A couple of notes on measuring ingredients while cooking...
It is best to use a wet measuring cup for liquid ingredients - milk, juice, water, etc. - and get down at the level of the measuring device to make sure your measurement is accurate to help avoid the mix coming out wet, which will then take longer to cook inside.
And use a spoon handle to level off a dry measuring cup for all other items that take more than a few Tablespoons - flour, sugar, dried fruit, etc. Or gently shake it down to make the item more-or-less even with the top of the measuring cup.
The importance of buttermilk - especially if you don't have any!
Ever notice that some recipes call specifically for buttermilk? And did you ever - like me - think it didn't matter and then wonder why your recipe didn't turn out as well as you expected? Well, here is why it does matter and what to do if you don't need enough butter milk to justify buying a carton of it!
A little science lesson here! - the acidity in the buttermilk reacts with the baking powder and/or soda to help the dough in various recipes to rise. I found that keeping buttermilk wasn't practical because we never used it enough before it went bad. Instead I use the substitute"buttermilk" by adding one Tbsp. white vinegar to a cup of milk to sour the milk enough to provide the acidity required to react with the baking powder or soda. White vinegar can stay around for a long time - and is very handy in cleaning mixes as a natural disinfectant - and is much less expensive than buttermilk itself!
And what to do for those other pesky little "must-have" items you're out of when you want to bake cookies at 2 a.m.?
How about eggs?
Well, there are solutions if you're out of eggs and if you have the right ingredients kept for back up. Here are some egg substitutes - also good to know if you are cooking for someone who is allergic or who has decided to eat a vegan (no dairy/no egg/no meat) diet.
- Ground Flax Seed - I keep a bag of ground flax seed in my refrigerator at all times. It lasts a long time, does not affect the flavor of what I add it to, and gives us extra vitamins when sprinkled on things like oatmeal, yogurt, cereal, etc. In just 2 Tablespoons of ground flax seed, you get 2400 milligrams of Omega-3 fatty acids for far less expense than a piece of salmon or tuna! You also get extra fiber (4 grams) and protein (3 grams) BUT it is also an (pardon me...) egg-selent egg replacer. If you're out of eggs, add 1 Tablespoon of ground flax and 2 Tablespoons of water/liquid to get one "egg" equivalent.
- Apple Sauce - Ah! Keep those handy-dandy little applesauce snack cups around (the ones that are "shelf-stable") and you're all set! Approximately 3 Tablespoons of applesauce works to replace one egg. The only thing is, this is better used in sweeter recipes because it can sweeten up the flavor a bit. But again, it works to give some of those extra nutrients that we might otherwise miss out on!
- Finally, we can add Mashed Bananas to our keep-on-hand list - About 1/2 of a mashed banana works well for one egg. I'll confess, I am NOT a banana lover so this is an estimate - I don't have an exact measurement for this one. But when you have bananas on the counter beginning to turn brown, so no one will eat them, let them go pretty dark (almost black even!) mash them up, put them in a baggie and into the freezer for future baking needs. Kind of begs the question though: why do most banana bread recipes call for eggs?? Probably for that rising effect - to make the bread less dense, in other words - in which case, see my note about buttermilk above!
How about when you're out of Milk?
I'll confess this solution won't work as well for being host to a vegan horde, but it will work for the "average" baking-replacement needs. Keep powdered milk on hand for baking. It is NOT so great tasting when reconstituted and drunk as a glass of milk or in cereal but it does not alter the flavor in the same way in baked goods. Powdered milk being less expensive than a gallon of whole milk, I keep it in the cupboard for most of my baking needs: breads, cookies, biscuits, etc. Usually, 1/4 cup of powdered milk and 3/4 cup of water gives you one cup of milk.
