. #
    Patty — July 24, 2020 at 11:40 pm

    I agree with you. I’ll read the recipe, and then I read the comments, and some will say, “ I made this last night, and it was yummy, but I substituted this for that, I left that out, cause I don’t like that, and I added some more spices.” So I’m thinking to myself, they made up another recipe, basically, if I were putting on recipes, like you are and someone said the above things, I’d be pretty aggravated with that person.Either follow the recipe as it was written or don’t send a comment how you did 4 or 5 different things to do it your way, that’s an insult

  17. #
    A.L. Chan — July 24, 2020 at 4:54 pm

    I fully agree that substitutions can affect the taste especially if key ingredients like eggs,flour,oil and sugar are involved.
    Those who need to do so e.g vegans or for health reasons will have do bear with the compromised results
    I do use subsititions occasionally eg using digestive bisciuts as a crust ingredient because Graham Crackers is an American product. – not found in my country and I could not find it on the supermarket shelves even in Australia.

  18. #
    Peggy Nelson — July 24, 2020 at 2:34 pm

    Well said! You have done all the hard work to test these recipes and you know best what works and what doesn’t. I just made your Brownie Cookie recipe this week and it was AWESOME (and I followed the recipe to a ‘T’). I appreciate all the recipes you have published and support your decision completely!

  19. #
    Beth — July 24, 2020 at 1:32 pm

    I think you are right on – the person with the responsibility for the recipes has the right to make the rules.

  20. #
    Karen Anderson — July 24, 2020 at 12:50 pm

    Oh, Tessa, don’t listen to the nay-sayers. You are doing the rest of us a great service. I always wonder why people try to change a recipe written by someone else. If I don’t have the ingredients, or can’t get them, I make something else. The only subs I make are basic: dark chocolate chips for milk chocolate or pecans for walnuts.
    Keep up the good work!

  21. #
    Susan Olson — July 24, 2020 at 11:35 am

    Agree with you totally! Thank you!

  22. #
    Carol G — July 24, 2020 at 10:39 am

    Tessa, I totally agree with everything you said about substitution. I’ve been baking for many years, as I am 66 years old, and when people change ONE ingredient it makes a huge difference. (People always comment on how good my baked items are and what is my secret – I say “follow the recipe”). I NEVER substitute. If there’s something in a recipe I know won’t agree with someone in my family, I move on to a different recipe. There are zillions of recipes out there, so in my opinion, bakers should look elsewhere when an ingredient is not gonna work for their health/allergies/whatever reason. Tessa, keep up the good work. I appreciate all your scientific knowledge!

    • #
      Valerie Holstein — July 24, 2020 at 9:10 pm

      Carol, I agree with you 100%.

  23. #
    Muna Sidan — July 24, 2020 at 9:09 am

    Noted Tessa. Can’t help but laugh as I read through the article. Your frustration shines through in your words.
    I can’t even begin to imagine the loads of mails you have to go through daily and all the hard work you put into your recipes. Keep up the good work.
    Best wishes,
    Muna

  24. #
    Kat — July 24, 2020 at 8:38 am

    I think you are completely justified in your feelings on this. I believe many readers also find it taxing to sift through these types of comments because they are not helpful. We don’t need to hear about failed results occurring from NOT following the recipe.

  25. #
    Terri G — July 24, 2020 at 8:08 am

    Love your post! As a baker I appreciate all of the hard work you put into each recipe. I always follow your recipes exactly and they turn out perfect!!

  26. #
    Nancy — July 24, 2020 at 7:53 am

    Finally… someone with the courage to say this.. swapping out and changing the ingredients makes it an altogether different recipe. Don’t blame the recipe or the creator when it fails to produce quality results. Baking is a science that requires exactness.

