How To Make Substitutions for Allergic Ingredients in Recipes

Don't throw away your old cookbooks! Try these ideas instead.

Woman checking ingredients on can
Woman checking ingredients on can. Getty Images/Peter Dazeley/Photographer's Choice

When a member of your family is diagnosed with a food allergy, you certainly don't want to have to throw away all your favorite cookbooks or ignore every recipe you come across that includes a potential allergen.

At the same time, though, substituting foods to make sure your cooking is allergy safe isn't as simple as replacing cow's milk with soy milk, or subbing wheat flour with rice flour. That's because not every potential substitute ingredient works the same way in a recipe.

Here's a step-by-step guide to figuring out when substitutions can work, and which potential substitutes will give you the best results.

Difficulty: Average

Time Required: 15 minutes or less

Here's How:

  1. Determine how major a role your allergen plays in the recipe.

    It's not possible to make a meringue without eggs, a gelato without cream, or a good crusty Italian bread without wheat flour. You may be able to make something approximating an allergen-free version of these classic dishes from a recipe omitting the allergen, but substituting from a recipe involving eggs, dairy, or wheat is not likely to be successful because the chemistry of your substitutes will be so different. If your allergen is a relatively minor part of the recipe, then . . .

  2. Divide the allergen into rough component parts.

    For example, egg whites are protein with a little bit of water, as are tofu and milk. Wheat flour is protein and starch. This doesn't have to be exact by any means, but you do want to have a rough idea of whether the allergen in the recipe includes proteins, starches, or water so that you can make a more accurate substitution.

  1. Figure out the role the allergen plays in the recipe.

    This may require some guesswork, but here are a few rules of thumb you can follow:

    • In a recipe with a batter (like fried chicken or tempura vegetables), flour on the outside is used to protect the vegetables, meat, or fish. Egg, milk, or buttermilk may be used to hold the batter on.
    • In a recipe with a sauce, flour, dairy products, or eggs in the sauce are used for thickening the sauce.
    • In a baked good, protein is used to help hold the baked structure together.
  1. The best substitutes are often similar to the ingredient called for in taste, composition, and texture.

    But this is not always the case. Because eggs and milk have similar components, it is sometimes possible to replace the dairy in a baked good by adding extra eggs and water. And sometimes when wheat is being used more for its protein than for its starch, higher-protein bean flour makes a better substitute than rice flour even though bean flour has a much stronger taste.


  1. Keep notes on recipes you especially enjoy. When you find a substitute that works well, you'll want to return to it again, so write it down.
  2. Baked goods are among the most difficult to use substitutes in because their chemistry is more complex than that of other foods. Go into these ingredient substitution experiments with a spirit of adventure and expect a little trial and error to get a product you're really happy with.
  3. There really isn't a great substitute for cheese on the market at this time (except in recipes where cheese is used as a binder and not for its melting properties). The good news is that cheese is more often than not a topping in a recipe and can simply be left out with no ill effect.

    What You Need:

    • recipe
    • substitute ingredients

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