3 Sweet Hacks for Healthy Baking
Try these tricks for secretly good-for-you treats. Then get started with 16 healthy baking recipes.
Featured photographs by Brittany Conerly. Graphic design by Luke Atwood Abiol and Rachael Nusbaum.
It feels like a lifetime ago, but I lost 100 pounds in the late 90s. I never could’ve done it if it meant giving up baking; sweet treats and good bread are a necessity, in my opinion. As the pounds came off, I discovered that whether you’re trying to lose weight or just maintain a healthy lifestyle, baking goodies that only taste decadent isn’t as hard as it seems — as long as you know a handful of simple hacks.
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Hack #1: Cut out bad fats
Try canned pumpkin, Greek yogurt, and extra-virgin olive oil instead of coconut oil, butter, and egg yolks.
Back when I lost the weight, we were told to avoid all fats, but since then scientists have drilled down to uncover the real culprits: trans-fat and saturated fat. Mostly, this means minimizing any fats that are solid at room temperature — butter, certainly, but also vegetable shortening, margarine, lard, and even coconut oil. Saturated fat mostly comes from animal products, so to reduce it you’ll also have to watch out for things like full-fat dairy and egg yolks (the whites don’t have saturated fat).
Luckily, there are lots of healthy baking substitutes that help you avoid bad-for-you fats. Low-fat Greek yogurt and reduced-fat cream cheese can replace some of the butter, as can fruit and vegetable products like applesauce, avocado, canned pumpkin, and even pureed beans. Good-for-you vegetable oils, like extra-virgin olive oil, can replace butter in any recipe that doesn’t call for creaming butter and sugar together to provide fluffy texture. Because butter has milk solids and water in addition to fat, use a little less oil, in a 3:4 ratio — 3 tablespoons of oil for every 4 of butter. (I especially love the flavor boost my brownies get from a good-quality, fruity extra-virgin olive oil.) Mix chia seeds or ground flaxseeds with water to make faux eggs — or in most cases, simply swap two egg whites for each whole egg.
Baking recipes with less saturated fat
Simple ingredients swaps, usually subbing a plant-based ingredient for an animal-based one, can help you make tasty treats that are better for your health.
Carrot cake sounds healthy — it’s got carrots! But it’s also loaded with saturated fat from eggs, butter, and that decadent cream cheese frosting. Here you’ll use heart-healthy canola oil, egg whites, reduced-fat cream cheese, and Greek yogurt for a cake that tastes every bit as luscious as the classic version, with just 3 grams of saturated fat per serving.
These gorgeous, fudgy cupcakes look downright dangerous, but clever ingredients make them everyday-friendly. Pureed beets (one of my favorite swaps in chocolate-based goodies) and plant-based milk keep the cake moist with very little fat, while avocados transform into a silky, deeply chocolatey frosting.
My perfect chocolate chip cookie is soft and chewy in the center, crunchy around the edges. This recipe achieves that, with just two tablespoons of butter in the entire batch. Applesauce and egg white take its place, and you’ll also get a fiber boost from whole-wheat pastry flour.
An assortment of good-for-you ingredients keep this tasty bread at just half a gram of saturated fat per slice: applesauce, flaxseed, nondairy milk, canola oil, and of course, plenty of shredded zucchini. Warm spices like cinnamon and nutmeg add flavor but no calories. Pro tip: substitute whole-wheat pastry flour for half the all-purpose.
Hack #2: Use less sugar
Reach for fruity applesauce, bananas, and dates instead of maple syrup, honey, and white sugar.
The new Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends you get no more than 10% of your daily calories from added sugar — that’s any sugar that doesn’t occur naturally in the food you’re eating. While most of us get too much sugar from processed foods, your home baking also counts.
Right off the top in most baking recipes, you can cut the amount of sugar by one-quarter without affecting the results. For cookies it won’t make much difference, but take a little more care with cakes — there, the sugar adds moisture as well as flavor. I love using dates, ripe bananas, and applesauce to bring down the sugar, since they all have some natural moistness. Some people swap refined white or brown sugar for natural ones like honey, maple syrup, or molasses, thinking that less-processed sugar must be healthier — just know that your body will react to all those sweeteners the same way.
Baking recipes with less sugar
Each of these treats uses fruit or other strategies to eliminate or reduce the amount of sugar.
Mashed, ripe banana and just ½ cup of maple syrup provide all the sweetness you need for these cookies. Safflower oil replaces the butter and ground flaxseed replaces the egg, so they’re also saturated fat-free. Perfect for lunch boxes!
