1. Evaporated Milk vs. Sweetened Condensed Milk
Evaporated milk is a shelf-stable milk with 60% less water (thus, 60% less volume) than regular milk. Stabilizers and vitamins are added, but no sweeteners or flavorings. It’s often used in savory baking recipes (like bread); if a dessert recipe calls for evaporated milk, it will call for some kind of sweetener as well.
Sweetened condensed milk, on the other hand, is evaporated milk plus sugar. After 60% of the water is removed from the milk, sugar is added to create a thick liquid that’s super sweet and more like syrup than milk.
IN A NUTSHELL: Sweetened condensed milk is evaporated milk with sugar added.
Can I substitute one for the other? No. Evaporated milk is thin and savory, sweetened condensed milk is thick and syrupy sweet.
2. Radish vs. Beet
Radishes and beets look similar, with red bulbs roughly the size of golf balls (though sometimes much bigger), but have totally different tastes and culinary uses.
Radishes (pictured left) have bright red skin and white flesh. They have a spicy flavor and are usually sliced thin and served raw, with the skins still on.
Beets (pictured right) have dark, reddish-purple skin with flesh the same color. They have a sweet, earthy, and slightly metallic flavor. Some people think they taste like dirt. Usually they’re served roasted, as that brings out their intense sweetness, but sometimes they’re served raw (shaved super thin). Either way, beets are always eaten without the skin.
IN A NUTSHELL: Radishes are raw salad veggies, beets are something you cook.
Can I substitute one for the other? No. Radishes are spicy and usually eaten raw, beets are sweet and usually eaten cooked.
3. Pure Cranberry Juice vs. Cranberry 100% Juice vs. Cranberry Juice Cocktail
Pure cranberry juice is only cranberry juice (usually from concentrate) and water. Because cranberries are so tart, the juice is super sour and not at all sweet.
Cranberry 100% juice is made of cranberry juice (from concentrate) and water, plus other sweet fruit juices (usually apple and grape) for sweetness. So, it’s 100% juice, but not 100% cranberry juice.
Cranberry juice cocktail is the most common of the three, and it’s a mixture of cranberry juice and water, plus sugar and asorbic acid (to enhance the tartness of the cranberry juice and balance the sweetness of the sugar).
IN A NUTSHELL: The dark one is the only one that’s actually the juice of cranberries — the cranberry juice cocktail is the one you probably know and love as a drink.
Can I substitute one for the other? Sort of. There’s no substitution for pure cranberry juice, but cranberry 100% juice and cranberry juice cocktail essentially taste the same.
4. Parsley vs. Cilantro
Parsley (pictured left) is slightly grassy but extremely mild tasting. The stems are good for adding flavor to soups or broths. The leaves are slightly rough and more resilient than cilantro leaves, which means they don’t wilt or get soggy as easily.
Cilantro (pictured right) has a stronger, slightly soapy taste very similar to coriander (since cilantro leaves actually grow from the coriander seed). In fact, adding the stems to a soup or broth will add a coriander flavor. The leaves make a very flavorful garnish, but are really soft and wilt easily.
IN A NUTSHELL: You will never have to stop looking closely to tell the difference, but the one with the little rounded tips is cilantro.
Can I substitute one for the other? Sort of. Using the wrong herb will change the flavor profile of your dish, but it’ll still be totally edible and possibly even delicious.
5. Lemon vs. Meyer Lemon
Lemons are lemons.
Meyer lemons are less acidic than regular lemons and have a subtly sweet, floral flavor. They are also more orange in color than regular lemons, are softer to the touch, and have smoother skin. They’re great in desserts, and are delicious for making preserved lemons, but they’re more expensive (about $4 per pound, vs. $1–2 per pound for regular lemons). So only use them for recipes that specify “Meyer lemon.”
IN A NUTSHELL: They’re similar, but Meyer lemons have smoother skin and are less tart.
Can I substitute one for the other? Sort of. Regular lemon will make a recipe more tart, but it’ll still come out fine.
Baking soda, also called bicarbonate of soda, is a pure alkaline, so it needs to be mixed with an acid (buttermilk, citrus juice, vinegar, etc.) in order to work. When it’s mixed with an acid, gas is released, which causes baked goods to rise. But, baking soda has a strong, metallic flavor that can ruin a recipe if you use too much.
