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Better Baking: Low-fat Swaps That Won’t Sacrifice Taste

Who doesn’t love dessert? It’s a trusted friend when everyone else lets you down, it’s a big hug on a rough day, it’s a foolproof way to make yourself and others happy. Then come the sugar crash, the excess padding, and the terrible guilt that accompany a once-in-a-while treat that’s become a habit. Believe me, I speak from experience. 

But don’t be glum, my friends, because by making smart, low-fat substitutions for full-of-fat ingredients in your baking, you can have your cake and eat it, too—as well as your cookies and your brownies. 

Oil and Butter Substitutes
Butter and oil are the building blocks of any successful baking endeavor; they’re what make delicious desserts so fluffy, tender, and flavorful. While no substitute for either of these ingredients tastes quite as good as the original, the calories and fat you’ll save make up for it. 

For butter: Either stick margarine or shortening is an effective butter substitute. Because shortening comes pre-aerated, it achieves the same tenderness that butter does in cake recipes. Avoid butter or margarine spreads, however, as they aren’t the proper consistency.  

For oil: Trading oil for applesauce is an excellent way to reduce fat content in recipes, but it’s best for cakes and breads, rather than for cookies, as it precludes crispness in any recipes it’s used in. Because applesauce is rich in pectin, which coats individual grains of flour the same way oil does, it preserves moistness in sweet treats by inhibiting gluten production. However, applesauce is wetter than oil and too much of it can make batter soupy, so it can’t be substituted in a 1:1 ratio. Instead, use half as much applesauce as you would oil when baking, and mix it with two tablespoons of oil to start, adjusting the proportions of each as needed. 

Egg Substitutes
Eggs act as leavening agents (the whites help make cakes light and fluffy), binding agents (holding all the ingredients together in cookies and muffins), and emulsifiers (lending a creamy texture to all baked goods). But despite their importance, they’re high in unhealthy cholesterol and relatively high in fat, which explains the ever-increasing popularity of premade egg substitutes, such as Egg Beaters, which are made from real eggs but are lower-calorie and fat- and cholesterol-free.  

Unfortunately, when it comes to baking endeavors, egg substitutes aren’t a failsafe ingredient. As Shirley Corriher, a food scientist and the author of Cookwise: The Secrets of Cooking Revealed, explained to Cooking Light magazine, “Because they don’t have yolks, they can’t serve as emulsifiers; it’s the natural lecithin in the yolks that helps make an emulsion.” While you can likely get away with using one-quarter cup of egg substitute to replace one egg in a recipe that calls for four eggs, it’s not advisable to replace all the real eggs, as you’ll sacrifice texture and consistency by doing so. Instead, increase the proportion of egg whites in the recipe (subbing in two egg whites for each whole egg the recipe calls for), but be sure to retain at least one whole egg to reap the benefits only the yolk can provide.

Another option is to mash up half of a banana or use one-quarter cup of applesauce per egg in denser baked goods, such as pancakes, banana bread, and muffins. However, because these ingredients lack the leavening properties of eggs, you’ll need to compensate by adding a bit more baking powder or baking soda to ensure that these items rise properly.

Milk and Cream Substitutes
Liquid dairy products may look harmless, but one cup of heavy whipping cream packs a walloping 840 calories and eighty-eight grams of fat, and even whole milk contains 160 calories and eight grams of fat per cup. The good news is, it’s easy to replace these ingredients with more healthful ones, without diminishing the taste or texture of your recipe.

For whole milk: This one is a no-brainer—just swap low-fat buttermilk, skim milk, or 1 percent milk in a 1:1 ratio for whole milk.

For heavy cream: Use fat-free evaporated milk in a 1:1 ratio, or low-fat ricotta cheese blended with a small amount of beaten egg white, in lieu of heavy cream. If you don’t have these items on hand, simply blend two tablespoons of cornstarch plus one tablespoon of all-purpose flower into one cup of nonfat milk, using a wire whisk.

Chocolate Substitutes
Chocolate makes the world go ’round, but it’s full of saturated fat and high in calories. To replace solid, unsweetened chocolate with a healthier alternative, mix three level tablespoons of good-quality cocoa powder with 1 tablespoon of heart-healthy canola oil. Then top off the recipe with a few shavings of solid chocolate to make it extra-tasty. 

Texture Tips
You’ve got your oven preheating and your substitutions ready to go—now what? The techniques you use to incorporate lower-fat ingredients into your baked goods can mean the difference between doughy and leaden or feathery and tender. While naturally denser baked goods, such as thick cakes, quick breads, and muffins, are more readily convertible, fluffier items can also be modified, with careful coaxing. 

When reducing fats in cakes or other recipes that call for creaming butter to promote aeration, beat the egg whites until they hold stiff (but not dry) peaks, and then fold them gently into the batter at the end of the mixing process. Once the pan is in the oven, keep a close eye on it, as reduced-fat recipes often need less time to cook and/or a lower cooking temperature than their full-fat versions. Test each item for doneness frequently, and lower the oven temperature in twenty-five-degree increments as needed. 

If your efforts to concoct a lower-fat dish yield a tough or rubbery result, recommends adding one or two tablespoons of soy lecithin granules, a by-product of soy-oil production, to the batter next time to improve the texture. 

Kooky Kakes
And if all of the above sounds like too much work, rest assured that there are shortcuts available to satisfy even the most impatient baker’s sweet tooth. These recipes may look suspect, but they’ve earned rave reviews all over the Internet. 

Cola Cake
1 package chocolate cake mix
1 can diet cola

Blend powdered cake mix with cola; bake as directed.

Angel-Sprite Cake
1 package angel food cake mix
1 can lemon-lime soda 

Blend powdered cake mix with cola; bake as directed.

Black-Bean Brownies
1 box commercially prepared brownie mix
1 (15.5-ounce) can black beans, undrained

Open can of beans and pour into blender. Blend until smooth.
Mix puréed beans thoroughly with brownie mix; bake according to package directions.

Everything in Moderation – Even the Healthy Stuff
Give yourself a pat on the back for being a health-conscious baker, but try not to lose sight of the fact that desserts are supposed to be at least a teensy bit decadent—that’s what separates them from carrot sticks. By nature, our beloved cakes, cookies, and breakfast pastries just aren’t the same when they’re deprived entirely of the elements that make them so yummy in the first place—to say nothing of the fact that our bodies need some fat to thrive. That’s no excuse to eat an entire chocolate cream pie in one sitting, of course, but it is a reminder to mix pleasure with business, so to speak, by retaining some of the original building blocks of your favorite baked goods when you combine them with healthier ingredients. Now, if only we could find a way to make broccoli taste like brownies.