No eggs or pasta? No worries! Master improvisation and savvy swaps, with help from the experts 

Don’t panic over scarce ingredients – our writer shows you how to be crafty in the kitchen

Xanthe Clay believes that inventive twists on food when stocks run low is key
Xanthe Clay believes that inventive twists on food when stocks run low is key  Credit: kirstie Young

Scarcity is the mother of invention in the kitchen. As shops run low of staples like pasta, flour, eggs and fresh meat, making supper can feel like a Krypton factor of 10. Time to get clever, and make a few switches.

The only rule is don’t expect a dish to be exactly the same once you’ve made a substitution. Many of them simply aren’t - the recipe will turn out a little bit differently, but not necessarily worse. Maybe even better.

See recipes as starting points, and enjoy the fact that you aren’t going to follow it slavishly. Think about the flavours - sweet, sour, salt, bitter, savoury - and add something that matches.

Some are obvious: yogurt instead of sour cream, wine vinegar instead of cider vinegar or lemon juice. Onions seem to be in short supply (they are generally imported at this time of year) but leeks have an even better flavour.

Think about what the ingredient is doing in the recipe, too. A handful of grated parmesan in a sauce will add a little richness, but its chief role will be to layer in savoury flavour. So use another hard cheese, but consider adding a dab of Marmite (other yeast extracts are available) or even a sprinkle of soy sauce, both great umami vehicles.

The same parmesan on top of a gratin and baked in the oven will add savoury flavour, but just as importantly a rich crispness, so the right substitute is a layer of pangrattato, the southern Italian mix of fried breadcrumbs, salt and garlic.

This could be a time to broaden your repertoire. Look out for freekah, a Middle Eastern smoked wheat which makes a fantastic alternative to rice or couscous: in fact it’s so good, you may never go back.

Chicken joints have vanished from many supermarkets, so it could be the moment to experiment with more unusual meats. That piece of rose veal could turn out to be a revelation. Or invest in a whole bird, and look on YouTube for instructions on how to joint it - it’s much easier than you’d think.

I’ve got used to not wasting anything. Parsley stalks go in with meat bones to make stock, or are chopped very finely and used instead of celery, in the classic onion-carrot-celery soup base. Every time I need lemon or orange juice, I start by grating off the zest - before I cut the fruit in half, as trying to zest a cut fruit is messy and frustrating. The zest goes in a jar with a sprinkling of salt (for savoury dishes) or sugar (for sweet baking) - it’ll keep for a good couple of weeks in the fridge.

Improvising and making do, it turns out, is really fun. No one minds if the results aren’t exactly what you planned: you aren’t on MasterChef now. And there is plenty to hold on to when this period is over.

My current silver lining is the Ciambellone All’Acqua shared here, a brilliantly simple, thrown-together cake which is so light and tender it is bound to become my default quick bake. Champion stuff.

Savvy swaps 

Replace tinned pulses and beans with dried  Credit: Getty 

Fresh herbs

  • For most recipes, the hard herbs (thyme, oregano, rosemary) can be swapped in – different flavours, but just as delicious. Oregano and marjoram are the same family and very similar flavours. Basil has a faintly aniseed flavour so interchanges well with tarragon (although tarragon is stronger, so use less) as well as chervil.

Yeast

  • Make it go further by using half the amount specified, or even a quarter – just allow time to rise. If you use a bread maker, you can mix and knead the dough in the machine, then take it out to rise and bake it. To substitute different kinds, use 20g fresh yeast for 10g dried yeast or 5g easy blend yeast.

Chicken

  • For chicken breast, pork will work well – use a chop in place of a whole breast or slices of fillet for stir fries. Bear in mind that cooking times may not be exactly the same.

Tinned tomatoes

  • Replace a 400g tin of tomatoes with four tablespoons of tomato purée mixed with 350ml water or 400ml passata. You won’t have the texture of the tomatoes, but this is fine if they are being cooked down.

Self-raising flour

  • Add one rounded teaspoon of baking powder (5g) to every 100g plain flour to convert it to self-raising.

Strong bread flour

  • You can make bread with regular plain but it won’t rise as well, due to less gluten. Plain flour absorbs less liquid, so you may need to reduce the water – or use a recipe designed for plain flour, like the soda bread, left

Butter for baking

  • To replace butter in baking, use 80 per cent of the weight in mild-flavoured oil, and make up the remaining 20 per cent with water. You will miss the buttery taste, so add extra vanilla, lemon zest or other flavouring.

Cocoa powder

  • Hot chocolate powder is around 30 per cent cocoa and 70 per cent sugar, so a recipe with 30g cocoa and 200g sugar can be replaced by 100g hot chocolate powder and 130g sugar.

Tinned beans and pulses

  • It’s worth knowing that 120g dried weight will cook to about 250g, the amount in an average tin.

Brown sugar

  • Mix 200g caster or granulated sugar plus three tablespoons of black treacle (for dark brown sugar) or a tablespoon of black treacle (for light brown sugar) for a rough approximation in baking.

Top tips from chefs 

Romy Gill recommends using gram flour instead of corn flour Credit: Andrew Crowley

“Use the liquid from the pickle jar instead of vinegar in salad dressings.”
Nieves Barragán, co-founder of Sabor 

“No paella rice? Substitute risotto rice or even pudding rice. No anchovies? Try a dash of Worcestershire sauce or fish sauce, or, for a veggie alternative, use a teaspoon of Marmite for depth of flavour. Instead of chorizo, remove the skins from plain sausages and mash the  meat with smoked Spanish paprika and fresh ground black pepper.”
José Pizarro, founder of Jose Pizarro restaurants

“No haricot or white beans? Rinse the sauce off a cheap tin of baked beans.”
Jack Monroe, author of Tin Can Cook (Bluebird, £6.99)

“Use grated apple or even mashed banana instead of some of the sugar in bakes – it’s a great binder too. And hummus doesn’t have to mean chickpeas – other beans like butterbeans or cannellini taste wonderful.”
Georgie Soskin, founder of Eight Food 

“If you don’t have corn flour, you can use gram flour or plain flour instead but make sure to sieve it well”.”
Romy Gill, chef and food writer