There is undeniable beauty in baking. The way in which flour, fat and sugar coalesce into cake, cookies and other assorted confections is nothing short of alchemy. But it's not without its dark side. Refined white flour has had most of the nutrition whacked out of it; butter – as beloved as it may be – is a trove of saturated fat; and white sugar is high in calories, empty of nutrients, and proffers widespread negative impact on the environment.
But not to be a killjoy, or anything. As a lover of baking and an exuberant eater of its rewards, I rely on a few tried-and-true quick swaps that can imbue cookies and their sweet cousins with more nutritional zing, while not sacrificing flavor. These tricks allow the usage of whole foods rather than their over-refined cousins – which is better for the body as well as the planet – and the difference in taste is barely perceptible.
White Whole Wheat for All-Purpose FlourRegular whole wheat flour can be strong in flavor and texture, but there are two kinds of whole wheat flour that are closer replacements for all-purpose flour. When a recipe calls for all-purpose flour, you can substitute white whole wheat flour or whole wheat pastry flour for 25 – 50 percent of the amount. Both of these swaps work great for many baked goods, but may present too much flavor for the most delicate items like angel food cake.
Whole wheat pastry flour is a low-protein flour which is softer and more finely-textured than regular whole wheat flour, and baked goods made with it will have a similar texture to those made with regular white flour.
White whole wheat flour is made from white wheat, a naturally occurring albino variety of wheat. When it is used to make whole wheat flour it doesn’t have the heavy taste of the common whole wheat flour (made from red wheat) that we are accustomed to. White whole wheat flour has the same nutritional and fiber benefits of red whole wheat, but since it doesn’t have the same tannins and phenolic acid found in the outer bran of red wheat, it is less bitter and tastes sweeter. You can buy white whole wheat flour at some health food stores or gourmet markets (like Whole Foods). You can also order it online from favorite flour company, King Arthur Flour.
Fruit Puree for Butter or OilApple sauce (unsweetened), strained prunes (use baby food, if you want to save a step), mashed banana, pumpkin puree, and other creative ingredients from the produce aisle can be used in place of butter or oil when baking. Since success relies on the specific recipe, for best results start by replacing half of the fat with the puree and slightly decrease the amount of sugar, depending on the sweetness of the puree. Each time you make the recipe, you can try using a higher proportion of fruit. If the fruit swap results in too-cakey of a texture, reduce the number of eggs by one. This recipe for Chocolate Beet Cake shows how beets can be incorporated into dessert.
Sucanat for White SugarSucanat is the trade name for “Sugar Cane Natural,” a non-refined cane sugar that is made by crushing sugar cane, extracting the juice then heating it. The reduced juice becomes a syrup, and is then hand-paddled, creating the dry porous granules. It’s not crystalline, like refined and processed "white" sugar. It also retains its molasses content, as well as vitamins and minerals, unlike refined sugar. Sucanat is about 88 percent sucrose, or simple sugar, as compared to regular sugar, which is 99 percent sucrose.
Sucanat has more of a molasses flavor than refined sugar – it’s a bit more like brown sugar in taste. (Brown sugar is merely refined sugar with molasses added back in, of all the crazy things.) Use Sucanat on a one-to-one basis to replace brown sugar, as well as for refined sugar in recipes for heartier flavored items – bran muffins, peanut butter cookies etc. For more delicately flavored items, try swapping half the refined sugar for Sucanat.
Other natural sweeteners to play around with include date sugar, maple sugar, maple syrup, and agave nectar. Since refined sugar is responsible for reaping no small amount of environmental havoc, it's nice to buy organic and/or Fair Trade Certified if you use it.