Whether you’ve been following me on Instagram, or you’ve just surfed onto my blog, chances are you’ve noticed that I avoid processed flours, sugars, and oils in my recipes. I use healthy baking ingredients not because it’s a fad or even because someone in my family has an intolerance. Making healthy substitutions for more nutrient-dense ingredients just makes me feel better, both physically and mentally.
You know that feeling after you eat a big piece of grocery store cake covered in icing? No, I’m not talking about guilt. (That’s a topic for another post.) I’m talking about that sensation of heaviness in the pit of your stomach. My girlfriends and I used to just call it “feeling gross,” but now I know what it really is: inflammation from an angry, irritated gut that’s been inundated with refined sugars and oils, gluten, and dairy. The worst part for me is that I can feel that way, yet also suddenly become ravenously hungry less than an hour later which is a recipe for overeating. And we wonder why we can’t stop gaining weight!
Fortunately, more of us are saying “no thanks” to processed, inflammatory foods and the industry is taking notice. Healthy baking ingredients like almond flour and ghee can now be found at mainstream grocery stores all over the world. There’s just one problem: most people have no idea how to use them, so the cookies, cakes, and other treats they try to make often disappoint. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Welcome to Healthy Substitutions 101! You’re about to learn how to use healthy baking ingredients no matter what the original recipe calls for. Because living a healthy lifestyle isn’t about eating “perfectly;” it’s about making healthy choices while enjoying life.
I’m not gluten-free, but I do notice a difference in how I feel when I eat gluten. My stomach gets an overly full feeling and sometimes even becomes bloated. If the point of dessert is to enjoy it, why would I want to eat something that makes me feel ugh?
Enter, almond flour, one of my favorite healthy baking ingredients! It adds loads of healthy, omega-rich fats plus a little protein boost to your baked goods, making it a more nutritious choice than wheat flour even if you aren’t gluten-free.
I always use superfine almond flour when I bake, otherwise recipes tend to turn out dry, gritty, heavy, or all three. Trader Joe’s makes a great finely ground almond flour and so does Bob’s Red Mill. Both are ground into a powder that’s actually closer to cake flour, which helps to create the delicate texture I achieve in my cookies. Feel free to experiment with other brands, but be sure you’re using almond flour as opposed to almond meal.
The key difference: almond flour is made of almonds that have had their skins removed (aka blanched almonds) and then finely ground. Almond meal uses unblanched almonds that are ground more coarsely, so it creates a denser, drier texture. I prefer almond meal for breads and scones or as a bread crumb substitute, and use almond flour for everything else.
Healthy Substitution How-To: Almond flour carries more moisture than regular, so the rule of thumb is to use twice as much almond flour as you would white flour. That said, I often combine it with other healthy baking ingredients, which changes the way it interacts within the recipe. So I usually start with a 1:1 ratio, then add more almond flour 1 tablespoon at a time until the batter reaches the desired thickness. My Coffee Toffee Chocolate Chip Cookies is one of my favorite healthy recipes using almond flour.
1:1 Gluten-Free Baking Mix
These days, it’s not uncommon for parents to discover that their child has one classmate with a nut allergy and another who’s gluten-free. This can make bake sales and birthday treats a challenge, especially when your little one is dead set on having your signature sugar cookies with frosting and sprinkles, and you don’t have time for recipe testing. (Again, a healthy lifestyle is about balance!) There are two solutions to this problem: 1) you can buy a ready-to-go, allergy-friendly baking mix like the one from Enjoy Life Foods, or you can make your own. Whichever one you choose, a 1:1 gluten-free baking mix is often the easiest way to substitute using healthy baking ingredients.
Healthy Substitution How-To: When it comes to ingredient ratios, the name says it all. The real question here is taste. I find that some mixes rely heavily on ground beans, which can give the finished product a metallic aftertaste. For that reason, I look for blends and recipes using mostly rice, potato, or and/teff flours.
