I love to bake, but I almost never follow the original recipe. I’m always looking for ways to pack more nutrition into my treats without sacrificing flavour or that light, cakey, crumby, chewy, flakey texture we all love! I thought I’d share some of the swaps and substitutions I make when I’m in the kitchen, and what nutritional value you’ll get out of these changes if you try them too!
There’s no reason why baked goods can’t be enjoyed as part of a healthy diet. But by baking your morning muffin at home instead of picking one up at the drive thru on your way to work or popping into your favourite cafe, you control the nutritional value and portion size. Loading up your homemade baking with whole grains, healthy fats, and keeping the sugar content in check can really boost the nutritional value and make your treat more of a nutrition powerhouse than a guilty pleasure.
1. Whole Grains
White flour has it’s place, but when you want to get the most nutritional bang for your buck, whole wheat flour is the way to go. There are three parts of a wheat kernel – the bran, the germ and the endosperm. The bran is where your fiber comes from, and it also contains niacin. The germ contains most of the fat in wheat as well as thiamine and riboflavin. And finally, the endosperm is the main starchy component of wheat that makes up flour. The endosperm contains most of the protein. The difference between whole wheat and white flour is that whole wheat flour has some of the bran and germ added back into the mix, whereas white flour has been completely stripped of the bran and germ.
You can almost always replace white flour with whole wheat flour in many baked good recipes, either completely or by replacing half of the white flour called for in the recipe with whole wheat flour. Almost any muffin recipe will hold up just fine to this change in both texture and flavour. The main exception to this rule would be with lighter, fluffier baked goods, as the whole wheat flour is a little heavier and doesn’t rise quite as easily in more delicate treats.
Whole Wheat v. Whole Grain
Whole wheat should not be confused with whole grain. The whole grain label you see o some products indicates that the flour or grains used in the products contain all the essential parts and naturally-occurring nutrients of the entire grain in its original proportions. Whole wheat may differ in that there might be proportionately less of the germ remaining in the flour, as the fat content can lead to faster spoiling and the development of off flavours. So in the interest of longer shelf life, more of the germ may be removed in whole wheat products.
You can also buy wheat bran and wheat germ, and add these to your recipe in place of some of the white flour. These should be added in smaller quantities if you want to maintain the texture of a muffin or cake recipe as they are a little heavier and not as processed as flour. I would suggest starting with replacing a quarter of the white flour with wheat bran or wheat germ, or a mixture of the two.
Finally oat flour is another quick substitute. You can buy it or make your own at home with whole oats if you have a food processor. Replacing all of the white flour with oat flour will change the texture of your end product and make muffins and cakes more dense, so sticking to half or even a third is a better idea. Oats and oat flour make a great addition to cookie and bar recipes! This is a great way to increase your fiber. I use oats in my no-bake Gingerbread cookie dough bites.
My hearty wholegrain pancakes are also a yummy place to start if you are looking to experiment more with whole grains in your kitchen.
2. Healthy Fat, Not Low-Fat
There’s nothing wrong with using butter, margarine, shortening or oil in your baking. Fat is an essential part of a healthy diet. What’s important is getting a variety of different fats from different sources so we are getting all the nutrients we need, and in appropriate quantities. Fats used in baked goods would be considered hidden fats, that is we can’t see them and maybe don’t think of a muffin as a source of fat the same as we would spreading butter on a slice of bread. So, when we are baking, cutting back on the fat where possible, and improving the nutritional quality of the fats we are using can really help.
Comparison of Dietary Fats
We tend to put fats into categories, like olive oil is a monounsaturated fat, corn oil is a polyunsaturated fat, and butter is a saturated fat, when in fact all fats and oils contain more than one type of fat, just in different proportions. For example, sunflower oil is mainly made up of omega-6 fats, and flaxseed oil is mainly made of omega-3 fats. As much as we are all stuck on olive oil, there are lots of other options with different health benefits. Yogurt, nut butters, and apple sauce are all great substitutes for some or all of the fat called for in your recipe.
Greek yogurt has the added benefit of providing a bit of protein and calcium, and can always be substituted for sour cream which has way more fat and way less protein! You’ll still get all the flavour and the thick creamy texture with way more nutritional value. Choose plain greek yogurt to avoid adding extra sugar to your recipe, or if you use a flavoured yogurt, cut back the other sources of sugar in the recipe.
Nut butters provide a little bit of protein and different vitamins and minerals depending on which variety you’re using (vitamin E, calcium, iron, folate), and can be substituted either completely or half and half for butter or oil. Again, choose natural, unsweetened nut and seed butters whenever possible, or cut back the added sugar called for in the recipe if you are using a sweetened nut butter.
Apple sauce isn’t a fat at all, of course! This is a tried and true substitution trick and a great way to reduce the fat in a recipe while maintaining flavour and texture. Always choose unsweetened apple sauce.
Chia, Hemp and Flax
Ground chia, hemp and flax seeds are also a great option. Adding a tablespoon or two of any of these to a recipe won’t change it noticeably. These can simply be additions to a recipe, they don’t need to replace any other ingredients. Chia and hemp seeds contain iron and folate, and flax will give you some calcium and selenium in addition to those healthy omega-3s!
3. Cut Back on Sugar
We all love baked goods for their sweetness, and a cookie or muffin that just isn’t sweet enough just doesn’t cut it when you want a treat! Sugar is a necessary ingredient when you’re baking, but there are a few things I like to do to keep my sugar intake in check. First, cutting back the sugar. An obvious one, but a lot of the time I find you don’t miss the sweetness at all if you remove maybe a third of what the recipe calls for.
Use Flavourful Sugars
Another thing you can try is to use more flavourful sugars, like molasses, honey, or maple syrup. Sugars with deep flavours like these options can also help you get away with using less.
Finally, adding fruit is a great way to replace some of the sugar. Mashed banana is always a great sugar substitute. Adding raisins or chopped dates to your cookies and muffins can also help you cut back some of the added sugar but still get that sweetness you crave with the added benefit of some fiber which is important for slowing the release of sugar into your blood stream so you don’t crash later.
This chocolate cherry smoothie has no added sugar whatsoever, and is plenty sweet from the cherries alone!
What are your favourite smart substitutions when you’re in the kitchen? I’d love to hear about all your tips and tricks! What works for you?