10 Smart Alternatives For Hard-To-Find Grocery Store Ingredients

When you can't find fish, rice, milk, pasta or flour during the coronavirus pandemic, use these substitutes instead.

With a huge percentage of the population staying at home as the world weathers the coronavirus, there has been a massive increase in home cooking. If you’ve visited a grocery store or attempted to place an Instacart order recently, you’re probably familiar with the picked-over state of the shelves, butcher counters and produce sections as folks try to stock up on essentials.

Unfortunately, this uptick in grocery shopping means that certain high-demand items are consistently challenging to find. And this list includes crucial staples like pasta, rice, flour and milk.

Luckily, many of these hard-to-find items have easier-to-locate alternatives, which could be well worth a try if you’d rather avoid unnecessary supermarket stress. We asked a group of chefs and kitchen pros for their favorite under-the-radar ingredient substitutions, and they delivered with this list of 10 replacement suggestions.

Pasta: Instead, try shirataki or rice noodles

Pasta aisles are among the most ransacked grocery store sections right now, and if you’re in need of a box of ziti to pair with a jar of marinara or a homemade bolognese sauce, you may find yourself out of luck.

However, chef and food writer Ariane Resnick advises shoppers to mosey over to the international foods section, where they can locate viable alternatives to typical wheat-based pastas. “Lately, I’ve found that wheat pasta is hard to get, but rice pasta, shirataki noodles and other alternative forms are available. Brown rice pasta cooks up very similarly to wheat. Note that it does not keep equally well ― it will dry out and needs to be reheated with liquid, unlike wheat pasta, which can be used cold in dishes like macaroni salad,” Resnick explained.

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Ramen: Instead, use veggie noodles

Spiralized noodles made from zucchini (also known as “zoodles”) made a major splash among low-carb dieters over the past several years, and vegetable “pasta” is often suggested as a substitute for standard-issue spaghetti.

That said, the flavor and texture of veggie noodles differs from that of wheat-based pastas, and these variations don’t always vibe with pasta sauces and prep techniques. But if you’re struggling to find packets of ramen in the supermarket, you’ll be glad to know that vegetable noodles fit into these seasoned soups quite harmoniously, according to executive chef Kenny Claxton of The Easterly Restaurant on St. Thomas.

[With a] spiralizer, food processor or mandolin, you can use a wide variety of vegetables from zucchini and squash to sweet potato or daikon radish to make veggie noodles. You can use chicken or vegetable stock as your broth base and add any assortment of seasonings that you wish, cooking your ‘noodles’ in the broth to add more flavor. As with your usual ramen, you can garnish with any variety of toppings, including a soft boiled egg, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, bacon, or nori. The veggie noodles are a healthy, gluten free alternative that can change up your ramen game,” Claxton said.

And if you don’t feel like making them, many grocery stores will have pre-made noodles out of sweet potatoes, squash and zucchini available in the prepared foods section of your produce aisle.

All-purpose flour: Instead, consider gluten-free flours, but not to excess

If we’ve learned anything from Instagram since the beginning of this stay-at-home era, it’s that baking projects have never been more popular and more widespread than they are right now. For that reason, locating a bag of all-purpose flour at your local market probably feels like a fool’s errand.

That’s why executive pastry chef Anna Brown of Civana Wellness Resort & Spa in Carefree, Arizona, urges shoppers to look into different styles of flour, particularly a few gluten-free options that aren’t as likely to sell out as their AP equivalents. Just keep in mind that people who need gluten-free flours for their diet should get first dibs, so be reasonable with the amount you buy.

Brown’s top recommendations: “Coconut flour, [because it] offers a mild coconut flavor and light texture that yields similar results to AP. This flour is high in the saturated fat lauric acid, which provides energy for the body and can help lower ‘bad’ LDC cholesterol. This flour is a good source of fiber and can help maintain blood sugar levels. This is also a great alternative to those with nut allergies.”

Also, “almond flour [is] one of the most common grain- and gluten-free flours, and it’s rich in minerals and is a great source of vitamin E. It’s also a wonderful grain-free alternative to breadcrumbs. You can typically substitute wheat flour in a 1-to-1 ratio. If you are baking with this type of flour, use one extra egg, but note the batter may be thicker and more dense,” and “oat flour offers more flavor than AP and results in a chewier, crumblier texture. Oats contain a soluble fiber called beta-glucan, which can help lower ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol, blood sugar and insulin levels.”

Farro makes a healthy alternative when you can't find rice.
bhofack2 via Getty Images
Farro makes a healthy alternative when you can't find rice.

Rice: Instead, use “ancient grains”

Like boxes of pasta, bags of rice appear on the most wanted lists of many frustrated shoppers these days. Dealing with a rice drought with no end in sight? Try switching over to ancient grains like quinoa or farro, which deliver a rice-like texture and also provide amped-up flavor and greater nutrition.

