The Best Ingredients to Bake With to Make Your Holiday Desserts Healthier
The holidays are fast approaching and that typically means holiday baking! I want everyone to enjoy holiday baking without feeling guilty or deprived. After all, baking during the holidays is one of my most treasured memory of the holidays growing up –– I’m sure that is the case for your family too.
Let’s be clear –– there is room for everything in our diet. However, it would be advantageous to look for ingredients that add nutritional value (i.e. more fiber, vitamins, minerals, etc.) and offer us bang for our food buck. Looking for more nutritious baking ingredients will simply keep our body more nourished and happier –– decreasing the chance that we are going to have a holiday dessert binge session at the end of the night.
Also, traditional holiday baking ingredients aren’t always plant-based, so we certainly need to make some substitutions to insert more plant-based goodness into our diet, while enjoying delicious baked goods.
Healthy Cooking During the Holidays
Today I will help guide you to find the best ingredients to bake with, add nutrition to your holiday desserts, and make them more plant-based!
Ingredients to Avoid While Baking
Ingredients that we can look to minimize, to make our desserts healthier include:
1. White Flour
We know that white flour contains carbohydrates – which, let’s just clarify for a moment – carbohydrates aren’t the problem. Carbohydrates are what our body uses first for energy. Our body loves carbs. The concern is that white flour is processed and stripped of its nutrients during processing.
The bran and the germ part of the grain are removed, leaving behind only the endosperm. White flour is low in fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Having a lot of white fiber during the holidays will essentially leave you feeling zapped of energy and not your greatest.
Oil certainly has a functional purpose in baked goods. Baked goods call for oil to keep them moist and tender. By attaching to dry ingredients, it encapsulates the gas released by the action of the baking powder and soda, slowing down the formation of gluten and creating light and fluffy foods.
However, in general, oils have minimal nutritional value besides providing fat. We do need fat in our diets, as fat helps with various bodily functions, including helping with the absorption of various nutrients, however, I do prefer us to get our fat from whole foods sources. As well, some oils (ie coconut oil) are high in saturated fat, which can be a contributor to cardiovascular disease risk.
3. Table Sugar
You may have seen this one coming. Table sugar has a similar story to white flour – we want to choose a sugar that isn’t refined and provides extra nutrition. Table sugar has a high glycemic index which encourages extra insulin to enter our bloodstream. This can lead to weight gain and insulin resistance over time. Not to mention a high intake of table sugar can zap all of our energy after a blood sugar spike- not a fun way to enjoy the holidays!
Eggs act as the binding compound that helps cake or baked goods keep their shape. It’s the balance between eggs and flour that help provide the height and texture of many of the baked goods that we typically have enjoyed.
Of course, eggs are not plant-based, so finding an alternative is needed for those following a plant-based diet. Eating eggs too often can add too much saturated fat and cholesterol to our diet, which isn’t ideal for heart health.
5. Milk or Buttermilk
Traditionally, buttermilk was a by-product of making butter. Now, it’s made from pasteurized milk that has cultures added to thicken it up and give it a tangy texture. Its functionality in baking is to provide acidity to lend leavening power when it reacts with baking soda, as well as breaking down gluten formation for a more tender final product.
We need the functionality that buttermilk provides; however we can find a vegan alternative for the same function. Finding a vegan alternative would also allow us to minimize fat in the recipe, particularly saturated fat.
Healthier Baking Ingredients
1. Alternative Flour
Instead of using nutrient-stripped white flour, try using chickpea or almond flour instead!
Almond flour is rich in protein, fiber, and healthy fats – having twice the amount of protein and fiber as regular flour. Almond flour is a perfect alternative in baking – you’ll just want to use less almond flour than you would white flour due to the higher fat content.
Chickpea flour is high in protein and fiber as well. It’s ideal for baked goods like bread and biscuits, because of its dense, chewy flavor.
2. Oil Substitutes
Dairy-Free Greek Yogurt is a staple that I always have one hand. It’s a great addition to your holiday baking, as it adds protein and calcium! My favorite Dairy-Free Greek Yogurt is made by Kite Hill.
The pureed veggies may surprise you, but you can use cooked and pureed cauliflower, pumpkin, beets, or zucchini! These ingredients can take the place of oil in a recipe, due to them containing some fat and/or pectin, which is a gluten inhibitor and thickening agent. The added benefit of course is that they add nutrition into the recipe in the form of fiber and micronutrients – which you wouldn’t get from the oil! These oil substitutes also reduce the calories in a recipe that would have traditionally called for oil.
3. Fruits For Sweetness
There are certainly a number of sugar substitutes out there, such as stevia, monk fruit sweetener, dates, honey, or maple syrup (read more about them here), however, my top pick is using a whole fruit or dried fruit.
Choosing your sweetness from minimally processed fruit in baking has several advantages. You will be getting extra fiber and lowering the glycemic index of the baked good, with the dates/prunes, or bananas. You will also be getting extra nutrients such as vitamin K and potassium with this substitution.
4. Flax/Chia Eggs
There are so many great egg replacement options out there (find out more here) however my favorite replacements have to be flaxseeds or chia seeds. Simply combine 3 tbsp of water with 1 tbsp of seeds. Let that mixture sit for about 20 minutes, until thick consistency forms.
Using a flax or chia egg instead of a chicken egg helps to lower the cholesterol and saturated fat in our diet. This swap also adds in omega-3 fats, which is polyunsaturated fat. It has been found that when you replace saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats like omega-3’s, heart disease risk is reduced by 30 percent, similar to the effects of cholesterol-lowering statins.
5. Dairy-Free "Buttermilk"
Adding two tablespoons of lemon juice to one cup of a plant-based milk alternative (such as soy or almond milk) provides the same functionality that buttermilk would provide. You can also puree one-quarter cup of silken tofu with one tablespoon of lemon juice + a few tablespoons of water.
This provides a great plant-based buttermilk alternative, free of saturated fat, while still providing protein and calcium. The tofu/plant-based milk addition will also bring heart health benefits, as consuming soy regularly can reduce cardiovascular disease risk.
Bottom Line: Use these tricks to be healthier while baking during the holidays.
Remember that no food or ingredient needs to be excluded from our diet necessarily. However, by making these ingredient swaps during our holiday baking, we are certainly adding nutrition – which our body will thank us for at the end of the season!
For more expert advice, visit The Beet's Health & Nutrition articles.