10 Ways to Cut Calories in Baking Recipes

How to lighten up your holiday recipes without sacrificing taste.

Medically Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, RD, LD, MPH on December 19, 2006
9 min read

I know, the holiday season comes once a year, so why bother to cut calories in your cake, cookie, and pie recipes? I've heard this sentiment many times. But hear me out. All I'm suggesting is that you consider making some small, simple changes to rid your baking recipes of excess calories -- the calories the dish doesn't really need to taste great.

Depending on the recipe and the taster, most of these healthier changes can be made without anyone noticing. Using half whole-wheat flour, for example, will be more noticeable in a pound cake (with a light-colored batter) than in a gingerbread cake.

So if you're able to cut excess calories fairly easily in most baking recipes, why not do it? It could make the difference between gaining a little weight over the holidays and not gaining a little weight. Say you cut 150 calories per serving from your favorite holiday treats. And say you enjoy about one serving per day of these treats for 15 days during the holiday season. Technically, that's one pound of weight gain prevented! That one pound saved can quickly become two pounds if you usually eat one treat a day for 30 days, or if you have two per day for 15 days (you get the picture).

I'll give you more specifics below, but there are three basic methods to cut calories in baking recipes:

  • Use less sugar. You can cut calories simply by using less sugar, or by substituting a no-calorie sweetener for part of the sugar. Just keep in mind that some people are more sensitive to tasting artificial sweeteners than others, and that some baking recipes depend on sugar for texture as much as taste.
  • Use less fat. For every gram of fat added to a recipe (and there are about 13 grams in a tablespoon of oil or butter), you add 9 calories. The trick here is knowing the magical minimum of fat is for the particular recipe you're using. Keep in mind that when you take fat out, you often have to replace it with another moist ingredient (like fat-free sour cream, applesauce, light cream cheese, or orange juice).
  • Eat smaller servings. Of course, you can also cut calories by being satisfied with a smaller serving. This is where fiber comes in. If you increase the fiber in appropriate recipes -- by using whole-wheat flour, by adding high-fiber fruits instead of higher-calorie add-ins like chocolate, or by using fruit purees in place of some of the butter or oil -- it's easier to be satisfied with a smaller portion. You may also tend to eat less of a goodie when it's served in bite-sized portions.

Here are 10 tried-and-true tips to help make your holiday baking recipes healthier.

1. Whole-Wheat Flour Takes the Cake

In most bakery-type recipes (muffins, cakes, cookies, coffee cakes, brownies, nut breads, etc.) you can usually substitute whole-wheat flour for half of the white flour. Compared with 1/4 cup of white flour, each 1/4 cup of whole-wheat flour adds 3.5 grams of fiber, various phytochemicals, and double the amount of magnesium and selenium. The extra fiber helps slow digestion and increase fullness.

2. Cut the Sugar

In most baking recipes, you can replace half the sugar with Splenda (or a similar product). If you'd rather not use a sugar alternative, you can sometimes just cut the sugar by 1/4 and the recipe will still work out. For each tablespoon of sugar you cut out, you'll save 48 calories. So cutting 1/4 cup of sugar would save you a total of 192 calories.

3. Use an Egg Substitute

You can replace half of the eggs in your bakery recipes with egg substitute. Some cake recipes call for three or four eggs; some muffin recipes call for one or two. For each large egg that you replace with 1/4 cup of egg substitute, you'll shave 45 calories, 5 grams of fat, 1.6 grams saturated fat, and 213 mg cholesterol.

4. Cut the Fat

In most baking recipes, you can cut the fatty ingredient (butter, margarine, shortening, or oil) by half. So if a cake recipe calls for 1 cup of butter or margarine, you can usually use 1/2 cup instead. Remember to replace that 1/2 cup with a moist but healthful ingredient, and choose an ingredient that complements the flavors of your recipe. My arsenal of secret weapons includes fat-free sour cream, low-fat buttermilk, orange juice, low-fat yogurt, applesauce and other fruit purees, strong coffee, and light cream cheese. Cutting fat cuts lots of calories, as each gram of fat translates into 9 calories (a gram of carbohydrate or protein, by comparison, has 4).

5. Use Light Products

Try substituting lower-fat and lower-sugar ingredients in your baking recipes when possible. For example, if you're making a cake that calls for sour cream, use the fat-free version. Also try reduced-fat cheese, light cream cheese, less-sugar jams, light pancake syrup, light Cool Whip, light yogurt, light margarine or whipped butter, and fat-free half-and-half. Most of these products will help you cut calories and saturated fat along with the total grams of fat.

6. Cut Down on High-Calorie Extras

Recipe add-ins and embellishments can sometimes be left out or cut in half. If a recipe calls for chocolate chips, for example, you can reduce the amount. If a recipe calls for dotting your pie with butter, you can safely skip this step. In a cake recipe, you can often get by with half the original amount of frosting (In a double-layer cake, just frost the top and middle and forget the sides). And in some cakes, bars, and cookies, you can eliminate frosting and substitute a light sprinkling of powdered sugar. Using 2 tablespoons of frosting instead of 4 will shave about 130 calories, 4.5 grams of fat, and 2 grams of saturated fat. Each tablespoon of chocolate chips omitted cuts about 50 calories, 3 grams of fat, and 2 grams of saturated fat.

