Baking can be a tough task when you’re looking to cut back on those not-so-great-for-you ingredients. Sugar, dairy, flour, inflammation-inducing canola oil — they are the basis of most delicious desserts, so what are you to do when you just want to whip up something yummy but not derail your healthy eating intentions?
Great news: Making your own goodies, rather than purchasing pre-made varieties, is already a step in the right direction. When you bake at home, you have control of what goes into your dishes, including cutting back on less-nourishing ingredients and upping your consumption of more nutrient-dense, equally as delicious additions.
When it comes to feeding your sweet tooth and sticking to your goals, there are some simple swaps you can make. Bonus? You may already have a lot of these substitutions lurking in your kitchen.
If you’re looking to cut down on cholesterol or avoid animal products altogether, consider using one tablespoon of ground flax seeds mixed into two tablespoons of hot water for each egg called for. Allow the mixture to sit and thicken for a couple of minutes before incorporating it into your other ingredients. The flax will bind ingredients in much the same way egg protein does. Plus, flax is a high-fiber, low-carb addition to any recipe and provides antioxidants called lignans and a dose of omega-3 fatty acids.
Flax is just one of many ways to replace eggs in recipes. We love this comprehensive guide from PETA on ways to swap out eggs for non-animal products.
Let’s face it: Most traditional baking is going to call for some kind of flour. Flour exists on a spectrum. At the not-so-great end of the spectrum is white, refined flour; it’s pretty much empty carbohydrates and doesn’t do much for the body besides providing a quick dose of short-lasting energy. Whole grain flours, including those made from millet, barley, oats or brown rice, contain more minerals and nutrients. In place of any of these grain-based options, there are some excellent swaps you can make to up the protein and the goodness of your baking.
For one cup wheat flour, consider swapping in one cup mashed black beans (for brownies), one cup mashed chickpeas (for blondies) or one cup mashed adzuki beans (for anything you’d like to be a little bit purple). Each of these legumes provides complex carbs and protein, magnesium, potassium, fiber, folate and iron. For a paleo-friendly swap, use ⅓ cup coconut flour plus a dash of water and one egg for each cup of grain flour called for. Coconut flour is exceptionally high in fiber; two tablespoons provide about 20% of your daily recommended fiber needs.
3. Butter and oil
Baked goods often call for the addition of oil or butter to soften and emulsify the other ingredients (think soft cookies and chewy bars). Luckily, other moist additives can create this same effect and are a pretty easy swap; most can be replaced 1:1.
We love using one cup pureed avocado, pumpkin or mashed banana for every one cup of butter or oil called for in a recipe. Their high liquid content (and high-fat content in avocado) helps keep your finished product soft. Avocado and pumpkin tend to impart a neutral flavor when cooked; banana may be a little more noticeable, so take that into account when planning your swap.
Similarly, ¾ cup of prunes pureed with ¼ cup of boiling water can be a great replacement for butter, although a little sweeter in flavor. Prunes are also high in fiber, beta-carotene and vitamin K (nearly four times as much vitamin K as butter).
Sugar is perhaps the main reason why you feel compelled to avoid dessert. No worries. There are tons of ways to cut down on cane sugar without losing out on flavor. As far as unprocessed sweeteners go, maple syrup is full of B vitamins and is low on the glycemic index, meaning it won’t cause your blood sugar to skyrocket and crash. Swap it 1:1 in most recipes and keep in mind it will be a little less sweet than table sugar.
Brown rice syrup is also a low-glycemic option that can work as a 1:1 swap for sugar. This sweetener is made from culturing cooked rice with enzymes that break down the sugars into smaller sugars. The resulting mass is filtered, creating a dark translucent liquid that resembles thick maple syrup. It’s similar in flavor to molasses and provides a richness to baked goods from cakes to cookies.
To cut down on sugar even more, swap out two tablespoons of sugar with a ½ teaspoon of vanilla extract. Repeat this up to a total of two teaspoons of vanilla extract (reducing the sugar by eight tablespoons) to avoid over-flavoring your recipe with vanilla. The aromatic addition, however, will keep the flavor bright and your taste buds intrigued—sans sweetener.
5. Chocolate chips
Most chocolate chip options are loaded with sugar, artificial emulsifiers and dairy, which, if you’re looking to cut down on any of those, can make chocolate chip cookies or chunky brownies a problem. In their place, swap in cacao nibs, the product of drying and chopping the cacao seed, the precursor to chocolate. Cacao is high in nourishing fat as well as potassium and antioxidants; plus, the little kick of caffeine will make you forget it’s not fully sweetened, processed chocolate in there.
For an even less-sweet, less-chocolatey swap, try carob chips made from the carob plant, more closely related to peas—it’s high in protein and entirely sugar-free. Both of these are vegan and can be substituted 1:1 for chocolate chips.
6. Heavy cream
Heavy cream, while delicious, adds a ton of calories and dairy fat to your baking. Swap it out for evaporated skim milk, which works well as a lower-calorie choice in cakes, scones and whipped cream. If your focus is sugar reduction, be aware that evaporated milk contains sugar for flavor. In this case, if fat isn’t a concern, swap in full-fat Greek yogurt 1:1 for heavy cream.
7. Food coloring
We’re not quite sure what’s in “FD&C Green Dye No. 2,” but we don’t think it’s particularly natural or good for us. In its place, drop a few teaspoons of matcha powder for a bright green hue and a large dose of antioxidants. Beet juice makes for a beautiful pink and provides iron, selenium and magnesium to your delicate baked goods.
Skip the artificial sugars and colors in baking sprinkles and top cookies and cakes with a handful of brightly colored dried fruit. Cranberries, figs, blueberries and gooseberries can make for some lovely decorations, providing vitamin C, folate and antioxidants while brightening up your dish.