Chef-owner Bill Kim of Urbanbelly in Chicago, told HuffPost that he often uses quinoa to replace rice. “It’s pretty quick, easy and has great texture if you cook it correctly. One of my favorite and easy dishes to make at home is quinoa ‘fried rice’ with fresh herbs and marinated shrimp.”

Chef-owner Marisa Paolillo of Mango Pickle in Chicago opts for “farro or wheat berries. There isn’t much that needs to be done with either grain option to give [it] a good mouthfeel and flavor. Both grains pair well with anything that you would put onto pasta or rice, and, unlike cooked pasta, they store well in the fridge. So you can make a large batch and have it throughout the week. They just require more time to cook than other grains.”

Potatoes: Instead, swap in other root vegetables

Empty potato bins at the grocery store don’t need to deter you from making a savory mash or crispy “potato” pancakes. Chef and founder Jess Dang of Cook Smarts says that “if a recipe calls for potatoes, you can use sweet potatoes, parsnips, rutabagas or any other root veggie.” Experiment with your most accessible root vegetables, and you may end up with a new favorite side dish.

Canned salmon is a good alternative to fresh when you're looking to boost your omega-3s.
a-lesa via Getty Images
Canned salmon is a good alternative to fresh when you're looking to boost your omega-3s.

Fresh salmon: Instead, buy canned salmon ... but be sure to check the labels first

Serious supermarket traffic results in a dearth of fresh meat and seafood, and with many butcher shops and fishmongers closed throughout the country, it can seem like shoppers have few options for scoring high-quality proteins.

With that in mind, chef and culinary instructor Uma Naidoo of the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts in Cambridge, Massachusetts, recommends giving canned fish a second look (as long as you’re ready to read the labels): “Use canned salmon instead of fresh if you are not able to get fresh salmon easily. Salmon is a heart-healthy and brain-healthy food for you and your family. [But you should] consider buying options such as Alaskan pink salmon, sockeye or red salmon, as these terms indicate that your canned salmon is the wild version from North American waters. Use these canned salmons to make salmon burgers or a stir fry, or add them to a large green salad or even to pasta.”

Canned beans: Instead, try dried lentils

A healthy vegetarian item that’s packed with protein, canned beans are highly desirable (and, therefore, highly scarce) at the moment. You may assume that dried beans make the best possible replacement for their canned versions, but depending on which bean style you choose, prepping and cooking dried beans can be hugely time consuming.

Therefore, when chef and cookbook author Sarah Adler can’t locate a can of kidney, pinto or black beans and needs to whip up a meal ASAP, she instead “tries some dried lentils instead. Lentils are the fastest cooking legume, so in around 20 minutes, you could have dinner on the table.”

Dried lentils were difficult to find in mid-March, but they’ve been back on store shelves for some time now in most regions around the U.S.

Fresh fruits and vegetables: Instead, use frozen versions

Produce aficionados often frown upon frozen vegetables, assuming that these bagged renditions sacrifice flavor and texture. However, executive chef Jakob Esko of The Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay in California believes that certain frozen fruits and veggies make worthy swap-outs for their fresh equivalents, especially while supply chains are compromised and fresh produce is ever more difficult to source and stock.

There are some frozen options that make great substitutes for the fresh varieties. The two best are frozen artichoke hearts and frozen spinach. These products are already cleaned, blanched and chopped. All you need do is squeeze out the water and they can quickly be sautéed and become wonderful additions to dishes like risotto, a tagine or couscous. Frozen fruits and berries are also excellent, especially when used in a muffin or tossed into a blender for a smoothie or an adult beverage,” Esko told HuffPost.

Red meat: Instead, try portobello mushrooms

OK, we’ll admit it: Mushrooms can’t truly replicate the sensory appeal of a juicy steak. But if you’re seeking a savory, satisfying and nutritious entree that offers many flavor-based similarities to red meat, portobello mushrooms might prove a perfect fit.

Portobello mushrooms are another great substitute when you have a hankering for beef when it’s not available,” said chef and cookbook author Lisa Dahl of Dahl Restaurant Group in Sedona, Arizona. “Not only are they brimming with nutrients and packed with healing properties, portobellos have an umami flavor and meat-like texture that makes them ideal for healthy substitutions within even the heartiest of dishes.”

Regular milk: Instead, swap in evaporated milk

Gallons of milk vanish at an astonishing pace at today’s grocery stores, but if you just need some dairy for cooking or baking purposes, then follow the lead of executive pastry chef Jessica Grossman of Patrick Properties Hospitality Group in Charleston, South Carolina, and “scour your pantry for a can of evaporated milk. Evaporated milk should be diluted 1-to-1, or you can sub evaporated milk 1-for-1 in most cooking and baking recipes. In fact, I often use it in place of milk, half-and-half, or cream in a lot of my home cooking, particularly in sauces and soups. It adds a lot of richness without all the fat of heavy cream.”

Just keep in mind that evaporated milk is not the same thing as sweetened condensed milk, which would ruin any savory recipe.

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