Hi everybody! It’s Christine with a special edition of Sweet-Tooth Friday. Instead of a new recipe this week, I thought I’d share some tips on how to become a BETTER baker—one who makes healthier goodies! Like the saying goes, you can give a gal a cupcake and treat her for one day, or teach her to bake a whole grain muffin and feed her for a longer lifetime! Err … or something like that!
When I am getting ready to work on a Sweet-Tooth Friday dessert, I sit down with a recipe and check to see if the ingredients in the dessert are actually foods I want to put into my body. For me, there are six main problem areas:
Problem #1: The recipe calls for eggs.
NMA fix: If you don’t want to use eggs in your baking there are again many options. An egg is 2 ounces of thick liquid, so it is best substituted with 2 oz of another thick liquid. Try any of the above fruit, veggie, bean, or nut butter substitutions listed for subbing out fats.
There are also “flax eggs” which are made by combining 2 teaspoons of ground flax seed with 2 ounces of warm water. Stir and set aside until the consistency has thickened. Flax eggs do well binding ingredients together. There are also egg replacers you can buy, like Ener-G brand. This is mainly potato starch and leavening. It works well in lighter, more traditional cake recipes. If you are worried about your baked goodies rising, add a pinch of baking powder for each egg replaced.
The infographic below illustrates ideas for 11 binder-iffic vegan egg substitutes. They will all work in just about any situation, but you’ll want to think about matching flavors and textures to your particular situation as you decide which one to use. Feel free to share the image!
Problem #2: The recipe calls for butter, margarine, or shortening.
NMA fix: Butter is a fat. Therefore, the easiest substitution for it is another kind of fat. I sub in canola oil one-to-one for butter with great success. This will work in baked quick breads, but not something like buttercream. Canola oil is relatively inexpensive and a good source of omega-6’s. Walnut oil and almond oil also work great in desserts by adding a nice nutty (duh) flavor, though they are more expensive. Coconut oil is excellent with its light tropical flair and can be helpful when you are looking for the “structure” of unmelted butter. It works well in pie crusts and cookies.
For any of these options, add a pinch of salt for every half cup of butter you swap out. You can trick your tongue into experiencing a buttery flavor with the hint of saltiness.
Problem #3: The recipe calls for way too much fat.
NMA fix: Taking down the fat a notch (bam?) is half the fun of healthy baking! Why? Because there are just so many alternatives to choose from! Start by just replacing half the amount of fat with an equal amount of any of these options:
- Fruit purees like unsweetened applesauce, canned crushed pineapple, or mashed bananas. Use an old banana for sweetness and banana-y flavor, a green banana for all the nutrition without competing flavors.
- Vegetable purees like sweet potato, cauliflower, or canned pumpkin. Also try shredded veggies, like the familiar carrots or zucchini. Though technically a fruit, don’t forget about mashed avocado! Save the darker veggies like spinach puree to combine with chocolate desserts or with a darker fruit like blueberries.
- Beans, my personal favorite option. Beans add protein and structure to a recipe and, when pureed, go completely unnoticed! Try great northern beans or pinto beans for a neutral taste, and chickpeas for a slightly nuttier taste. Use black beans and adzuki beans in recipes that call for cocoa or chocolate.
- Nut butters, like peanut butter, almond butter, or tahini. Cashew butter has a particular neutral creamy taste. These also pack in some extra protein.
Problem #4: The recipe calls for dairy.
NMA fix: Yes, there is always soy milk to substitute one-for-one for cow’s milk, but haven’t you already met your tofu quota for this week? Try out almond milk, hemp milk, or coconut milk.
Don’t forget that any time there is a liquid, you have a chance to add flavor. Try these alternative milks brewed with coffee in a chocolate recipe, chai tea for spice muffins, or mixed with Guinness for gingerbread! You can also mix the milks with fruit juices like apple or orange juice for added sweetness.
Problem #5: The recipe calls for all-purpose white flour.
NMA fix: I use whole-wheat pastry flour one-to-one for all-purpose without any problems. But there is a world of flours outside of wheat! Try out an ancient grain like teff or spelt for extra protein. Go international with gram flour or grind your own chickpeas or fava beans into flour. One of my favorites is oat flour; it only takes a second to go from rolled or steel cut oats to oat flour with the food processor. Try replacing 1/4 cup of the flour with ground flax seed too. Mixing and matching these flours will help it stay more flavor-neutral in the recipe.
Problem #6: The recipe calls for way too much white sugar.
STF fix: A lot of times you can just go ahead and lower the sugar amount by a quarter of whatever is called for and you won’t notice a thing. There are several unrefined sugars on the market like raw sugar, demerara sugar, and sucanat. Sucanat stands for sugar cane natural, and is just the dehydrated cane juice. These unrefined sugars retain the mineral in the sugar cane plant. However, there’s not a ton of nutritional value in this plant so the main point of using these kinds of sugars is just to avoid all the processing and bleaching.
There are also classic liquid sweeteners like maple syrup and honey which give a warmer flavor to a recipe. If you use molasses, do so with an easy hand or use only a couple tablespoons to supplement another sweetener. Blackstrap molasses is especially overpowering.
Agave nectar is my personal favorite because it has a lower glycemic index. It’s also 25% sweeter than sugar, so you can use less. Any time you use a liquid sweetener, cut back a little on the other liquid ingredients by about 1/4 cup to compensate. There is also stevia extract, which frankly I don’t know much about yet. (Update: see my post all about stevia.) I’ve only tasted it in Tropicana’s Trop50; it was very good but did have a slight aftertaste. I don’t recommend Splenda or other synthetic sweeteners. They just don’t seem like real food to me.
So those are the six main problem areas in a recipe. Finally, I want to highlight some “distracters” to help disguise unusual tastes and textures. Cocoa or baking chocolate does a great job covering the taste of bean and veggie purees as well as the color. Peanut butter is good for totally drowning out any mystery flavor competition. Liqueurs and extracts also cover up flavors nicely; try some creme de menthe or amaretto. Lemon zest adds a nice fresh citrus note to baked goods and, while it doesn’t cover anything up, it does add dimension to a sometimes flat flavor spectrum. Finally nuts and dried fruits vary the texture of a baked good—this is especially helpful when you are using pureed beans to help distract from the inevitable mystery lump.
Ok, that just about covers what I’ve picked up during my run so far as the NMA’s resident healthy baker. Remember, there are a lot of strategies here; start off just using one or two new elements at a time in your recipes. One of the keys to substitutions is keeping the ratios of the original recipe the same regarding liquid to liquid and dry to dry ingredients. Just keep tasting as you go and trust your instincts—you know you what you like.
Have fun, good luck and stay sweet!