  27. #
    Lisa Mendoza — July 24, 2020 at 7:35 am

    I’m very glad you made this post. I am very new to baking. I have avoided flour almost all my cooking life. Then came the pandemic and everyone was showing off what they made so I thought I would try.
    I learned this: “Baking like a pro means respecting that baking is a SCIENCE and using the right ingredients is key.” I respect this. Thankfully my sister has been explaining stuff to me and I just laugh at myself for all the tiny details that really matter, that I knew nothing about. I totally respect this post!
    (One joke I would share though. I followed a recipe (not yours) that said ‘a stick of butter’ and wasn’t pleased with the result. Came to find out that an American stick of butter is half the size of the one in my country!) Lesson learned… don’t go with the first googled recipe. Check here first! Thanks for this.

  28. #
    Kuba — July 24, 2020 at 7:17 am

    From your Email. Once you make a sustitution in a recipe it is no longer the same recipe. It has changed. Some visual and taste change my occur. But it’s now a new recipe.
    Some just don’t get it.

  29. #
    Sue — July 24, 2020 at 7:16 am

    AMEN

    If I may, a few additional pet peeves.
    Questions from people who don’t have a clue about basic measurements. They could Google their question instead of bothering you with it.
    I read comments to learn if the recipe worked for bakers. I don’t like reading through scores of comments from people who think it looks good and may want to make it someday in the future. I understand their desire to compliment you, but it doesn’t add to the discussion.

  30. #
    Melissa Morgan — July 24, 2020 at 6:55 am

    Tessa, love this. Nothing i hate more than reading a review by someone of a recipe who says “I substituted this for that or that for this.” Well then you didn’t make the RECIPE!! I always say make the recipe as it is first. That way you know how it is suppose to turn out. Then go off the rails if you want and how it didn’t turn out right! Your great!!!

  31. #
    Scott Miller — July 24, 2020 at 6:44 am

    This all sounds too familiar.
    I’m an aging powerlifter. I get people that complain all the time about this exercise that hurt them. NO. It’s not the exercise that hurt you, it’s your terrible form. Had you learned how to do that exercise correctly and practiced it with light weights first (leave your ego out of it), then you’d wouldn’t have hurt yourself.
    Learn first and follow instructions first.
    The same goes with baking. FOLLOW THE RECIPE TO A “T” first. As you learn more about baking, you’ll LEARN what you can and can’t do. I watch most of the baking shows and see many bakery owners and self-proclaimed professional bakers make mistakes I KNOW (in my very limited experience) won’t work.

    Tessa, there will always be haters, no matter what you do in life. Keep treating them with the grace and humility that you always do and you’ll always be the better person for it.
    Thank you for all you do for us, sharing your recipes, tips and tricks. I know I speak for the vast majority of us – WE APPRECIATE YOU!

    The Bald Baker

  32. #
    Randi Macdonald — July 24, 2020 at 6:40 am

    While I agree with you on substituting flours, I believe you can substitute yogurt for sour cream. I’ve also “soured” milk in place of buttermilk and made “buttermilk” with some yogurt thinned with milk.

  33. #
    Lauren Klopfenstein — July 24, 2020 at 6:39 am

    Nicely said Tessa! Hopefully some will get it.

  34. #
    RJohnson — July 24, 2020 at 6:33 am

    #1. I rarely read comments on blogs.
    #2. Even more rarely do I post a comment.

    Thank you Tessa for tackling this issue and clearly stating your “no substitution” policy. Now, don’t wring your hands or whine about it. There will be folks who are offended and those who will still make substitutions and ask for help or post comments. Get on with what you do; you can not control them but maybe, you can teach them. No recipe is fool-proof. Baking is an evolving science that takes time and attention to do it well. Thanks to your process of recipe development, you put in the initial time and thoughtfulness allowing those who use your recipes and tips to focus their energies better. Thank you.

    #3. Time for a cookie.

  35. #
    Lynda O’Hara — July 24, 2020 at 6:27 am

    It always amazes me when people state they followed your recipe exactly, HOWEVER made a few changes to substitute ingredients. Common sense should come into play and one should realize your end product will NOT be the same as the original. If you have an allergy problem maybe you should not be using a particular recipe. Another option, if you don’t have exact ingredients, wait until you do !!

    Tessa you are a very talented young lady and I have learned a great from you. PLEASE do not take offense at negative remarks, just not worth it.

    Lynda O’

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