Baking powder is a mix of baking soda, acid, and corn starch. Because it already has acid mixed in, it only needs to be mixed with liquid and heat for gas to be released and rising to happen. Baking powder has a much milder flavor than baking soda too.
IN A NUTSHELL: They’re different so you should always have both in your pantry if you want to bake.
Can I substitute one for the other? No, because they react differently to the other ingredients in the recipe.
7. Scallion vs. Shallot
A scallion is a long green leaf with a tiny white bulb (usually with part of the root still attached). Usually they’re used as a garnish and not cooked, but if you do cook them they’re treated like other leafy greens, meaning they only get cooked for a minute or two.
A shallot is sold as a bulb, with no leaves. It’s like an onion but smaller and with a milder flavor. And, like onions, they are used to add extra flavor to cooked dishes, or raw as garnish to add sharpness and crunch.
IN A NUTSHELL: Shallots are like small, subtler onions that are pale pink; scallions are at like tiny leeks.
Can I substitute one for the other? Sort of. You can use the white part of the scallion pretty much the same way you would use a shallot, but if you want greens, you’ll need scallions.
8. Red Cabbage vs. Radicchio
Red cabbage is crunchier and has waxy leaves that are denser than radicchio’s. The flavor of cabbage isn’t nearly as bitter as radicchio since the leaves contain so much water. A head of cabbage is also larger than radicchio. Cabbage can be eaten cooked or raw, and is great for salads and slaws, because the fibrous leaves don’t wilt (you can cover them with dressing ahead of time and they won’t get soggy).
Radicchio has softer, more delicate leaves and a super bitter, slightly spicy flavor and is almost always eaten raw. You can quick-cook radicchio on the grill, but you wouldn’t braise it (as is often done with cabbage.) It’s great in salads with strong ingredients, like sharp cheeses and acidic dressings.
IN A NUTSHELL: Red cabbage is crunchier, thicker, and can be cooked; radicchio is a bitter salad green.
Can I substitute one for the other? No. A radicchio slaw will end up a soggy, bitter mess.
9. All-Purpose Flour vs. Self-Rising Flour
All-purpose flour is plain flour and when a recipe calls for flour this is what they mean.
Self-rising flour is AP flour with baking powder and salt added to act as a leavening agent (meaning, to help your baked goods rise). To make your own, the recipe is as follows:
1 cup all-purpose flour + 1 teaspoon baking powder + 1/4 teaspoon salt = 1 cup self-rising flour.
Can I substitute one for the other? No. Just buy AP flour and add baking powder if a recipe ever calls for self-rising flour and you can’t find it.
10. Corn Starch vs. Corn Meal
Corn starch is a thickener you’d add in small amounts to sauces or gravies to give them body. It’s made from just the endosperm of a corn kernal, which contains all of the starch but none of the gritty fiber (found in the germ and the hull), ground into a super-fine, bright white powder. It’s never used as the base starch in a recipe the way flour or cornmeal are.
Corn meal is more like flour because it’s used as a base for baked goods like cornbreads and cakes. Cornmeal is made by grinding corn kernels into a coarse powder, and unlike corn starch, corn meal contains some of the corn’s husk and germ (the fiber) as well as the endosperm (the starch), making it grittier but less chalky.
IN A NUTSHELL: Corn starch thickens sauces; corn meal makes tortillas and cornbread.
Can I substitute one for the other? No. Corn starch is a thickener, and cornmeal is used as the base for baked goods.
11. Plain Yogurt vs. Vanilla Yogurt
Plain yogurt has no added flavorings or sweeteners. It is white in color and has a tangy flavor.
Vanilla yogurt, though it’s often the same, yogurt-y white color as plain yogurt, has added sweetener and vanilla flavor. It’s sweet, which masks most of the tang of plain yogurt.
IN A NUTSHELL: Vanilla yogurt isn’t plain yogurt.
(Maybe this one seems self-explanatory, but the number of people I’ve heard complain about their significant other/roommate coming home with vanilla yogurt when then grocery list clearly stated “PLAIN YOGURT” is truly astounding).
