Use Substitutions to Bake Low-Cal Holiday Treats

3 min read

By Shoshana Pritzker, R.D., C.D.N.

With so many sweets floating around during the holidays, it’s difficult to hold back. And giving up the skinny jeans you worked so hard to fit into is a tough sell. Do you eat the baked treats or not? What if I told you there was a way to make your favorite Christmas treats low-cal?

It's true: There are a number of substitutions you can make in the kitchen when it comes to baking. But changing a recipe isn't always a cakewalk. You’ll probably have to do some testing and tweaking until the revamped recipe comes out right.

Here are some tips for baking with substitutions:

  • What it brings to the table: Shortening is responsible for tender, crumbly textures in cakes and cookies. It doesn't add much in terms of flavor, nor does it produce the flakiness that butter provides in things like pie crusts.
  • Swap it for: Avocado and coconut oil. These are good, healthy alternatives, as they both provide the fat required for a tender texture and are loaded with good-for-you nutrients. Avocado is best used in dark-colored baked goods like chocolate cookies or cake.
  • What it brings to the table: Butter provides distinctive flavor along with a tender, flaky texture that’s perfect for cookies and pies.
  • Swap it for: Greek yogurt, bananas or unsweetened applesauce. If using Greek yogurt, for every cup of butter, use 1/4 cup of Greek yogurt plus 1/2 cup of butter. Use one banana for one stick of butter, and 1/2 cup of applesauce for one cup of butter. (Note: The texture of your baked goods will be different without the butter.)
  • What it brings to the table: Flours tend to be a bit tricky in baking. There are many different types of flours, all providing a varying degree of fluffiness and texture to baked goods. All-purpose white flour tends to create a lighter dish than many other flour types.
  • Swap it for: Whole wheat flour. Whole wheat flour won’t decrease the calorie content, but it will add fiber and whole grains to your treat. Just know that this switch will make for a denser baked good. For every cup of all-purpose flour, use 3/4 cup whole wheat flour. And when making cookies with whole wheat flour, reduce the butter or shortening by 20 percent.
  • What it brings to the table: Sugar is responsible for the browning of baked goods, a longer shelf life, a light and fluffy texture, sweet flavors and aromas, and it helps products rise.
  • Swap it for: Natural sugars (honey, maple syrup, agave) or sugar alternatives (Splenda, stevia). You won’t change the calorie content when using natural sugars, but you will improve the nutrition factor. When using liquid sweeteners, use 3/4 cup for every cup of sugar. When baking with sugar alternatives like stevia or Splenda, you won’t get the browning effect or caramelization, nor will you find the same volume or tenderness as with sugar. However, you can still produce a sweet, low-calorie treat. If using sucralose (Splenda), replace half the sugar with Splenda. You can use equal parts stevia for sugar.

No matter which substitution you choose, they all require some degree of experimentation. Keep an open mind and don’t be afraid to dump the batch, tweak the recipe or start over again. One recent substitution-heavy recipe I whipped up took three or four tweaks before getting it right. So don’t be afraid to experiment with substitutions when it comes to your favorite holiday recipes. Oh, and you can keep those skinny jeans!