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11 Healthy Baking Tips from Top Chefs
'Tis the season for sweet treats—which isn't a bad thing. Experts say that from-scratch desserts are better for your waistline than ho-hum packaged versions. "Whole, minimally processed ingredients are generally more satisfying from a flavor and texture standpoint," explains Kristy Del Coro, R.D., the senior culinary nutritionist at SPE Certified and Rouge Tomate restaurant in New York City. So a smaller portion of foods made from them will crush your cravings. To help you indulge your sweet tooth without regret, we asked the experts for their healthy baking secrets. See, you really can have your cake and eat it too.
Go for the Gold
Browning butter imparts richness and complexity to cookies, cakes, banana bread and more. Follow these supersimple steps to do it.
1. Place butter in a small skillet and melt over medium-low heat.
2. Once butter starts to simmer and foam, swirl and continue cooking until golden brown and nutty smelling.
3. Remove skillet from heat and allow solids to settle for a few minutes, then transfer browned butter to a heatproof bowl, leaving any sediment in pan.
Be a Fruit Ninja
Find inspiration in the fruit bowl with these ideas from Nicole Plue, the director of pastry arts at the San Francisco Cooking School.
Poach it. Pears are a classic choice, but don't stop there. Experiment with apples, pineapple, "really, any firm fruit that won't turn to mush if heated," Plue says. The steps are easy: Make simple syrup using two parts water to one part sugar. In a large saucepan, submerge peeled, halved or whole fruit in one to two inches of syrup. Add aromatics, such as a cinnamon stick, a few whole cloves or a sprig of rosemary or basil, plus a squeeze of lemon. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until fruit just yields to the tip of a knife. Let cool in syrup.
Bake it. Put a tiny bit of butter and some red grapes in an ovenproof saucepan and roast at 450° until hot and bubbling. Transfer the grapes to a plate, add a little balsamic vinegar to the pan and cook it down until it's syrupy; serve the grapes and balsamic sauce over frozen yogurt. Or peel and cut a cantaloupe or a pineapple into chunks, toss them with a little maple syrup and roast at 450° until they just begin to brown.
Turn it into a sauce. "Very ripe persimmons can be pureed with some maple syrup," Plue says. "Or you can roast pumpkin or squash pieces until soft and puree them with maple syrup for a thicker topping." You can also experiment with pears—cooked until soft in white or red wine, then pureed—or dried apricots or dates, which can be heated in orange juice until soft, then pureed. "It's a nice way to cut refined sugar and fat from dessert sauces while adding more fiber."
Dip it in chocolate. Finely chop or shave dark chocolate and put it in a double boiler over simmering water; stir frequently until fully melted and silky. (If it's too thick, add some warm milk or heavy cream.) Alternatively, microwave chocolate in 15- to 30-second intervals, stirring well after each. Use it for dipping fresh cherries or bananas, orange or apple slices, or dried apricots. Refrigerate on a parchment paper–lined baking sheet until firm.
Think Outside the Box
Sure, they're convenient, but boxed cake mix and packaged frosting often contain partially hydrogenated oil, artificial ingredients and loads of sugar.
Better-Than-Boxed Vanilla Cake
Skip the trans fat but keep the moist fluffiness, thanks to heart-healthy olive oil.
- 1cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for the pan
1 cup whole-wheat white flour, plus more for the pan
- 1cup all-purpose flour
- 1teaspoon baking powder
- 1/8teaspoon kosher salt
- 3 large eggs
- 2 1/2cups granulated sugar
- 1 1/2cups 2 percent milk
- 2teaspoons vanilla extract
1. Preheat the oven to 350°. Lightly grease a 9-inch cake pan with oil and dust it with flour, tapping out any excess. Sift both flours, baking powder and salt into a large bowl. Add eggs, sugar, milk, oil and vanilla and whisk until just combined. Pour into prepared pan.
2. Bake until top is lightly golden and a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, about 1 hour. Let cool partially in pan, then turn cake out onto a rack and let cool completely before frosting with one of the two toppers that follow.
Source: Stacy Adimando
Limit Added Sugar
A cross between a frosting and a glaze, this ganache contains no added sugar.
