The Art of Substitution

The first thing that comes to my mind when I think about cooking for yourself when living on campus is that you’re not always gonna have some of the ingredients you need. Maybe you can’t afford it. Maybe the ingredient is so obscure you can’t find it without going into another city, or ordering it online. Or maybe you just don’t care enough to buy an ingredient you’re only going to use for this one dish you wanna try. Here you can find a continually updated list of acceptable substitutes that’ll get you over the line.

Meat

Australia has some of the best quality meat in the world. Unfortunately for us, that means that a lot of cuts you’ll find in recipe books are too expensive for the average adult, never mind a university student. Cuts of meat like chuck steak and chicken thighs are not only cheaper than a rib eye or breast cut, but they are often tastier and more versatile. Look out for meat with a good marbling of fat or that was close to the bone for better flavour and cheaper cost. It also pays to buy bones from a butcher to use in stocks, broths and soups, as well as less common cuts like oxtail. And in the case of an emergency, minced meat and sausages will surprise you with their versatility.

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Herbs and spices

Let’s face it, we can’t all have a herb garden in our kitchen like Jamie Oliver does. That doesn’t mean you have to deprive yourself of the flavour they can bring to your dinner/leftover breakfast. Instead of buying bunches of fresh basil, thyme, rosemary, oregano and the like, you can buy jars of dried, mixed herbs. Each jar will list exactly which herbs it contains. Then there are things like Chinese Five Spice, which blends commonly used spices like cinnamon, cloves, aniseed and fennel (amongst other things; Five Spice often contains more than five spices). Dried herbs and pre-ground spices will last you a whole lot longer and for less money than buying them fresh and grinding/mincing/dicing them yourself.

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Sugar

Everybody loves sugar. But you’re not going to have a half dozen different kinds of sugar with a specific purpose for each of them. Personally, I prefer to use granulated sugar when combining wet and dry ingredients, like in baking. For things like marinades and sauces, palm sugar, honey, maple syrup, golden syrup or even treacle will work generally across the board, though it is important to keep in mind that some of them will be sweeter than others and more viscous. For example, you might use treacle or golden syrup for a thick, sticky sauce, but might use palm sugar or honey for a lighter marinade.

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Special Ingredients

These are things that often give something to your food that you just can’t get with other ingredients.

  • Buttermilk – often used in baking and with meat, it gives a tangy taste and helps stop your food from going dry and tough. Add a tablespoon of vinegar or citrus juice like lemon or lime to a cup of milk and stir until combined
  • Tamarind paste – has a sharp, bittersweet flavour, and works great in curries. Mix equal parts brown sugar with either citrus juice, like lemon or lime, or a vinegar like rice wine vinegar, cider vinegar or white vinegar
  • Fish sauce – has a salty, savoury flavour. One teaspoon of fish sauce can be substituted with a teaspoon of Worcestershire or soy sauce mixed with a bit of lime juice
  • Breadcrumbs – not something you’d always think to buy. If you find yourself without them, grind up some stale bread or that toast you left in the toaster because you prioritised showering over breakfast

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