At peak ripeness, many fruits have so much natural sugar that you only need to add a dusting of refined sugar— as is the case here, where you’ll use just 1 ½ tablespoons in the filling, plus another 1/3 cup for the crunchy crumble topping. Healthy boost #1: When I can’t get truly ripe fruit, I swap in frozen — it’s usually harvested at the perfect moment. Healthy boost #2: To make the topping completely whole-grain, use whole-wheat flour instead of all-purpose.
Perfect for breakfast or as a snack, these muffins are simply packed with good-for-you ingredients like rolled oats and whole-wheat flour. Applesauce adds sweetness and moistness, so you only need 1/3 cup of sugar for the whole batch. Use a heart-healthy oil like canola in place of the butter to minimize the saturated fat, too.
A classic apple pie could have more than 20 grams of sugar per slice, but it doesn’t have to be that way. This recipe comes in at less than half that by pairing tart Granny Smiths — the traditional choice for pie — with naturally sweeter Galas. The whole thing only has 6 tablespoons of sugar! Leaving off a top crust or crumble also shaves off a considerable amount of saturated fat. You still get the flavor of your grandma’s apple pie, but in a version you can enjoy every day.
Hack #3: Boost beneficial nutrients
Bake with cashews, white beans, and whole-wheat flour instead of white flour and white sugar.
One of my favorite tricks is to add protein, fiber, or both to baked goods. Those nutrients keep me feeling full longer, so I eat less. Many of the ingredient swaps that help you avoid saturated fat can also come in handy here — for instance, Greek yogurt is a terrific source of protein. Canned beans offer protein and fiber, while pureed fruits and vegetables provide fiber. And of course, swapping fiber-filled whole grains for white flour is always a good idea. In muffins and quick breads, I almost always use 100% whole-wheat pastry flour in place of all-purpose. Not every recipe can handle 100% whole grain, though, so start by substituting one-third and increase it if you like the results.
Baking recipes that boost protein and whole grains
Bump up the nutritional content of your baked goods by changing or adding ingredients.
You’d never know it to look at them, but these fudgy brownies are packed with nutrients. Blitzing together whole-grain rolled oats and a can of black beans gives them body (but don’t worry, you won’t taste the beans), and eliminates the need for added fat. Sweetener made from dates means you can skip refined sugar, while chopped pistachios add a little bit of crunch and healthy fat. One brownie gives you 4 grams each of protein and fiber.
Chewy, deeply peanutty, and nutritious enough for breakfast, these cookies get protein from four separate ingredients: unsweetened peanut butter, egg, whole-wheat flour, and cooked quinoa. When I’m serving quinoa with dinner, I like to make a double batch for cookies the next day.
A perfectly satisfying snack cake that’s ready in about half an hour, these gluten-free goodies get a protein boost from a can of chickpeas and a hearty scoop of natural peanut butter. Yes, you can have these for breakfast, too.
Tofu is the secret ingredient here — its mild flavor means you’ll never notice it, but its presence boosts the protein and helps keep this cake beautifully moist. Finely ground rolled oats add body, while tart lemon and juicy blueberries keep things lively.
Baking recipes for special diets
Following a particular diet doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy baked treats — you just need to find the right recipes.
The Mediterranean Diet ranks at the top of healthy-diet lists because (among other things) it features fruit, nuts, natural sweeteners, and abundant olive oil. With just six ingredients including clementines, honey, ground almonds, and olive oil, this cake suits the diet perfectly.
If you’ve gone keto, you’re drastically reducing your carb intake while eating plenty of fat. So how are sugar cookies possible? Simple: Use a substitute like erythritol instead of sugar, almond flour instead of wheat flour, cream cheese, and butter.
Whether you’ve given up gluten because you have celiac disease or you simply feel better when you avoid it, you may struggle to find gluten-free versions of classic baked goods that taste like the originals. This banana bread swaps brown rice flour and oat flour for the wheat kind, but the result is every bit as comforting as you remember.
This miraculous, melt-in-your-mouth cheesecake has no cheese, no egg, and no dairy. Tofu, raw cashews, and plant-based yogurt and milk provide all the creaminess you need, while a bit of lemon juice and vanilla give it that distinctive flavor. Top it with a berry compote and you’ll believe you’re eating the original.
Explore more recipes for healthy treats
If you’re inspired to change up your cooking for some better-for-you options, we have lots more ideas in these next articles.