Gourmet dishes and special diets may call for some expensive ingredients, but frugal home cooks can turn to cheap alternatives that don't skimp on flavor. These ingredients are readily available and make suitable substitutes for their high-priced counterparts.
Applesauce stands in for butter in baking to cut fat as well as cost. One jar of applesauce is about half the price of a package of butter. Seek out recipes specifically developed with applesauce or replace the butter with an equal amount of applesauce. It may not yield the same consistency but should produce satisfying (and vegan-friendly) results.
Vanilla extract is made by soaking vanilla beans in alcohol, resulting in a flavorful but costly end product. One of the most common types of vanilla extract, Madagascar vanilla, can cost roughly $10 for a 4-ounce bottle, compared with about $2 for a 2-ounce bottle of imitation vanilla. Even professional bakers sometimes use vanilla flavoring in lieu of extract when trying to reduce the price and, in some cases, the alcohol content. Only those with sensitive palates are likely to notice the difference.
Saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world, with a price tag of thousands of dollars a pound. Intricate cultivation contributes to its high price. Although complex to obtain, saffron contains a rather subtle flavor. Turmeric, widely known as Indian saffron, has long served as a substitute for saffron, especially when a bright hue is desired. It costs a fraction of the price and sells in larger quantities.
For people watching their calorie intake, Greek yogurt is a go-to substitute for cholesterol-heavy mayonnaise. It also adds a unique tang to dips, sauces, and dressings, but it can cost as much as $1 for one small container. Instead of nixing mayo altogether in favor of Greek yogurt, use light mayo, which is cheaper and lower in calories and cholesterol. Even mayo made with olive oil is cheaper than Greek yogurt and keeps far longer in the fridge. A 30-ounce jar of light mayo costs less than $5.
Gruyère, a type of Swiss cheese, and American-style Swiss cheese do not vary greatly in flavor or appearance when used in cooking. Cheese aficionados might be the only ones who can spot or taste the difference. The Swiss cheese commonly consumed in America is much less expensive -- about 30 cents an ounce compared with more than $1 an ounce at Walmart for the chef favorite Gruyère. Use American-style Swiss cheese in dishes such as quiches and omelets.
Some might see a recipe that calls for red wine as a nice excuse to buy a bottle and have a glass with dinner. But if you don't drink or don't expect to finish the wine before it becomes unpalatable, you don't need to spring for an entire bottle just for cooking. Pure cranberry juice, while not inexpensive, substitutes well for sweet red wine and keeps much longer. Even at about $6, a bottle of cranberry juice costs less and is a bit larger than most bottles of wine. Use it to make sauces and flavorful drinks.
People with gluten sensitivity often turn to almond flour as a replacement for regular flour, at almost three to four times the price. Tapioca flour is cheaper and poses no risk for those avoiding gluten. Bob's Red Mill, a company popular for its flour alternatives, sells tapioca flour in a 20-ounce bag for $3.89 -- less than a quarter of the price of its almond flour, which costs a whopping $14.39 for a 16-ounce bag. Almond flour and tapioca flour are generally interchangeable in gluten-free baking.
There are subtle differences between jasmine and basmati rice, including origin and grain length. Generally, though, they are long-grain rice varieties that cook similarly. Both release floral aromas and distinct flavors. Jasmine rice can cost several dollars less than the same size package of basmati rice. The cheaper variety can be substituted in recipes that require basmati rice, such as biryani or pilaf, without compromising flavor, cook time, or aroma.
Expensive salts, from pink Himalayan salt to various types of sea salt, have gained popularity. Some claim health benefits such as removing toxins from the body and balancing electrolytes. Still, when it comes down to it, all salt is sodium chloride. Inexpensive kosher salt has the large grains and course texture that chefs favor for precise seasoning. It even works for homemade ice cream, and a 3-pound box costs only about $2.
Molasses is a popular fall ingredient for sweet treats from gingerbread cookies to loaf cakes. The sweet, smoky flavor and rich texture is hard to replicate, but a common pantry staple may be able to replace pricey molasses. Cook's Thesaurus suggests substituting 1.5 cups of brown sugar for every cup of molasses in a recipe. (Brown sugar is a combination of white sugar and molasses.)