I grew up in one of those health-nut families that has organic goji berries for dessert instead of Ben & Jerry’s (cue the eye-rolls or pitying looks). As a kid, I’d trot off to school with my lunch box full of apple slices, almonds, and celery sticks while the other kids gorged on Lunchables. My mother has been known to smuggle homemade kale chips into movie theaters in lieu of buying popcorn. Larger Whole Foods markets leave me so paralyzed with awe that I often find myself loitering near their salad bars, simply admiring the view. But I’ll let you in on a deep, dark secret: I have a sweet tooth.
In fact, I probably have a mouthful of sweet teeth, or a bicuspid and several molars at the very least. The point is, my lifelong commitment to follow nutritious eating habits has always been hampered by my illicit lust for the ultimate obstacle to a healthy diet: the almighty baked good. Cookies, pastries, cakes, pies—if you can describe it using the phrase “tender crumb” it’s going in my mouth, end of story.
So, how does one juggle a firm devotion to healthy eating with a borderline pathological lust for snickerdoodle cookies? Indulging only in moderation is key. But what about those who can’t bare to cut their cookie consumption down to a single weekly cheat day? Science to the rescue!
The Scientific Basis of Healthy Baking
Baking, as you may know, is essentially chemistry. Simply by combining certain ingredients in a specific order and applying heat, a baker creates the precise chemical reactions needed to achieve a desired flavor, texture, and consistency.
For example, a key component of flour is protein. When water is added to flour, its tightly coiled proteins unfurl to form gluten chains, which create strength and elasticity in things like bread dough and pasta.
Another crucial chemical factor in baking is sugar, which significantly impacts the tenderness and texture of baked treats. This is because sugar molecules bind with any water in the dough—meaning that the amount of sugar determines how much water is locked away, and how much water is available to other ingredients like flour. Too much sugar in your cookie dough means there’s little water left for the flour to build its strong and stretchy gluten chains, resulting in brittle cookies. Too little sugar will over-activate the gluten, resulting in tough, chewy cookies.
Bakers have long known that the ingredients which create the best-tasting, best-textured baked goods are highly refined flour, sugar, and fats—which have been heavily processed to remove anything that could affect the desired chemical reactions. Unfortunately, this processing also removes a lot of nutrients, which results in a significantly less healthy baked good.
Building a Better Baked Good
Luckily, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t alternative ingredients that fulfill similar chemical roles in the baking process—without sacrificing as much nutritional value. Any health-minded baker can find a middle ground between “oven-fresh” and “guilt-free” by applying a little creative revision to their recipes. Below is a list of easy substitutions and suggestions that I myself use quite frequently when baking cookies, muffins, and quick-breads. They won’t turn your homemade Pizookie or Nutella Swirl Cheesecake into a health food, but they’ll help reduce saturated fat and sugar, as well as add some extra nutritional value. You can even use a few of them to satisfy cravings for your favorite indulgent drinks. Experiment with one or two substitutions per recipe and figure out what suits your tastes. Happy baking!
Healthier Hacks, Tips, and Substitutions
If your recipe calls for cream cheese or sour cream…
You can maintain plenty of the creaminess created by these ingredients by using healthier dairy products instead. Try substituting equal parts plain Greek yogurt or pureed cottage cheese. Both will decrease the saturated fat in your baked good, plus pack a welcome punch of protein.
If your recipe calls for white flour…
Substitute whole wheat flour or quick-cook oats (ground in a food processor if possible), for up to half the flour called for in the recipe—it’ll sneak some additional fiber into your diet and decrease your intake of starchy simple carbs. Alternatively, substitute ground flaxseed for up to one quarter of the flour called for in the recipe for an influx of Omega-3s.
If your recipe calls for butter…
You may adapt certain baked goods like quick breads or muffins by substituting half the butter in the recipe for ingredients like applesauce, mashed bananas, canned pumpkin, pureed prunes, or even mashed avocado. The addition of these ingredients results in an ultra-moist, vitamin-rich treat.
If your recipe calls for eggs…
Substitute 1 whole egg for 2 egg whites to increase protein while decreasing cholesterol. 1 whole egg also generally equates to ¼ cup pureed silken tofu, ½ banana mixed with ½ teaspoon of baking powder, or 1 tablespoon flaxseed combined with 3 tablespoons of water.
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