We’ve all been there. Company’s coming, we’re on the home stretch, and we suddenly realize we’re out of a crucial ingredient.
Just the other day, I was whipping up a batch of brownies. I already had the flour and eggs in the bowl before I realized there wasn’t a drop of oil in the house.
The store’s not far, but it was pouring rain, and you know how it is.
Why not try it in my brownies?
I always have a big jar of smooth, unsweetened applesauce, so I added it cup-for-cup instead of oil.
After dinner, I watched and waited, and guess what?
None of the delighted faces around the table detected anything strange as they ate brownies baked with applesauce.
After my success with brownies, I explored other oil substitutions. Read on for the imaginative options I discovered.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
I’ll meet you in the kitchen!
Would you like to know why baked goods commonly call for vegetable oil?
In a nutshell, it’s to keep them moist and tender.
Oil is a plant-based fat. By attaching to dry ingredients, it encapsulates the gas released by the action of baking powder and soda, inhibiting the formation of gluten and producing light and fluffy foods.
Recipes for moist baked goods like brownies, cakes, and muffins that call for oil are best when made with light, mild-tasting varieties like canola (rapeseed), corn, soybean, and sunflower. These are usually the most affordable as well.
The coconut variety is also great for baking but imparts a sweet taste to foods and is comparatively expensive. Other plant-based fats that are solid at room temperature include margarine and shortening.
In addition to plant-based fats, those from animal-based sources like butter, ghee, and lard can also create a delicious texture and consistency, but unlike vegetable-based products, they contain cholesterol.
Here’s a fun fact: Did you know that oil and vinegar don’t mix, no matter how hard you try to blend them? Without the addition of emulsifiers like mustard, mayo, or garlic, these two opposites repel each other.
Oh! Forgive me. There you are with a bowl full of ingredients, and here I am waxing scientific.
On to the recipe-saving substitutions, without further ado!
You may substitute the following cup-for-cup for vegetable oil in baked goods:
- Applesauce, preferably unsweetened
- Avocado, unseasoned, mashed
- Banana, ripe and mashed
- Unsalted butter, melted
- Cauliflower, unseasoned, cooked and pureed
- Margarine, melted
- Pumpkin, unseasoned, cooked and pureed
- Sour cream
- Sweet potato, unseasoned, cooked and pureed
- Vegetable shortening
- Yogurt, plain
- Zucchini, unseasoned, cooked and pureed
As a bonus, there’s one more perhaps unlikely ingredient that I highly recommend:
Cooked and pureed beets!
A great substitute in chocolate-flavored baked goods that have a darker hue, beets may alter the color of lighter foods. Use our recipe for roasted beets to get them perfectly soft and tender, then puree them until smooth in a food processor.
All of these ingredients can easily take the place of oil in a recipe. Generally speaking, it is because they contain at least some fat and/or pectin, which serves as a gluten inhibitor and thickening agent.
When choosing a substitute, the idea is to select a mild-flavored alternative that will add moisture to whatever you’re making.
A lot of times, you can find inspiration in what you might already have prepared and cooked that’s hanging out in your own refrigerator.
If there are leftover plain baked sweet potatoes or cauliflower florets rolling around the fridge from dinner the other night, by all means, mash them up and use them as substitutes in your baking.
And what about that overripe avocado you’ve been avoiding? Or that half stick of butter you keep forgetting to use?
Give it a try!
You have nothing to lose! You’ll be salvaging a recipe, and you may even find you like it better with your new secret ingredient.
And you can secretly enjoy your hidden sense of pride by sneaking in some superfood nutrition without getting caught!
Waste Not, Want Not
Say you have a little canola oil left, but it’s not the total amount your recipe calls for. Use what you have, and combine it with enough of another alternative ingredient to make up the difference.
You can also start keeping a stash of emergency-fix ingredients.
When I have a banana that’s riper than I like, I put it in an airtight container in the freezer. You’d be surprised how many times I’ve been thrilled to have one when I’ve come up short in a recipe.
Another good item to have on hand is cooked vegetables. We eat a lot of steamed veggies at our house, and I always keep some leftovers in the freezer. They’re a great baking fix, an excellent gravy thickener, and a hearty add-in with rice cooked on the stovetop.
Disclose and Experiment
Now that you know how to rescue a recipe for baked goods with an alternate ingredient, there’s just one more item to discuss – food allergies.
If you have guests with food allergies, be sure to let them know when you’ve unexpectedly changed the ingredients in a food they can usually eat at your house.
If I were to add mashed peaches to my muffins as a last-minute substitution and accidentally serve them to my nephew, he would likely need his EpiPen and a visit to the ER. Let’s not go there!
Adjusting a recipe to suit particular dietary needs becomes easier as you get used to making healthy substitutions, even when you’re unexpectedly short of a critical ingredient.
One day soon, when you have some free time, experiment and discover new favorites!
We always enjoy hearing from our readers. Please let us know in the comments about the great substitutions you’ve discovered in a pinch.
If you found this article helpful and want to know more about altering recipes to suit your needs, we have other guides you’ll love to read! Read these articles to increase your knowledge next:
- 19 Flour Types for Gluten-Free Baking
- How to Get a Picky Child to Eat Healthy
- 7 Sweet Sensations to Make with a Cake That Didn’t Rise
© Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Uncredited photos via Shutterstock. Originally published September 26th, 2016. Last updated on October 19, 2023.
About Nan Schiller
Nan Schiller is a writer from southeastern Pennsylvania. When she’s not in the garden, she’s in the kitchen preparing imaginative gluten- and dairy-free meals. With a background in business, writing, editing, and photography, Nan writes humorous and informative articles on gardening, food, parenting, and real estate topics. Having celiac disease has only served to inspire her to continue to explore creative ways to provide her family with nutritious locally-sourced food.