Light Baking Done Right

If you're trying to lighten your caloric load or lose weight, are you destined to days of tasteless cookies, or—worse—a life without sweets and treats?

Of course not! There are plenty of ways you can substitute lower-calorie ingredients and still create delicious and healthy treats.

Cooking is an art, but baking is a science. It requires careful formulas, precise measurement and a keen eye. Omitting high-fat ingredients or arbitrarily swapping them can yield flat, dull and downright inedible results. In baked goods, most of the calories come from three ingredients: butter or oil, eggs and sugar. This tasty trio is also where much of the flavor derives, and more importantly, these ingredients keep your muffins moist and your cookies from crumbling. So how do you reduce (or get rid) of these essential ingredients and without chewing on baked goods that look and taste like cardboard? We'll save you the guesswork and the trouble by sharing the 14 secrets to light baking done right.

Baking Without Butter
In all recipes, fat adds moisture and richness. But per cup, butter adds 1,627 calories and 184g of fat, shortening packs 1,845 calories and 205g of fat, and even heart-healthy oil boasts 1,927 calories and 218g of fat. Divided among a batch of four dozen cookies, that's at least 34 calories and 4g fat per cookie attributed to the oil (or butter) alone. But who eats just one? Thankfully, you can cut some of the fat when you bake, but you should only swap half the fat a recipe calls for. (Cookies made with fruit purée will not get crispy and will have a cakelike texture; low-fat muffins tend to be dense.) Try one of these 4 substitutes:

Unsweetened applesauce has a neutral flavor that works well in almost every baked good. It adds moisture and fiber to recipes while cutting fat.
How much: Replace half the butter, oil or shortening called for with an equal amount of applesauce
Best used in: Any baked goods, especially cakes
Calorie swap: Save at least 1,550 calories and 184g fat per cup
Pumpkin purée is not just for pies. Keep unsweetened pumpkin purée on hand year round to cut fat and add flavor to most baked goods. As with all low-fat baked goods made with fruit, expect moist, spongy treats.
How much: Replace half the butter, oil or shortening called for with an equal amount of purée
Best used in: Spiced breads, cakes or muffins; quick breads, pancakes and brownies
Calorie swap: Save at least 1,500 calories and 184g fat per cup
Prune purée has a rich flavor that blends well with chocolate and spices.
How much: Replace half the butter, oil or shortening called for with an equal amount of purée (buy jarred prunes in the baby food aisle or make your own purée by mixing 6 Tbsp of hot water with 8 oz of prunes in a blender)
Best used in: Chocolate baked goods, brownies, gingerbread and spice cakes
Calorie swap: Save at least 1,365 calories and 184g fat per cup
Bananas add flavor, fiber and moisture, much like oil does. Use bananas in any recipe where their strong flavor won't overpower more delicate ingredients such as citrus or berries.
How much: 1/2 mashed or puréed banana for every cup of oil (if your banana isn't very ripe, try peeling it and microwaving it for a few seconds to soften it for easier mixing)
Best used in: Quick breads, coffee cakes and pancakes (bananas are dense, so they are not ideal in recipes for light and fluffy baked goods)
Calorie swap: Save at least 1,575 calories and 184g fat per cup

The Egg Replacements
In baking, eggs have two primary roles: leavening (helping baked goods to rise and become "fluffy" and light), and binding (preventing the baked goods from crumbling or falling apart). Eggs also lend a creamy texture and add moisture and richness to recipes. One large egg also has 75 calories and 5g of fat. But if you're watching your cholesterol, baking for a vegan, or simply want to reduce calories and fat of your recipe, here are 5 ideas that work:

