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How to Make Any Baked Good Healthier

By Ariel Knutson
January 11, 2021
Photo Credit: Daxiao Productions

Raise your hand if you’re not done baking just because the holidays are over. I’ll basically find any excuse to make another loaf of banana bread. Or cookies, cake, or cardamom buns. You get the point. While I could probably eat my weight in butter and sugar, I also know it’s not always the healthiest option. But that doesn’t mean I’m putting away my stand mixer. With a few smart ingredient swaps and add-ins, it’s easy to make healthier baked goods that still satisfy your sweet tooth. Sure, none of these things will turn your cupcake into a green smoothie, but that’s not really what you’re going for, anyway. 

Some words of wisdom before you go off and play mad scientist in the kitchen: Start out small with your ingredient swap experiments — you might have to adjust ratios of things or change how long you need to bake something. Be bold, but be patient.

1. Choose organic ingredients.

If you’re able to afford using organic ingredients in your baked goods, this is the best place to start, especially when it comes to dairy. Not only can you be sure that it’s free of antibiotics and growth hormones, organic milk is thought to be higher in omega-3 fats (although the differences isn’t that significant difference). Grass-fed butter — which is an add-on certification for the USDA ‘organic’ label — uses milk from grass-fed cows to create a product that is higher in omega-3s and conjugated linoleic acids (CLAs).

And of course, if you’re baking with any fruit or vegetables, make sure you’re buying organic if they’re on the “Dirty Dozen” list, which looks at the pesticide contamination in produce. 

sugar alternatives

2. Use less white sugar.

Sugar does a lot more than add sweetness to your favorite baked goods. It keeps your cookies soft, it stabilizes your meringues, and adds height to your cakes. Even so, there are ways to lessen or alter the kind of sugar you’re using without any negative impact on what you’re baking. You can reduce the white sugar in a recipe by about a third without seeing any negative results.

You can also swap out some of the white sugar for something a little more natural, like honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar, and sometimes fruit purées like applesauce

Read More: 5 Better-for-You Sweeteners and How to Use Them

3. Swap white flour for whole-wheat.

As the name implies, whole-wheat flour uses the whole wheat kernel — the bran, endosperm, and germ. As a result, it’s higher in protein content (about 15% versus 10-12% for most all-purpose flours) and fiber. Swapping out all-purpose flour for whole-wheat can be tricky, but King Arthur’s Flour says you can swap 25% of all-purpose flour for whole-wheat flour without changing the flavor or texture of your recipe. They also recommend that you substitute flours by volume instead of weight, because whole-wheat flour weighs less. 

Olive oil

4. Switch out your fats.

If you’re looking to switch up the amount of fat you’re using, fruit is a great place to start. You can substitute half the butter in a recipe with mashed bananas, apple butter, prunes, or avocado. You can also swap the kind of fat, by using extra-virgin olive oil, for example, in any recipe that calls for melted butter. According to Bob’s Red Mill, a good rule of thumb to follow is for every one cup of butter, substitute with ¾ cup oil.

And butter isn’t the only fat to play with in a recipe. Other healthy substitutes include using Greek yogurt instead of sour cream or skim ricotta for half of the needed cream cheese. 

5. Sneak in some healthy extras.

Another easy way to amp up the health factor in your baked goods is by adding a couple healthy extras to existing recipes. Shredded veggies like carrots and zucchini are classic additions to sponge cakes and cupcakes, and puréed pumpkin is great when swirled into brownies. Small note: You might have to adjust the time in the oven based on the added moisture.

If vegetables aren’t your thing, try adding nuts and oats to your next batch of cookies for a dose of healthy fat and fiber.

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