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Paleo Basics & Beyond

Chapter 4

The Paleo Swap at a Glance

Out with the Butter, In with the Ghee

For success with the paleo diet, you'll need to rethink the following 10 ingredients.

For the ever-increasing number of people exploring the paleo diet’s back-to-basics way of eating—lots of protein and vegetables and no grains, sugar, dairy, or processed foods—being able to cook creative, flavorful meals at home is important. But it isn’t easy. With so many staple ingredients off the table (like vegetable oil, butter, flour, and even potatoes), it can be tricky to make great-tasting meals that stick to the paleo program. Given the restrictions this diet presents, people serious about following it need to rethink not only how they shop and stock their pantry but also how they cook.

Many fundamental ingredients that we depend on when cooking are off-limits, and you must make homemade versions of other key ingredients since the commercial versions are highly processed or contain stabilizers and gums (think mayonnaise, broths, and canned tomatoes). Before you even get started, take a look at the guide below, which we developed to make paleo cooking less intimidating to those who may not be familiar with it yet. We’ve provided some of the test kitchen’s favorite alternatives for some non-paleo ingredients that are normally crucial to most recipes. Although these substitutes won’t work in every recipe—nor are they simply one-for-one swaps—this guide will help you start to understand how to approach paleo cooking.

Vegetable Oil

Instead of highly processed vegetable oil, use coconut oil or extra-virgin olive oil, both of which perform well at high temperatures. The coconut flavor in our preferred coconut oil is too faint to detect in most dishes. Extra-virgin olive oil also works well for cooking, but save the expensive, high-end versions for raw applications.


Instead of butter, use ghee. Because ghee, which is made by straining the milk solids from melted butter, is dairy-free, it’s widely considered to be paleo-friendly. Although ghee won’t work in all recipes, it is fairly high-heat-stable, so it performs well in applications like sautéing or pan-frying.

Butter Replacement

Recipe Ghee

Traditional ghee is made by slowly simmering butter until the liquid has evaporated and the milk solids have started to brown. 


Milk, Cream, and Yogurt

Instead of milk, cream, and yogurt, use whipped cashews, coconut yogurt and almond yogurt. Soaked and pureed cashews make a surprisingly good substitute for dairy in creamy fillings and panades (paste made from bread and milk used to keep ground meat tender and moist). Nut-based yogurts also make a great stand-in for dairy-based yogurt in parfaits and creamy sauces.

All-Purpose Flour

Instead of all-purpose flour, use nut flours. Since no single nut-based flour can perform the same functions as all-purpose flour, we use a combination of almond flour and coconut flour, along with arrowroot flour, to give baked goods structure. 


Instead of cornstarch, use arrowroot flour or tapioca flour. We found that arrowroot flour works well to thicken sauces and gravies and helps to lighten the texture of baked goods. Tapioca flour works well in coatings, such as velveting chicken for stir-fries.


Instead of sugar, use honey, maple syrup (read our review), coconut sugar, maple sugar, dried and fresh fruit. Sugar—even raw sugar—is a highly processed food. Instead, we use natural sweeteners. Each of these sweeteners has different characteristics (like flavor and moisture content); we chose which one to use based on the specific recipe.

Sweet Breakfast

Recipe Blueberry Muffins

Because wheat flour, sugar, and butter are off limits, baking a great paleo muffin is a serious challenge. Challenge accepted.


Store-Bought Broths

Instead of store-bought broths, use homemade broths or water. Most store-bought broths contain additives, preservatives, and sugar—and those that don’t can be hard to find. Homemade broths have a depth and intensity that store-bought broths lack, and even a small amount can provide a boost of savory flavor to many recipes. When possible, we make a broth within the body of a recipe to help keep things streamlined. That means using bone-in cuts or adding marrow-rich bones to recipes like beef stew. In recipes that already have a lot of flavor but need a small amount of liquid, water does the trick.

Canned Tomatoes

Instead of canned tomatoes, use fresh tomatoes and tomato paste. Most brands of canned tomatoes contain preservatives and some even contain added sugar. We use fresh tomatoes wherever possible, processing them to approximate canned diced tomatoes. When appropriate, we also boost tomato flavor with tomato paste, which is simply tomato puree that is cooked to remove moisture.

Ode to Tomato Paste

Recipe Italian Vegetable Stew

Known as ciambotta in Italy, this stew makes for a hearty one-bowl meal. 


Rice and Potatoes

Instead of rice and potatoes, use cauliflower or celery root. We use cauliflower to make “rice” by processing the raw florets into rice-size pieces. Hardy root vegetables like celery root, rutabaga, or parsnips, which hold their shape nicely when cooked, work well in place of potatoes.

Soy Sauce

Instead of soy sauce, use coconut aminos and fish sauce. To replace soy sauce, we use two ingredients to create a similarly salty, savory flavor profile: coconut aminos, which looks like soy sauce but has a slightly sweeter, less intense flavor, and fish sauce, which helps deepen savory flavor but doesn’t taste fishy when used in small quantities.

Cooking with Coconut Aminos

Recipe Gingery Stir-Fried Chicken with Asparagus and Bell Pepper

We wanted to explore the possibilities of paleo stir-fries and develop a chicken version with a punchy, spicy profile.