7. Keep a Carton of Fat-Free Sour Cream in Your Fridge

Fat-free sour cream is the bomb in light recipes for three reasons. It's an easy replacement for real sour cream in recipes like pound cake or coffee cake. You can use it as a substitute for part of the fat in recipes for things like cookies (it works especially well for brownies), cake, or muffins. Further, manufacturers often add soluble fiber-like ingredients (such as gelatin, agar gum, xanthan gum, and locust bean gum) to keep fat-free sour cream stable. These ingredients also help keep it from separating when you whip it into your batter or heat it while baking. If your eight-serving recipe calls for 1 cup of butter or oil, and you use 1/2 cup of fat-free sour cream in place of half the butter or oil, you'll save about 110 calories and 13 grams of fat per serving.

8. Go Cuckoo for Cocoa

Cocoa is a great way to add the chocolate flavor to bakery recipes without getting the saturated fat (and calories) found in chocolate chips or chocolate squares. Cocoa has the healthy flavonol antioxidants found in the cocoa bean, too. Look for recipes that call for cocoa instead of chocolate chips or bars, or use 6 tablespoons of cocoa plus 1 tablespoon of canola oil plus 1 tablespoon of fat-free sour-cream instead of 2 squares of unsweetened baking chocolate. For every 2 squares of baking chocolate you replace, you'll shave almost 90 calories and 14 grams of fat (most of which is saturated fat).

9. Add Zest to Your Batter With Citrus

The zest, or outermost layer, of a citrus fruit is full of aromatic oils and flavor. Adding citrus zest is an easy, zero-calorie way to boost the flavor of low-fat dough and batters. I use zest in all sorts of recipes, from muffins, cookies, cakes, and bars to frosting, pies, and pancakes.

10. Use Cooking Spray and Nonstick Pans

Using nonstick pans and dishes and a spritz of canola cooking spray means you'll need less fat in the batter or crust to keep food from sticking. All sorts of nonstick bakeware are available, from springform pans, to cake and muffin pans, to cookie sheets and deep-dish pie plates. When you use one of these pans, your lighter cakes, muffins and tarts will come out nicely brown and won't stick.

Here are two holiday recipes that illustrate some of these lightening techniques.

Chocolate Mint Snowball Cookies

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal as 1 portion light dessert + 1 tsp. margarine, light

3/4 cup whole-wheat flour
3/4 cup unbleached white flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup mint-flavored, semisweet chocolate morsels (like Nestle Toll House)*
3 tablespoons fat-free sour cream
3 tablespoons canola oil
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup Splenda
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg (use a brand higher in omega-3s, if available)
2 tablespoons egg substitute or 1 egg white, beaten slightly
Powdered sugar

*If you can't find mint-flavored chocolate morsels, use semisweet ones and add 1 teaspoon of mint extract when you add the eggs to the batter.

  • Combine flours, baking powder, salt; set aside. Melt chocolate chips over low heat in microwave or in a small nonstick saucepan.
  • In large mixing bowl, beat sour cream and canola oil with sugar and Splenda. Add chocolate mixture and vanilla and beat to blend. Add egg and egg substitute and beat until smooth. Add flour mixture and beat only until blended.
  • Split dough into fourths and wrap each fourth in plastic wrap. Freeze until firm (about 20 minutes.)
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Shape each portion of dough into about 10 (1-inch) balls, and place on cookie sheets that have been coated with canola cooking spray. Bake for 10 minutes, watching carefully. Once the cookies are cool, dust the tops with powdered sugar, if desired.

Yield: 40 cookies (20 servings)

Per serving (2 cookies each): 100 calories, 2 g protein, 15 g carbohydrate, 4 g fat, 1.5 g saturated fat, 10 mg cholesterol, 1.2 g fiber, 60 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 36%.

Light Rum Cake

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal as 1 portion medium dessert + 2 tsp sugar

2/3 cup pecans or walnut pieces
1 box yellow cake mix (with or without pudding in the mix)
1 large egg, higher omega-3 egg if available
1/2 cup egg substitute
1/3 cup pineapple juice
1/2 cup fat-free sour cream
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons dark rum

2 tablespoons whipped butter or margarine with 8 grams of fat per tablespoon
1/2 cup dark rum
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup Splenda (if you don't want to use Splenda, just increase the sugar to 1/2 cup)

  • Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Coat a 10-inch tube pan or 12-cup Bundt pan with canola cooking spray. Sprinkle the nuts over the bottom of the pan.
  • In a large mixing bowl, combine the remaining cake ingredients (cake mix, egg, egg substitute, pineapple juice, sour cream, dark rum) and beat on medium speed until well blended. Pour the batter over the nuts in prepared pan.
  • Bake in the center of oven for about 50-60 minutes or until cake tester inserted in center comes out clean. Let the cake cool completely, and then invert it onto a serving plate.
  • To make the glaze, melt the butter in a small, nonstick saucepan. Away from the heat, stir in 1/2 cup rum, 1/3 cup sugar, and 1/3 cup Splenda. After you've stirred the mixture, put back on the stove over medium heat and bring to a gentle boil. Continue to gently boil, stirring constantly, for about 4 minutes. Let cool for about 5 minutes.
  • Prick the top of the cake all over with a skewer or large barbecue fork. Slowly spoon or pour the glaze evenly over the top. You can spoon or brush some of the glaze that drips off onto the sides of the cake.

Yield: 16 servings

Per serving: 215 calories, 4 g protein, 32 g carbohydrate, 8 g fat, 1.5 g saturated fat, 19 mg cholesterol, 1 g fiber, 245 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 33%.

Recipes provided by Elaine Magee; © 2006 Elaine Magee

Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, is the "Recipe Doctor" for the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic and the author of numerous books on nutrition and health. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.

Published December 19, 2006.