- 1 cup coconut cream
- 1 cup chopped dark chocolate
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. Microwave coconut cream, watching closely, until just starting to simmer. Pour over chocolate and let sit about 5 minutes, or until chocolate has melted. Stir to combine.
2. Add vanilla and whisk until emulsified. Let cool until thick but not hard.
Source: Heather Hardcastle, the owner of Flour Craft Bakery
Gram for gram, butter has nearly twice the calories of cream cheese. This frosting uses half as much of it as buttercream does, and the cream cheese is reduced-fat.
- 8 ounces 1/3-less-fat cream cheese, at room temperature
- 1 stick butter, at room temperature
- 2 cups powdered sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract or seeds scraped from 1 vanilla bean
1. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat cream cheese and butter on medium until smooth. Scrape down sides of bowl with a spatula.
2. Working 1 cup at a time, add powdered sugar and beat on medium until smooth. Scrape bowl again and add vanilla; mix until well combined. Use immediately.
Source: Heather Hardcastle, the owner of Flour Craft Bakery
Choose a Flour Alternative
Baked goods? More like baked "greats" when you supplement all-purpose flour with one of these alternatives.
Whole-wheat flour delivers an extra dose of protein, fiber, calcium and iron. And according to Jack Bishop, the editorial director of America's Test Kitchen, it has a delightfully earthy flavor. You can substitute whole-wheat flour for up to a third of the all-purpose flour in pretty much any cookie, cake, brownie or muffin recipe. "It will absorb a bit more liquid than all-purpose flour, so you might need to add an extra tablespoon or two of whatever liquid is in the recipe if the batter or dough looks dry," Bishop says. White whole-wheat flour is nutritionally similar but milder tasting.
Nut flours work well in many batters, especially brownie batter, says Heather Hardcastle, the owner of Flour Craft Bakery in San Anselmo, California. Swap up to half the all-purpose flour with blanched, finely ground almond, hazelnut or pecan meal. This will give brownies a nutty flavor and a protein boost.
Use Coconut Oil
Traditional shortening can contain the kind of saturated fat that raises "bad" cholesterol. For piecrusts and other pastries, "coconut oil is one of my secret weapons," says blogger Joy Wilson, the author of Joy the Baker Homemade Decadence. Her secrets to success?
Start with cold coconut oil. Flaky pie crust is a result of cold fat incorporated into flour to form a dough. But coconut oil turns into a liquid when it reaches a little above room temperature, so refrigerate the amount you need until solid, about 10 minutes.
Mix dough with a food processor. Use a blade attachment to pulse together the flour and coconut oil.
Let it rest. Before rolling dough, put it in the fridge to rechill the oil.
For a rich and tangy whipped topping with just one-third of the saturated fat and calories, try this trick from pastry chef Breanne Butler: Strain Greek yogurt in a few layers of cheesecloth overnight, then flavor it with the seeds of a scraped vanilla bean.
Make Every Calorie Count
Maxing out the flavor of your ingredients means that each bite blows your taste buds away, so you can feel content after just one cookie (as opposed to an entire sleeve of low-cal ones).
Toast for the Most
"Toasting nuts takes them to a whole new level of richness and crunch," says Catherine Jones, a coauthor of The Calories In, Calories Out Cookbook. "Plus, you can do it in advance and freeze them for later."
On the stove top: Cook, stirring frequently, in a dry skillet over medium heat for three to five minutes.
In the oven: Bake at 300° on an ungreased sheet pan for 15 to 20 minutes.
Salt Your Sweets
You've heard of salted caramel, but it's not the only treat that deserves a few flakes. The scientific explanation: The tongue senses more sweetness when salt accompanies sugar. Get the benefit by sprinkling sea salt on top of cookies, bars, brownies and fudge immediately after baking and on cupcakes after they're frosted.
Spice It Up
"Spices contain high amounts of polyphenols, compounds that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties," nutritionist Kristy Del Coro says. Make them even better by grinding your own for a fresher taste and a more in-your-face (in a good way) aroma. Use a fine handheld grater for nutmeg, and whir star anise and cloves in a spice or coffee grinder.