Unsweetened applesauce can serve as a binder in recipes and, like eggs, keep baked goods moist.
How much: 1/4 cup applesauce equals one egg
Best used in: Brownies, cakes and quick breads
Calorie swap: Save 50 calories and 5g fat per egg
Vinegar and baking soda Ever make a volcano in science class? The acid in vinegar combines with the basic (alkaline) baking soda and creates a fizzy, bubbly mess. In small doses, that bubbling (created by the carbon dioxide formed by the baking soda when it comes in contact with acid) can be used to help cakes rise and stay light.
How much: 1 tsp baking soda and 1 Tbsp vinegar (apple cider vinegar works best) per egg
Best used in: Quick breads, cakes and cupcakes
Calorie swap: Save 70 calories and 5g fat per egg (vinegar and baking soda have negligible calories)
Ground flaxseeds are packed full of healthful Omega-3 fatty acids. They're also a great source of fiber, which is why they are a good substitute for eggs. When flaxseeds are ground and mixed with water, their insoluble fiber becomes sticky and gummy. Mixing ground flaxseed and water in a blender whips up a thick, creamy substance that adds fiber and Omega-3's to baked treats.
How much: 1 Tbsp ground flaxseed and 3 Tbsp water per egg (for best results, grind flaxseed in a clean coffee grinder, then mix with water in a blender until thick and creamy)
Best used in: Baked goods that can handle flaxseed's nutty taste, such as pancakes, waffles, muffins, carrot cake and oatmeal cookies
Calorie swap: Save 10 calories and 1g fat per egg, but also add fiber and Omega-3's
Bananas, when mashed, add sweetness and help bind baked goods.
How much: 1/2 mashed or puréed banana for every egg (if your banana isn't very ripe, try peeling it and microwaving it for a few seconds to soften it for easier mixing)
Best used in: Banana bread, other quick breads, muffins, cakes, waffles and pancakes (don't use bananas in a recipe where they would overpower a subtler flavor, such as apple or citrus)
Calorie swap: Save 20 calories and 5g fat per egg
Silken tofu Yes, tofu seems like a strange and foreign ingredient, especially in cakes and cookies. However, one particular kind of tofu, silken tofu, has a creamy texture that, when whipped or pureed, is ideal for baked goods. Silken tofu is often sold in shelf stable boxes with the Asian foods or in the produce section.
How much: 1/4 cup of silken tofu (whip it in the blender or with a hand mixer until it's smooth) equals one egg
Best used in: Cakes, brownies, and custards
Calorie swap: Save 37 calories and 2g fat per egg

Sweet as Sugar
Sugar plays an important role in baked goods because it weakens and softens the strong, stretchy proteins found in flour. Without sugar, a flour-based recipe would yield tough, chewy cookies and cakes. When baked, sugar also caramelizes, which adds color and a rich flavor to cookies, and helps cookies become crispy. However, sugar contains 775 calories per cup, and it quickly adds up as you make your rounds to the dessert table.

In pie fillings, cakes and cookies, you can usually reduce the amount of sugar in a recipe by up to half. Start by reducing sugar by 1/4 cup. If the recipe works, try reducing another 1/4 cup. Your family won't notice, and the cookies will turn out about the same.

If sugar substitutes are your thing, then check the package directions for information on swapping artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes in place of sugar in baked goods.

And if you'd prefer something more "natural" than table sugar, natural sweeteners like molasses and honey abound. When cooking and baking, refer to these guidelines for using natural sweeteners in place of sugar.

2 More Easy Ways to Lighten Your Baked Goods
We saved the best for last! If you're still unsure about changing your recipe, you can do these two things:
  1. Use miniature chocolate chips in your cookies and reduce the amount by half. Though mini chips and regular size chips have the same nutritional content, by reducing the amount, you'll get more, smaller chips throughout the cookies. Calorie swap Save 1,050 calories per cup of chips you eliminate, or about 22 calories per cookie.
  2. Make smaller cookies. A standard batch of chocolate chip cookies is supposed to yield 5 dozen cookies (each made with a tablespoon of dough) that each contain 110 calories and 6 grams of fat. Does your cookie dough yield 60 cookies? Use teaspoons instead of tablespoons to scoop cookie dough.
Altering recipes can feel like mad science at times, but a bit of patience and perseverance are helpful. Experiment with just one substitution at a time. Eliminating or reducing sugar, butter and eggs in the same recipe could yield tough or rubbery baked goods. Try these substitution ideas with your favorite recipes and soon you'll have lighter, healthier versions! (Shh! We won't tell anyone if you don't!)