10 Tricks to Lighten Up Your Favorite Treats

The 'Recipe Doctor' shares her top light cooking secrets

Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD on September 22, 2006

While children everywhere are thinking of knocking on doors and screaming "Trick or treat!" with visions of mini candy bars dancing in their heads, grown-ups are enjoying other aspects of fall. 'Tis the season of comfort foods, after all!

In honor of Halloween and all things fall, here are 10 of my "tricks" you can use to lighten up your favorite fall "treats":

1. Canola Cooking Spray

Often, it works well to disperse a small amount of olive oil or canola oil onto the surface of a pan or a food instead of drenching or submerging the food in fat. You're still using oil this way -- just a lot less. Using spray leaves just enough oil on the surface of the food so it can brown and crisp as it cooks.

2. Lemon, Lime, or Orange Zest

The zest, or outermost layer, of a citrus fruit is full of aromatic oils and flavor, and is an easy way to boost the flavor of low-fat dough and batters. When I lighten up recipes, I try to zip up the flavor to compensate for taking out fat. I use zest in all sorts of recipes, from muffins, cakes, and bars to pies and pancakes. It adds that punch of flavor without adding any calories or fat.

3. Nonstick Frying Pans, Saucepans, and Baking Dishes

Using nonstick pans and dishes means you need less fat to keep food from sticking. They make light cooking and baking a lot easier! I just bought a nonstick, spring-form pan on sale, and I can't wait to try it out on my new fall light cheesecake (I create one almost every year).

4. Wine

When I take some of the fat out of recipes, I usually need to add another ingredient to replace the lost moisture/liquid from the fat. Wine works well in recipes where its flavor complements the flavors of the dish -- for sautéing veggies, making a marinade or sauce, and even baking certain breads or desserts. Instead of wine you can also use broth or alcohol-free beer for sautéing veggies, fruit juice or puree for marinades and salad dressing, or fruit juice, yogurt, sour cream, or liqueur for muffins, cakes, etc.

5. Egg Substitute

Egg Beaters and similar egg substitutes are made up mostly of egg whites, and they come in handy when lightening egg dishes like quiche or omelets. For most egg dishes, you can use half real eggs and half egg substitute without a noticeable difference in taste or texture. Keep in mind that 1/4 cup of egg substitute is equal to 1 large egg.

6. Fat-Free Sour Cream

Fat-free sour cream is the bomb in light recipes for two reasons: it's an easy replacement for real sour cream called for in recipes, and you can also use it as a substitute for some of the fat you've cut from baking recipes like brownies, cake, or muffins.

7. Less, or Lighter, Cheese

You have two light choices when it comes to recipes using one of my favorite food ingredients -- cheese. You can use half as much of the full-fat cheese called for, or you can use the same amount called for but switch to a light or reduced-fat cheese. Recipes often call for more cheese than is truly needed, so if you stick with full-fat cheese, you can usually get by quite well with less.

8. Light Cream Cheese

It looks like cream cheese, it tastes like cream cheese ... but it's light cream cheese, with 1/3 to 1/2 less fat, depending on the brand. For recipes calling for cream cheese -- cheesecakes, cookies, muffins, casserole, spreads, or sauces -- you can usually use light cream cheese without a noticeable difference. If you want to cut calories and fat even more, use half light cream cheese and half fat-free cream cheese. (I don't use fat-free cream cheese for the full amount called for in recipes because I think its taste and texture is just too far from the real thing.)

9. Lean and Trimmed Meats

Buying lean or lower-fat meat (like skinless chicken, light sausage, the leanest cuts of beef or pork) for your recipes can crank the calories and fat down a few notches without really changing the taste of the dish. And don't forget to trim any visible white fat from the meat before adding it to your recipes.

10. Sugar Blends

They look a little like sugar, they taste like sugar, they measures like sugar, but they're only half sugar! They're the new sugar blends, and they're great for recipes. (They are pricey, I'll warn you.) You have two choices: the Splenda and sugar blend, or the Equal and sugar blend. Most people I've asked seem to prefer one or the other. The only way to know for yourself is to try them both.

And now for my own little trick -- I'm actually giving you 11 lightening-up secrets instead of 10!

11. Less-Fat Margarines

In baking recipes where you can't substitute canola oil, you can use a less-fat margarine (around 8 grams of fat per tablespoon) with no trans fat to cut the fat by 1/3! It works in all sorts of recipes, from pound cakes and cookies to crisps and cobblers.

Originally Published October 20, 2005.
Medically Updated September 2006.