I’ve been really conscious lately about how much sugar James is eating. From the vitamins he takes to the applesauce he begs for, “kid food” is notoriously sweet. Although we save dessert as a reward for good behavior, I don’t think that means it needs to be a traditional, sugar-laden treat. That’s why I started experimenting with date sugar, which is made of finely ground, dried dates. Like whole dates, it contains magnesium, potassium, fiber, and antioxidants, and it also has about half the sugar as coconut or table sugar.
Healthy Substitution How-To: I often sub date sugar for regular at a 1:1 ratio. The tricky part, however, is anticipating how the date sugar will interact with your other ingredients, because it doesn’t caramelize like regular or coconut sugar and requires more moisture. For that reason, I’ll usually add more oil, reduce the amount of flour, or use half date and half coconut sugar. Also, date sugar tends to clump, so sift before using.
Coconut sugar has a lower glycemic index than white table sugar. It also contains minerals like zinc and iron, as well as antioxidants and inulin, a prebiotic dietary fiber. All of these things make it healthier than regular sugar, but I still wouldn’t call it healthy per se. I use it because it’s an improvement, not because I recommend eating it by the spoonful.
Healthy Substitution How-To: You can substitute coconut sugar for regular or light brown sugar using an easy peasy 1:1 ratio. Use it in my Paleo Coconut Coffee Cake, which is one of my hands-down favorite healthy recipes .
Ghee, or clarified butter, has been used for hundreds of years in Indian cooking. As Paleo and ketogenic diets have become mainstream here in the west, so, too has ghee. Why? Clarifying butter removes the milk solids, which means you’re literally skimming off the lactose that poses digestive issues for so many people. The leftover fat is rich in heart-healthy, brain-boosting short- and medium-chain fatty acids as well as fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, and E. Even better: grass-fed ghee. Like grass-fed beef, ghee made from pastured cows is rich in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a compound proven to reduce inflammation and thought to protect the heart and liver.
I’m well-aware of the argument that ghee is unheathy due to its saturated fat content. But here’s the thing: there have been multiple studies showing that ghee is okay in moderation. In fact, a pair of studies done on young, healthy Indian volunteers showed you’re probably fine as long as ghee makes up less than 10 percent of your diet. So if you have heart problems and your doctor is telling you “olive oil only,” listen to her, not me.
Healthy Substitution How-To: Since ghee is just another form of butter, it’s an even trade. No further adjustments needed! Baking with ghee can be expensive, though, so save your pennies by making your own. Better yet, go the extra mile and make the brown butter ghee so you can whip up my Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Cookie Skillet.
Virgin Coconut Oil
Given the “coconuts are bad for you” flap, you might be surprised to find that it’s still one of my go-to healthy baking ingredients. Personally, I believe in everything in moderation. Coconut oil is high in HDL – aka “good” – cholesterol and also MCT’s, which have been linked to benefits including brain health. On the flip side, last year’s study that condemned coconut oil as bad for your heart was based on sound scientific methodology. So as much as I wish I could tell you the study is flawed because it funded by coconut oil ‘s competitors (in this case the canola and walnut oil industries), the bottom line is that it’s always possible to have too much of a good thing. So I enjoy coconut oil in certain baked goods, and coconut fat in the tablespoon or so of coconut yogurt which I eat daily. Apparently, Harvard backs my approach so I feel pretty confident in it.
Healthy Substitution How-To: I enjoy the sweet taste of virgin coconut oil as a replacement for refined oils like canola and vegetable. While those used to be considered healthy baking ingredients, we now not only know the dirty details of the refinement process (who wants to eat hexane gas and bleach?), but also that they cause inflammation, heart disease, and obesity. Substitute coconut oil refined vegetable and seed oils on a 1:1 basis. Just make sure it’s not too hot if you’re melting it before adding to a recipe containing raw eggs; you don’t want to cook the eggs before you get the goods into the oven!
No matter how healthy the ingredients list, any baked good is essentially a processed food and therefore one that should be enjoyed in moderation. But with these simple tweaks, you can feel better about the treats you make for your family. I know I do!