Can I substitute one for the other? I mean, you’re probably just eating it for breakfast, so do what you want. But in a recipe don’t substitute because one is sweet and the other isn’t so it will definitely change the flavor.
12. Old Fashioned Oats vs. Quick-Cooking (or Instant) Oats
Old-fashioned oats, also called rolled oats, are oats that have been husked (their outer, fibrous husks are removed), steamed, then flattened. This makes them softer and speeds up the cooking process without compromising texture too much. On the stovetop with boiling water, old fashioned oats take about 5 minutes to cook into a creamy, slightly chewy oatmeal with lots of texture.
Quick-cooking/instant oats are rolled oats that have been pressed much thinner, creating broken-up pieces of oats that are almost powdery. In boiling liquid on the stovetop, instant oats take less than a minute to cook. However, they don’t have much texture, since they’ve been broken into such tiny pieces, and they make for slightly mushy oatmeal.
IN A NUTSHELL: Quick cooking oats are old fashioned oats pressed even thinner that cook even faster.
Can I substitute one for the other? No. If a recipe calls for rolled oats, substituting instant oats won’t work because the texture is far more powdery and will make your batter gummy.
13. Turnip vs. Parsnip
A turnip is a root vegetable with purple-and-white skin and crunchy white flesh. Typically by the time a turnip gets to the supermarket, the taproot (the long, skinny part of the vegetable that goes furthest down in the ground) has been removed, leaving only the round, roughly spherical part of the root. Turnips can be shaved thin and eaten raw, but are usually served cooked. They have a slightly sweet, slightly-spicy flavor, with a bitter after taste.
A parsnip is a root vegetable shaped like a carrot (conical), but with dark-cream-colored skin and white flesh. Like a turnip, it is occasionally shaved thin and eaten raw, but usually served cooked. When cooked, the flesh gets soft and very sweet, with a slightly bitter aftertaste.
IN A NUTSHELL: Turnips are round and usually have a hint of purple; parsnips looks like white carrots, but otherwise they’re pretty similar.
Can I substitute one for the other? Probably. They taste a little different, but have similar textures and take the same amount of time to cook.
14. Tomato Sauce vs. Tomato Paste
Tomato sauce is made of tomatoes puréed with a little bit of water, plus spices and salt for flavor. It’s the same thickness as jarred tomato sauce (like Prego or Ragu), or the kind you might make yourself, but without any lumps. Canned tomato sauce is often called for in large quantities (think, one or two whole 15-ounce cans) as the base for chili recipes, stews, or tomato-based soups.
Tomato paste is also made with tomatoes, spices, and salt, but the tomatoes are concentrated first, then puréed into a super thick paste that’s intensely sweet and a little bit tangy. It’s used in small quantities to add flavor, not as a base for recipes.
IN A NUTSHELL: Tomato paste has a way stronger flavor so it’s used in smaller amounts.
Can I substitute one for the other? No. Tomato paste adds flavor, and tomato sauce adds volume.
Light cream has a fat content of 18–30% (for comparison, whole milk is about 3.25%) and is used mostly as coffee creamer. Light cream won’t whip, because it doesn’t have enough fat, and it isn’t really used as a base for cream sauces, because it’s too thin.
Whipping cream, also sometimes called light whipping cream, has a fat content of 30–36%, plus added stabilizers — usually carrageenan, a substance derived from seaweed — that help it hold its form once it’s whipped (otherwise the air bubbles will escape and the whipped cream will essentially deflate over time and turn back to liquid).
Heavy cream, also sometimes called heavy whipping cream has a fat content of 36–40% and is great for whipping, or as a base for cream sauces. Look for heavy cream without stabilizers (carrageenan), since its high fat content is enough to help heavy cream hold its shape when whipped. And, if you’re just using it to thicken a sauce, there’s no need for a stabilizer.
IN A NUTSHELL: Only ever use light cream for coffee. Opt for heavy cream over whipping cream unless you’re on a diet.
Can I substitute one for the other? Sort of. Heavy cream and whipping cream are pretty much interchangeable. But, light cream won’t whip and won’t really thicken a sauce.