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 I 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.)
Using healthier fats
You may have been told to reduce the amount of saturated and trans fat in your diet because of the effects these fats can have on your blood cholesterol level. A diet high in saturated fat can raise your total and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, which increases your risk of heart disease. Trans fat can also raise LDL cholesterol levels and additionally lower HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels.
Foods that are high in saturated fat include fatty red meats, butter, cheese, cream, whole milk, and coconut oil. Foods high in trans fat include some margarines and shortening. Other sources of trans fat include many commercially baked goods, such as crackers, cookies, and cakes, and commercially fried foods, such as French fries and donuts.
When cooking at home, try replacing butter, margarine that contains trans fat, and shortening with liquid vegetable oils such as canola, flaxseed, peanut, olive, safflower, or sunflower oils. For example, oil can be used in place of butter when sautéing vegetables or browning meats. However, I’ve had mixed results when substituting oil for the solid fat in quick breads, cakes, cookies, and pie crusts and prefer to use recipes that have been designed to use oil.
Reducing the sugar
With almost 800 calories per cup, sugar can contribute a lot of calories and many grams of carbohydrate to a dish. It can often be reduced in recipes by one-fourth to one-third. In other words, if a recipe calls for 1 cup of sugar, you can reduce that amount to 3/4 cup or 2/3 cup. When you use less sugar in a recipe, you can enhance the sweetness in the food with spices and flavorings such as cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, or vanilla extract.
In yeast breads, sugar is necessary for the growth of the yeast, which is what makes the bread rise. Omitting or reducing the sugar in yeast bread recipes could result in dense, flat loaves and is not recommended.
In candies, crystallized sugar provides the proper consistency and texture. It’s not advisable to reduce the sugar in candy recipes. If you enjoy making candy and wish to eat less sugar, your best bet is to eat less candy.
In jams, jellies, and marmalades, sugar acts as a preservative as well as a sweetener. For safety reasons, therefore, use recipes developed for reduced-sugar preserves rather than adjusting your own recipes. Also be aware that homemade, reduced-sugar jams and jellies may have a shorter shelf life — both at room temperature before opening and refrigerated after opening — than full-sugar varieties.
Sugar substitutes can be used to replace sugar in some items. However, nonnutritive sweeteners do not add volume, tenderness, or moistness the way sugar does, nor do they brown foods, ferment, or act as a preservative. For foods that rely on sugar for their structure, appearance, and texture — such as cakes, cookies, muffins, and quick breads — replace only part of the sugar called for in the recipe with low-calorie sweeteners. For foods in which sugar is used primarily for its sweet taste — such as beverages, sauces, marinades, frozen desserts, puddings, custards, and fruit fillings for pies and cobblers — you may be able to replace all of the sugar with low-calorie sweeteners.
When using artificial sweeteners, be sure to follow the manufacturer’s directions for amounts to use in place of sugar and types of foods to use them in. Some sweeteners lose sweetness when heated to high temperatures for extended periods, while others do not.
Lowering the sodium
Most of the sodium in the typical American diet comes from foods that have had salt or high-sodium ingredients added during processing or preparation. Fast foods and commercially prepared items such as frozen entrées are notoriously high in sodium. But even if you prepare most of your food at home, you may be adding sodium in the form of bouillon cubes, canned broth or soup, canned tomato products with added salt, soy sauce and other seasonings, or just plain table salt.
For most main dishes, side dishes, soups, and salads, you can reduce the salt in a recipe by half or eliminate it completely. (You may want to add other flavorings such as herbs, spices, or garlic to compensate for less salt.) You can also seek out low-sodium or reduced-sodium ingredients when a recipe calls for broth, canned or dried soups, or canned vegetables. In some dishes you may be able to substitute a fresh ingredient, such as fresh tomatoes in place of canned, salted tomatoes, for a substantial reduction in sodium. (For more suggestions, see “Reducing Sodium.”)
In baked goods that don’t require yeast, begin by reducing the salt by half to lower the sodium content. However, for recipes that call for yeast, don’t reduce the amount of salt. It’s necessary for the growth of the yeast, and reducing it could result in dense, flat loaves of bread.
Fiber is an essential part of a healthy diet and has been shown to help lower blood glucose, blood cholesterol, and blood pressure levels. It also helps to maintain the health of the colon, and a diet high in fiber promotes weight control since high-fiber foods cause you to feel fuller with fewer calories. Many high-fiber foods such as whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables are loaded with other healthy nutrients, too. You can add fiber to your recipes by using ingredients such as whole wheat pasta, high-fiber cereals, whole wheat flour, fruits, vegetables, dried beans and peas, nuts, and seeds.
To add fiber to homemade breads, cakes, pancakes, or cookies, try substituting whole wheat flour for one-fourth to one-half of the all-purpose flour called for in the recipe. This will change the final flavor, appearance, and texture of the product, so if you and your family are not used to the flavor of whole-grain foods, you may want to start by replacing only one-fourth of the all-purpose flour with whole wheat flour. As you become accustomed to eating more whole grains, you can increase the proportion of whole wheat flour.
If you prefer the lighter color of products made with all-purpose flour, try white whole wheat flour. It has all the fiber and nutrition of traditional whole wheat flour with a milder flavor and lighter color.
Whole wheat pastry flour is milled from lower-protein, softer wheat than whole wheat flour. It can replace half of the all-purpose flour when making items such as cookies, pie crusts, cakes, and muffins.
In other types of dishes, such as casseroles and soups, you can incorporate more fiber by adding extra vegetables or dried beans and by replacing refined grains such as white rice or pasta with less refined grains such as bulgur, brown rice, wild rice, quinoa, or whole-grain pasta. Even regular bread crumbs can be replaced with high-fiber cereal crumbs for additional fiber.
Reducing portion size
Some special recipes are best left alone, even if they do contain a lot of sugar or fat. In some cases, attempting to make a recipe healthier will yield a disappointing finished product. One of my friends found this out when she substituted light butter for regular butter when making her pecan dainty cookies. Using the light butter resulted in cookies without the desired texture and flavor. In other cases, particularly when preparing family favorites, the social pressure to make the dish “the way we always made it” may be high.
But there are still ways to avoid overeating such dishes if and when you decide to make them. One way is to reduce your portion size. For example, if your cheesy potato recipe gives the serving size as 1 cup, you can reduce your serving to 1/2 cup. That would cut the calories in half without changing the flavor and texture. If having left-over cheesy potatoes sitting in the refrigerator is too tempting, make only one serving per person, so you finish the dish at one meal.
Another option, which works well at holiday times, is to send the leftovers home with your guests. You can also share special desserts with your neighbors or coworkers. They will enjoy the treat, and you won’t be faced with half a cake or a bag of cookies enticing you to eat them.
Now that you have some ideas on how to make your recipes healthier, pick one recipe to start with, rather than trying to overhaul your entire recipe collection at once. Then pick one change to make in the recipe. For example, if you’re making a sour cream–based dip, start by substituting reduced-fat or fat-free sour cream for the regular product, but keep the other ingredients the same, then evaluate how it tastes. Could you also reduce the salt? Or does it need something added, such as a squeeze of lemon juice or a dash of hot sauce? Keep notes on your changes so you can reproduce them if they worked or alter them if they didn’t.
When you make small changes, the people you’re cooking for may not even detect that you altered the recipe. Over time, however, you and they may grow to prefer the taste and texture of dishes with less fat, sodium, and sugar and with more whole grains, legumes, vegetables, and other healthful ingredients.