Gluten free almond and buckwheat meal cake with apricots

Super subs: alternative ingredients for traditional baking

by Great British Chefs 17 December 2015

Celebrating with someone who suffers from food allergies or intolerances? We take a look at how you can omit certain ingredients in cakes to create a free-from showstopper that’s just as tasty as the original.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews as well as access to some of Britain’s greatest chefs. Our posts cover everything we are excited about from the latest openings and hottest food trends to brilliant new producers and exclusive chef interviews.

Baking, to a certain extent, is an exact science – if you start changing the ratios and ingredients of a recipe, it can radically affect the final product. This might make the average home baker wary of experimenting with free-from cakes, as it’s not always as simple as replacing one ingredient with another. However, it’s also much easier than people think to create something that might not include dairy or gluten in the list of ingredients, but is just as delicious as its traditional counterpart. We take a look at the five most common ingredients in a classic cake, and how they can be substituted for something less allergenic.


Gluten-free cakes are commonplace these days, and with the number of people intolerant or allergic to gluten rapidly on the rise, they’re set to become even more popular. But to make them at home can be a bit of a challenge; after all, flour is a pretty important ingredient when baking cakes. There are also all sorts of gluten-free flours lining the shelves – from arrowroot to millet, brown rice to buckwheat – which can add further confusion to the mix. As a beginner, your best bet is to pick up one of the pre-blended bags, which contain a mix of gluten-free flours and emulate traditional varieties as closely as possible.

However, it’s not always a case of simply swapping out wheat flour for the same amount of a gluten-free blend. If your recipe only calls for a small amount of flour (under 100g), then you can generally replace it without too many problems. But if it makes up the majority of the recipe – as it tends to with cakes – then the texture and rise of the sponge can be quite different to what you’re used to. You can get around this by increasing or decreasing the amount of other ingredients, usually adding more eggs or baking powder to compensate for the lack of rise. Also, bear in mind that gluten is what gives the cake its structure; a gluten-free cake batter will almost always be runnier than you’re used to. Don’t be tempted to add more or you’ll be left with an incredibly dense, crumbly and hard sponge.

Maple syrup is a more flavourful, healthier alternative to sugar
Baking for people who feel bloated after eating dairy? Try using a2 Milk in your recipe; it won't change the structure or flavour of your cake at all


Milk adds structure to cake batter so it doesn’t collapse, adds moisture and can help form a delicious crust on the surface of your sponge, making it an important part of a cake recipe. While there are soy and nut milks out there, they will profoundly alter the texture of your sponge and may not work at all. If you’re baking for someone who only avoids milk because it doesn’t agree with them, making them feel bloated or sluggish, try a2 Milk – it lacks the protein we have trouble digesting and works in exactly the same way as regular milk, so won’t affect your recipe whatsoever.


Butter isn’t the demonised ingredient it used to be, but many of us still choose to limit our intake. It’s easy to replace, however – just use oil instead. Vegetable, sunflower, olive and rapeseed oils all work well and result in a lighter, moister sponge (although they tend to lack the richness of traditional butter cakes). Use a little less oil than you would butter, however – around seventy to eighty percent of the original weight should work. If you’re just trying to cut down on dairy instead of eliminating it completely, try adding a splash of milk to add a little creaminess.


Eggs act as a binder and rising agent in cakes, so they’re another important element to any cake mix. If your recipe calls for a large number of eggs, then it can be hard to replace them all with something else, but there are several options if you only need a substitute for one or two. There are several egg replacements on the market, which can be spooned and mixed into the cake batter without altering the flavour or texture very much, but for a more natural substitute, replacing an egg with a pureed banana can work wonders. It might sound strange, but it’s actually a very effective way of binding everything together – just make sure you increase the amount of baking soda by up to fifty percent to help the cake rise.

Another alternative is to stir a tablespoon of ground flaxseed into three tablespoons of water until it becomes thick and gelatinous. Be warned, however, that flaxseed has quite a distinct taste, so should only be used in cakes already heavily flavoured with something else, like chocolate.

Try replacing eggs with ground flaxseed or bananas
Butter can be substituted with oil quite easily


Sugar is pretty vital when baking cakes – after all, it’s what makes sweet things sweet. But if you’re looking for a healthier alternative, there are plenty of options which also add a more interesting, complex flavour. Maple syrup is full of antioxidants and is actually three times sweeter than sugar, so you only have to add two-thirds of syrup to the amount of sugar you would normally use in your recipe. Agave syrup can be used in the same way for a slightly different, less sweet flavour, and for a very rich and flavourful alternative, try honey. Use around a quarter of the amount of honey as you would sugar, as it’s very strongly flavoured and can overpower everything else. Do be aware that the extra liquid in these alternatives might change the texture of your batter, and you may have to add more dry ingredients to your recipe to balance everything out.

While these are all tried and tested substitutions for traditional baking ingredients, it will still take a little bit of experimentation until you produce the perfect free-from cake. Depending on your recipe, you might need to add more or less of other ingredients, and the texture might be slightly different to what you’d normally expect. But the world of free-from baking is constantly growing, and clever bakers are producing cakes closer and closer to the gluten, dairy and sugar-filled treats we all know. So don’t worry about baking for someone who suffers from an allergy or intolerance – you’ve still got plenty of options.

It’s always a good idea to start off following recipes devised specifically for free-from baking, rather than trying to make your own substitutions. Once you’re familiar with how these new ingredients work, you will have a much higher success rate when substituting things in your favourite recipes. After some inspiration? Try Victoria Glass’ Gluten-free chestnut and vanilla cake, which uses honey instead of sugar and chestnut flour for a light, flavourful sponge, or her Coconut and blueberry cake, which is completely gluten- and dairy-free. Tess Ward’s Gluten- and sugar-free chocolate supreme cake includes black beans in the ingredients list, while Madeleine Shaw makes Raw chocolate brownies which are free from gluten, sugar, dairy and eggs, covering all the bases.

Quick fixes

Want to get experimenting with alternative ingredients straight away? The suggestions here will get you well on your way to free-from baking. Be aware, however, that the exact quantities may have to be tailored to your specific recipe.

100g (or less) flour = the same amount of a gluten-free flour blend

Over 100g flour = the same amount of a gluten-free flour blend, plus extra baking soda or eggs

1 egg = 1 medium pureed banana, or 1 tablespoon of ground flaxseed mixed with three tablespoons of water

100g butter = 75g oil

100g sugar = 66g maple or agave syrup, or 25g honey