Healthy (Baking) Hacks From A Dietitian With A Serious Sweet Tooth

Are you dusting off your cookie cutters and getting ready to bake up a storm? Before you start, check out this can't-miss guide to sneakily nutritious treats!

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Before I was a dietitian, I dreamed of becoming a pastry chef. (Because the two are so similar, you know?) Although my career twisted into this new, health-focused direction, I never lost my passion for baking. If anything, I’m now more passionate than ever, determined to channel all of my nutritional knowledge into producing a better baked good. Since this is the season of giving and all, why not share some of the tips I’ve learned along the way?

MY ABSOLUTE FAVORITE HEALTHY HACKS: BAKING EDITION

Instead of white (all-purpose) flour, try something with more fiber. My favorite is white whole wheat flour, which is a whole grain (so there’s plenty of fiber), but it’s softer in texture than traditional whole wheat. Whole wheat pastry flour, oat flour, and the more elusive barley flour also make formidable allies when baking. Grain-free flours like almond meal and coconut flour earn honorable mentions, but their textures do not lend themselves to substitutions in absolutely every recipe.

Best in: most quick breads, brownies, and chocolate chip cookies

Avoid with: angel food cake, sugar cookies, or other delicate desserts

The *: I find the complexity of whole grain baked goods to be unparalleled by their refined counterparts. I bake almost exclusively with them. Not every recipe will disguise these higher fiber flours completely (many will), but I challenge you to give them a chance.

Instead of shortening, try coconut oil. Make sure that it’s solidified, as it melts at fairly low temperatures; storing it in the fridge is a safe bet. Coconut oil has the consistency of shortening without containing trans fats or undergoing the same degree of chemical processing. You can also try baking with butter in place of shortening, although it won’t always come out exactly the same.

Best in: any dough or batter, when solidified

Avoid with: frostings; go the all-butter route here instead, and make sure it isn’t stored in a particularly warm environment

The *: Honestly, there are enough recipes out there that you’re generally better off finding one that doesn’t call for shortening in the first place. It takes the guesswork out of the process since there isn’t really anything in nature that is quite like man-made shortening.

Instead of butter, try mashed avocado. One medium avocado is usually about one cup mashed or the equivalent of about two sticks of butter. Avocados have a creamy texture, mild flavor, and more monounsaturated fats than saturated ones, which is great for heart health.

Best in: recipes that call for creaming butter

Avoid with: recipes that call for melted butter, or plain recipes like sugar cookies or vanilla cake.

The *: No, your dessert will not turn green, but you do have to mash the avocado really well. Any clumps that remain in the batter will remain green even after baking, so mash, mash, mash! It’s also best to start with recipes that are more likely to hide those clumps: anything chocolate, for example, or recipes with “stuff” in them like nuts, dried fruits, or chocolate chips.

Instead of sugar, try…okay, this is the really hard one. Sugar is important for flavor and structure in baking, so messing with it means messing with chemistry. Yikes. First, simply try decreasing the sugar by about 25%, which often can be done without ill effects. Next, go for a less refined or processed sugar, like lower-glycemic coconut sugar, naturally low-fructose pure maple syrup, or nutrient-rich, true-source certified honey. Some fantastic recipes actually use dates as the sole source of sweetness, although I’ve had more success following recipes that call for this than trying to make dates work in a recipe built for regular sugar.

Best in: any recipe calling for granulated or brown sugar

Avoid with: recipes that require powdered (confectioner’s) sugar

The *: When using maple syrup or honey, decrease the other liquids in the recipe by about 25% and decrease the oven temperature by 25 degrees Fahrenheit, since both of these sweeteners brown at lower temperatures than regular sugar.

This list merely scratches the surface of what’s possible with healthier baking. Sometimes we get so nervous to fail in the kitchen (and life!) that we become too afraid to try. It’s just a cookie (or cake, or…) recipe! If it flops, it flops. I’ve had cupcakes that crumbled (layer them with some whipped coconut cream and fruit and call them a parfait), peppermint pudding that tasted like toothpaste (dilute with some stale bread, chocolate, and milk for a tasty bread pudding), and black bean brownies that were described quite generously as “kind of earthy” (there was no saving those). It’s okay! We learn from those flops. We grow from them.

And more often than not, we bake up something magical.

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