For working in a vegan meal - try one of the many milk substitutes out there - soy "milk", rice "milk", etc. There are several kinds and each with its own flavor, so it's worth trying a few -but I don't care for any of them as a straight glass of milk. In baking they work well though. Alternately, if you're making a sweeter recipe, most fruit juices (apple, orange, etc.) work well to replace the milk - and acidic orange juice gives that all-important chemical reaction needed to make rising happen (see the buttermilk portion above!)
For those on a budget, here is another little cost-cutting tip I stumbled upon when I woke early one morning as a teenager. I am one of six children and my parents did not have a lot of expendable cash - grocery money was tight as well, as you can imagine, with four teenagers in the house (three of them boys!) Anyway... I woke early and discovered my mother adding about a half-gallon of reconstituted powdered milk (made the night before I think) to fill back in the remaining half-gallon of whole milk from the 'fridge. Turns out, she had been doing this for years and we had no idea. SO sneak it in, your family won't miss it, you'll save a bit of money, and you'll still be getting in those nutrients!
Substitutes for Butter/Fats/Crisco:
I keep olive oil around for just about every "oil" need - it does cost a bit more, but I prefer the flavor and versatility of olive oil, for baking, light frying, salad dressings, etc.. So it's always in our cabinet. I also have begun keeping Canola oil in the cabinet, to accommodate our doughnut frying adventures, olive oil is just too expensive to use for that kind of deep-frying. These two items are very handy when I need butter or something similar to lighten a recipe or keep it flaky (pie crust, for instance) but don't have butter or Crisco/Vegetable shortening (or lard if you are a more traditional cook!)
If you're thinking ahead, and this is the best method, take the amount of oil needed and place it in the freezer for about 20 minutes. This will alter the constitution of the oil and thicken it up so it can be used more like a butter/solid. I will confess to using it straight as a liquid with successful results as well though!
Then there is Sugar - there's no replacement for that is there??
This one is obvious, I know, but I'm putting it in because earlier in my cooking years it was helpful to have the reassurance that it wouldn't change the taste or constitution of my recipe too much to use a substitute sugar item. I am not a fan of the "colorful package" replacers (Splenda, Sweet-n-Low, Stevia, etc.) Just my preference, I know - I just don't care for the taste (and yes, I can always tell that there is "something" different.) So I use raw sugar as my first choice in baking and coffee/tea/etc. In fact, I have discovered that I can use less sugar overall if I'm using raw sugar because it still has some of the molasses in it and so is a bit sweeter than white/refined sugar. When doing heavy baking - muffins for sale, etc. - we do stoop to using refined/white sugar.
But what about when both of those are "fresh out?" Well of course, there is honey in the cabinet (who doesn't keep honey around??) Ah! but what if you were negligent in your grocery list - or just haven't been to the store and that is out too?
Molasses would be the final choice. Molasses, I'll confess, has a stronger flavor and so many people don't care much for it, but the flavor mellows when it is cooked into other things. We have used molasses to flavor oatmeal, cookies, cakes (we have a vegan chocolate cake recipe that calls for molasses as the primary flavoring agent - it is fabulous!) There are several other benefits to molasses as well though: it is a good natural sweetener, gives you a huge boost in your iron intake for the day (take 1 Tbsp. a day to help with Anemia in a natural way!) and is relatively inexpensive. The more "natural" the molasses (i.e.: "organic" vs. non-organic) the thicker it is, more strongly flavored, and higher in iron content.
And what about missing flour?
Hate to say, but sorry. At this point, you're pretty well out of luck and you might as well forget the 2 a.m. cookies - I have yet to find a good flour substitute! (I would NOT recommend asking to borrow a cup from a neighbor at that hour!)
Keep any - or all - of these items on hand and you'll always be in baking business, whether at 2 a.m. or at noon (if you have one car this can matter more than you think!) I know that many of my "regular" commenters won't have much to say in response to this post - or may not read it all the way through at all! - but I'm putting it up for those who might need an extra bit of help for their vegan friends or for a "Newbie" cook who might be looking for a little hand up!