Our blogger passes along useful substitution solutions—perfect for gluten-free and allergy-sensitive meal preparation—gleaned from a memorable conference.

[Updated Oct. 5, 2015]

With a title of Gluten Free & More, you’d get the idea we’re really good at making ingredient substitutions to deal with multiple food allergies and intolerances. However, I still find myself asking which substitutes I should use for all of the different recipes I’m constantly trying to navigate.

During a memorable Food Allergy Bloggers Conference I attended in 2014, I listened to three amazing bakers talk about their favorite substitutions. The panel included Colette Martin of Learning To Eat Allergy-Free, Debbie Adler of Sweet Debbie’s Organic Cupcakes, and Charissa Luke from Zest Bakery. This post will go through the major substitutions that they use on a regular basis.

Dairy Substitution

We’re pretty lucky we have many different dairy alternatives readily available — from nut milk to grain milk to seed milk. While hemp milk, coconut milk, and rice milk were popular, there were some experimenting with sunflower milk, quinoa milk, and flax milk.

  • Replacing a liquid dairy — replacing a milk for a milk — is a direct cup-for-cup substitution.

Butter or shortening substitution is a bit more difficult, and there are varied products used for non-dairy substitutions.

  • Charissa and Colette prefer palm oil and shortening. Charissa is very passionate about finding an ethically-sourced palm oil, and needs a product that is sustainable and organic. However, when she does not make vegan products, she prefers using lard. She also enjoys mixing Earth Balance natural shortening and palm shortening together as she believes it yields the best taste and texture in baked goods and frostings.  
  • Colette also likes Earth Balance band of natural shortening when she’s cooking or baking for someone without a soybean allergy (as some flavors of the brand contain soy).
  • Both Debbie and Colette like coconut oil; however, Debbie uses it at room temperature and Colette prefers it chilled. (See next section for important notes on adding heated oil to mixes)
Oil Substitutions

The most-used oils are coconut oil, grapeseed oil, and olive oil. Oils are typically a one-to-one swap in recipes.

  • Debbie uses extra virgin coconut oil for something that she wants to taste like coconut, but uses refined coconut oil when she wants to mask the coconut flavor. Coconut oil can often solidify —especially if you don’t live in the dessert of Arizona. If you must liquefy it, you can easily microwave it into a liquid. However, when using coconut oil, don’t put it in the mix hot, as it can start cooking the eggs on contact.
  • For raw items, Debbie prefers using an olive oil.
  • Colette noted that oils will change the taste profile of an item. It’s okay to vary the oils that you use based on the food item that you are creating.
Sugar Substitution

I love sugar—and until I was diagnosed with celiac and actually thought about what was going into my mouth, I never knew there was more than one kind of sugar. I just thought sugar was white, pink, or blue—the packets they had on the table at restaurants. However, the panel used a lot of other sugars.

  • Charissa typically uses a coconut sugar or maple sugar (the latter is a bit more expensive) because they are lower in the glycemic index.
  • Debbie also prefers sugars that are lowest on the glycemic index, as a blood sugar rush can cause inflammation in your body, which can lead to disease. She uses Stevia and Xylitol, but her background in finding the perfect sugar substitution was a difficult journey. Stevia wasn’t considered safe by the FDA when she started searching for a sugar substitute, so she had to use Xylitol and other “-itol” choices for a low-glycemic sugar. Once Stevia was finally considered safe, coconut sugar also came onto the market. She now uses a combination of coconut nectar (not sugar) and Stevia in small amounts to get that sweet taste.
  • With liquid sugar subs that are far less volume than traditional sugar, you can’t do a simple one-to-one swap. As Debbie says in her book, it took years to figure it out the perfect substitute (however she does spill her secret in the book). It’s not easy to sub an entire cup of sugar for 3/8th of a teaspoon of Stevia, as that changes the whole profile of the recipe. She had to figure out how to substitute out the volume as well as the taste. To make up for the volume loss of using something like Stevia or a liquid substitute, she uses unsweetened coconut yogurt to make up the volume.
  • Crystal sugar is typically a one-to-one swap for other sugars, as well as liquid substitutes that keep volume like a one-for-one substitute of agave syrup or maple syrup.
Flour Substitution

With gluten-free flour, you need a combination of flours and starches (and preferably a gum) to obtain that perfect flour blend.

  • Charissa uses almond flour at her bakery but experiments with coconut flour and nut flour at home. She warns that you have to be careful on how to balance these flours with other ingredients. With something like almond flour, she uses it as a 1:3 starch-to-flour ratio. She uses arrowroot or tapioca starch for lightness, as nut flours can be very heavy without it. If using coconut flour, you would use 1/2 or 2/3 of a cup for each cup of traditional flour in the recipe. Then, you would double the amount of liquid originally called for in the recipe, as coconut flour tends to soak up liquid ingredients.
  • Debbie wanted flour that was nutritious. She loves sorghum flour and millet flour, as they are more alkaline flours. She also loves working with Teff flour, but it’s not as readily available other flours. She also sang the praises of quinoa flour, as it is very high in protein.
  • Colette prefers using as little starches as possible because they’re basically “empty calories,” and likes sorghum and quinoa flour as part of a basic all-purpose flour blend.
  • It’s important to replace flour based on weight instead of basing it solely on cups. Some flours are heavy some flours are very light and even different brands of the same flour can be different weights.
  • Starches are typically interchangeable, and the taste is typically the same. Generally, a starch can be subbed in a 1:1 ratio.
  • With flours, you get what you pay for — some just perform better. Some cheaper flours just can’t give you the textures you desire.
  • Find flours that work for you and the grains that work for you then try different brands until you find the flour brand that works best for you.
  • Bakers are always experimenting with different flours and how they work in various recipes. Bean flours, mesquite flours, and insect flours (yes, like crickets) were used by the panel!
Egg Replacements

By far, the panel thought that substituting eggs is the most difficult. It’s hard to find something that does everything that an egg can do in baked goods. You first must think about what the eggs are doing in the original recipe. Was the egg there for moisture, consistency, or for leavening?

  • If you’re making vegan goods, the extra “lift” that once came from an egg can come from Apple Cider Vinegar and a little extra baking powder.
  • For moisture, Charissa and Colette both recommend fruit puree, although it may change the flavor profile. Bananas, pears, and apples were also mentioned as top purees to use as a substitute for moisture.
  • Ener-G egg replacer was also mentioned as a leavening agent, along with more baking powder than traditional recipes.
  • Flax gel can be made with 1 tablespoon of flax meal and 3 tablespoons of warm water. You’ll have to grind the flax seedsor just use flax meal. Whisk the mixture and let it sit for about 10 minutes. Whisk again right before you put in with the wet ingredients as your egg replacer. This flax gel can be used beyond baking – even for salad dressings.

Thank you to Food Allergy Bloggers Conference, Colette Martin of Learning To Eat Allergy-Free, Debbie Adler of Sweet Debbie’s Organic Cupcakes, and Charissa Luke from Zest Bakery for the great information on substitutions. Feel free to reach out to these baking superstars if you have any questions or would like to purchase their books or baked goods.