It was my turn to host a friends’ luncheon, and I was making a chocolate cheesecake for dessert. The picture of the cheesecake in the cooking magazine had “delectable” written all over it, but my dietitian brain kicked in as I read the list of ingredients. The recipe called for lots of butter, cream cheese, and sour cream. With no time to do a test run before I made the cake for my friends, I jumped in and tinkered with the ingredients anyway. I replaced the full-fat cream cheese and sour cream with reduced-fat and fat-free products, and I reduced the fat in the crust, too. The cheesecake looked good as I pulled it out of the oven, but how did it taste?
When it came time to serve it, I held my breath as I passed around the slices. Would my friends like it? They did, and they were surprised when I told them it was a reduced-fat cheesecake. I was pleased with the results, too, and while I don’t recommend making last-minute recipe changes when cooking for special events or for large groups of people, this experience demonstrated how it’s often possible to make changes to recipes that not only make the dish healthier but that also produce food that looks and tastes great.
This article lays out a few general guidelines to help you lighten up almost any favorite recipe that you may have stopped making because it’s too high in fat, sugar, or sodium — and warns you about some changes that probably won’t yield good results.
Reducing the fat
When making baked goods such as cakes or quick breads, applesauce and other fruit purees can be used in place of some of the fat to trim the fat and calories. Fat helps to hold in moisture, tenderize the product, and cause browning in baked goods, and the fiber and natural sugars in fruit purees perform some of these same functions.
Begin by substituting applesauce, mashed banana, commercially prepared fruit-based fat replacers, or prune or pumpkin puree for half of the oil, butter, margarine, or shortening in a recipe. For example, if your recipe calls for one cup of oil, use half a cup of oil and half a cup of applesauce. Mix the batter, and if it seems too dry, add a little more applesauce. If your first experiment yields a tasty product, try replacing even more fat the next time you make it. Continue reducing the fat until you’ve found the lowest amount that will still give you the desired results.
Cookies can be more challenging. They rely on the fat in butter, margarine, or shortening, as well as on sugar, for their appealing texture and taste. However, it’s usually possible to reduce the sugar and fat called for in a cookie recipe by 25% and, with no other changes, still get good results.
Another way to reduce the fat when baking is to substitute two egg whites or 1/4 cup of egg substitute for each whole egg. This also reduces cholesterol. Egg whites or egg substitute can also be used in place of whole eggs when coating foods with crumbs. Egg substitute can be used for part or all of the eggs in main dishes like quiche or spaghetti carbonara.
When choosing and preparing meats and poultry, lower the fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol in your dish by choosing lean cuts of meat, taking the skin off poultry, and reducing the amount of meat in your recipe. For example, make slightly smaller hamburgers, or use 3/4 of a pound of ground turkey breast meat in your chili instead of a full pound.
For a list of leaner meats and lower-fat dairy products, see “Lower-Fat Meat and Dairy Products.”
Changing your cooking methods can also reduce the fat in your meals. If your recipe calls for frying ingredients in oil or butter, try using a nonstick pan or spraying your pan with nonstick cooking spray instead. For example, use nonstick cooking spray in place of fat when you’re cooking pancakes or frying eggs. Depending on what you’re making, you may also be able to use a lower-fat cooking method such as baking, broiling, grilling, steaming, or poaching. All of these methods can enhance the flavor of the food without adding the extra fat that frying adds. (A good basic cookbook like The Joy of Cooking can tell you how to use these methods for various types of foods.)