10 Healthy Upgrades For Your Favorite Baked Goods That Are Just As Tasty As The Real Thing

We've got easy upgrades for favorites like brownies and red velvet cake.

August 1, 2017
A pile of chocolate brownies made with black beans instead of flour
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For the legions of folks who have a serious sweet tooth, the desire for dessert can mean indulging in unhealthy, sugar-laden diet killers. And while everyone should let loose once in a while, loving cookies and cakes doesn't have to be a curse.

(Slash your cholesterol, burn stubborn belly fat, solve your insomnia, and more—naturally—with Rodale's Eat For Extraordinary Health & Healing.)

Whether you eat only organic food, or you're a serious sugar junkie, here's ten ways to make your baked goods more natural.

Related: I Tried Baking Cookies Outside In The Sun And This Is What Happened

ghee
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Substitute ghee for butter

Just think of ghee as a one-to-one substitute for butter, minus the milk sugars and protein. "I love using ghee as a replacement for butter," says Kristen Ciccolini, Culinary Nutrition Expert and founder of Good Witch Kitchen. "It's great if you're going the dairy-free route, and is easier to digest as well." Here's a few things to know before you start cooking with ghee.

Related: I Taught My Son To Bake By Giving Him Free Rein In The Kitchen

coconut oil
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Opt for coconut oil

Don't let the recent claims that coconut oil is unhealthy scare you away from this mega-ingredient. Extra-virgin coconut oil can be used as a substitution for vegetable oil, which is highly processed and inflammatory. Coconut oil also cooks extremely well under high heat, without degrading its quality. 

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blueberry chia jam
Photograph courtesy of Kristen Ciccolini
Swap in chia seeds

If you're looking to ditch some factory farmed products, chia seeds can replace eggs. "They're packed with healthy fat and fiber," says Ciccolini. While ground flax can also works as a substitution for eggs, its Omega-3 fatty acids are susceptible to degradation from high heat, making chia is a more stable option.

To make the equivalent of one egg, mix 1 tablespoon of ground chia with ¼ cup of warm water, and letting it sit for a few minutes until it gels together. It's ideal in recipes where eggs serve as a binder, like muffins and other quick breads. But it's also helpful in non-baked goods, like veggie burgers, meatballs, and easy chia seed puddings.

You can also use chia seeds to make a good—and good for you—jam. Check out Ciccolini's recipe for Blueberry Chia Jam (pictured above).

black beans
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​Cook brownies with black beans

"People get grossed out hearing this at first, but black beans are actually a pretty good flour substitution in brownies and it makes for a really rich and fudgy result," says Ciccolini.

To do this, you can use black bean flour, or 1 cup pureed black beans (Which is usually what yields from a 15-oz can.) Just keep in mind that you may need to reduce the amount of liquid called for in the rest of the recipe. Pro tip: If you're using beans from a can rather than soaking dried beans, make sure you rinse them well and go for the low-sodium version for better control over the salt content. 

Related: 6 Things That Happened When I Stopped Eating Sugar

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Use that organic flour power

Ditch the normal flour, and instead try using organic, sprouted flour, says Kristin Canty, owner of Woods Hill Table in Concord, Mass., and the Farm at Woods Hill. If you aren’t allergic to nuts and want to go gluten free, almond flour is always another viable option. (Or if you really want to step outside the box, you can try cricket flour like this writer did.) These options work out great in cookie recipes, like these Sprouted Wheat Drop Cookies

Related: The Easiest Pie Crust You'll Ever Make, Plus 5 Delicious Pie Recipes You're About To Be Obsessed With

 
 
red velvet cake made from beets
Photograph courtesy of Woods Hill Table
Embrace the beet

The red food coloring traditionally used to make red velvet cupcakes serves no purpose other than providing that rich hue. Canty suggests swapping out the artificial colorful and using a natural replacement. "At Woods Hill Table, we use beets," says Canty. "Their deep red pigment colors the cake, and their relatively neutral, earthy flavor is covered by the chocolate."

Here's a great recipe for natural red velvet cake from The Big Bake Theory. 

cacao powder
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Bring on the cacao

If you're after a rich chocolate flavor, raw, unprocessed cacao powder can replace traditional cocoa powder one-to-one in most recipes. (Here are 7 legitimate benefits of chocolate.) You get the same rich chocolate flavor, with the added benefits of raw cacao powder's high concentration of antioxidants and health-supporting components, like magnesium and theobromine, says Ciccolini.

applesauce
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Make applesauce boss

Instead of using heavy shortening or oil, try swapping in applesauce or prune puree in treats like muffins, cookies, and quick breads. Not only is it healthier than the shortening or oil, but you get the added benefit of sweetness. (Here's our recipe for homemade applesauce.) Just keep in mind that it may take some experimenting. Start with replacing half of what is called for, and see how it turns out.

Depending on what you're making, some recipes can go further than others with this replacement. If you're looking to replace sugar with applesauce, there's no 1:1 swap since you're replacing a dry ingredient with a liquid. But start off by reducing the liquid by ¼, and see how it goes from there. Keep in mind, if your recipe relies on sugar for structure, the applesauce substitution won't always work that well, so you may want to check this first. 

 
 
sugar
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Cut the sugar

Ah, the evil S-word. "Sugar is sugar no matter which way you sell it," says Ciccolini. "But there are definitely healthier options for replacing the processed white stuff." Since most conventional recipes can do with at least half the called-for amount of sugar, consider trying coconut sugar, date sugar, maple syrup, or honey. "These sugars are naturally occurring and mineral rich, so you can at least get some health benefits," says Ciccolini. (Here's more on how to bake with 12 healthy sugar substitutes.)

Depending on the specific recipe, you can also use applesauce or ripe banana, or enhance the flavor without requiring more sugar by using vanilla or food-grade essential oil. If you want to keep it simple, 1:1 substitutions work when you replace dry with dry, and wet with wet. It's when you replace dry with wet that it gets complicated: White granulated sugar can be replaced 1:1 with other granulated sugars, like coconut sugar, and the same goes if you're replacing liquid with liquid, like honey for corn syrup. If you're swapping granulated with liquids like honey or maple syrup, keep in mind that those are sweeter than white sugar, so you'll want to use less than a 1:1 substitution. You're altering the liquid content as well, so a good rule of thumb is to start with ¼ to 1/3 of the original amount. 

Related: 19 Ways To Give Up Sugar

baking from scratch
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Make it from scratch

If you're not in a mad rush for time, the easiest way to ensure you're using natural ingredients is to avoid pre-boxed cake and cookie mixes. "The easiest thing home cooks can do to make their sweets less unhealthy is to cook from scratch," says Canty. "This gives them more control over ingredients and ingredient sourcing, and also allows them to make swaps like the above where they see fit."

It may extend your prep time, but the benefits certainly outweigh the extra work.