Whole Ingredients for Baking: Substitutions and Recipe Ideas

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I made a pact with myself a few years ago: reduce the number of “processed” foods I buy at the grocery store, which makes baking a little harder. It’s difficult to avoid anything “processed” entirely (though not impossible), but paying more attention to what’s in the food you buy, and making more informed choices about it are accessible methods of managing your health and food preparation.

Within only a few weeks of reading ingredient labels, I noticed something a little disappointing: vegetarian and vegan substitutions (margarine, frozen veggie burgers, vegan sausages, and so on) aren’t always “whole.” Usually, frozen and packaged foods will have preservatives and additives. While I won’t claim that these are “bad” for you, I will strive (and have been striving) to learn how I can make the same products at home with simpler ingredients.

Besides, by challenging myself to make my favorite foods at home with whole, simple ingredients, I can expand my knowledge of what I’m eating and how to function in the kitchen!

Over the years, I’ve been able to learn about a few recipes and ingredients that are as whole as possible and allow for vegan or gluten-free pastries that anyone would enjoy. Some of the ingredients stand out in a recipe more than others, but occasionally people will tell me they couldn’t even tell that the pastry they were eating had no butter/dairy/wheat/eggs/whatever.

Baking With This List:

Many of the ingredients below serve multiple functions in baking, and I recommend always having a few of them on-hand. Most non-vegan and non-gluten free baking these days uses whole ingredients, or at least better ingredients than in the past, and eggs, milk, and butter are obvious choices if you want to bake with dairy or animal products (and according to the French, eggs and dairy are “healthy,” unless you’re lactose-intolerant or allergic.) The ingredients here are intended mainly for alternative-diet baking, something that still suffers from use of not-whole ingredients.

In the end, though, the point of the list is to give you an idea of what kinds of ingredients you should look for, and to show you what’s possible when substituting. Specific amounts, health benefits, end results, and the rest will all vary from person to person. Even so, I’ve tried to include general ratios and pastry recommendations for the substitutions.

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12 Types of Whole, Simple Baking Ingredients

Whole-Grain Flours

Most common baking ingredients have been through some kind of process, so eradicating “processed” foods from your pantry entirely isn’t very feasible. That being said, if you’d like to up the health benefits from those morning muffins or snack cookies, you can use ingredients that are less processed, such as whole grain flours instead of white, refined flours.

Why you should use them: 

Whole grains have more fiber than their refined counterparts and fiber aids in digestion (it makes you poop.) Additionally, when grain is milled and refined, the bran that contains at least half of the vitamins and minerals is removed. Whole grain goods have more of what your body wants and needs, like complex carbohydrates, potassium, iron, phosphorus, and calcium. Finally, whole grain flours have more flavor.

You can even make your sourdough starter with whole wheat.

How you should use them:

It is possible to substitute whole grains entirely in a 1:1 ratio, but be aware that they’re heavier, denser, and drier than refined flours. Whole wheat muffins made entirely of whole wheat flour will be heavy and dense, and you’ll need more liquid. Because of this, it’s best to substitute a portion of refined grain for whole. Try a 50/50 split between refined all-purpose flour and whole wheat flour.

Recipe ideas: 

whole wheat pumpkin streusel muffins, whole wheat vegan gingerbread cookies

Nut and Vegetable Oils

The vegetable oil most people have used for a long time already, canola oil, is a valuable substitute for butter in baking, as are other oils like olive, peanut, and sunflower oil. Each oil carries its own pros and pitfalls, and the less refined the oil, the stronger the flavor.

Why you should use them: 

Light, refined oils: high smoke point, and fat, which is essential for most baking. Olive oil: beneficial fruit compounds, and wonderful Mediterranean flavor. Generally, oils will be “healthier” for baking than butter, and more whole than shortening or margarine.

How you should use them: 

If you want to avoid dairy or reduce cholesterol and certain types of fats, you can substitute oils for butter or eggs. Vegan cupcakes? Swap vegetable oil for butter (and baking soda for eggs)! Note, though, that oils are more useful as a butter substitute, and you’re better off finding something else to substitute for eggs if you don’t want to use eggs.

Whether your recipe requires solid or liquid butter, oils can be substituted in a 1:1 ratio.

Recipe ideas: 

lemon olive oil cake, vegan vanilla cupcakes

Coconut Oil

Being oil from produce, this should fall under the above “Nut and Vegetable Oils” category, but I felt like it deserved its own section. Why? Because unlike the other oils, coconut oil is solid at room temperature.

Why you should use it: 

It’s vegan and paleo-friendly. The Internet will tell you this and that and the other thing, so peruse at your own risk, but the number one reason to use coconut oil is that it’s vegan and paleo-friendly. Whether it’s necessarily better or worse than butter or any other oil is a matter of “which fats am I supposed to avoid?” Some people point to higher levels of saturated fat as a reason not to use coconut oil, while others point out that these particular fats are helpful for cholesterol levels. When it comes to fat, you decide what’s good for you.

How you should use it: 

If you need your fat solid, like butter, keep the coconut oil solid. If you don’t, melt it. It can cream the way butter does, but the structure is fundamentally different, so you won’t get the same volume when making cakes, for example (read about why we cream butter and sugar when making cakes/cookies.) If making brownies, add the coconut oil first. Substitute in a 1:1 ratio but be aware that coconut oil may or may not impart a coconut flavor to your sweets.

Recipe ideas: 

coconut oil brownies, coconut zucchini chocolate chip bread

Non-Dairy Milks

Milk has a whole set of behaviors all its own, whether it’s turning into butter or boiling up into foam for ice cream. Some non-dairy milks can mimic these behaviors: soy and almond milks are popular cream substitutes in hot lattes, and coconut milk loves to boil over when left on the stove unattended (and is thus a good ice cream base.)

Why you should use them

The main reason for substituting non-dairy milks is cholesterol. Additionally, if you’d prefer vegan pastries over non-vegan, non-dairy milks can be very useful. And finally, for those of you who, like me, are lactose-intolerant (or unlike me, allergic to casein) but love sweets, non-dairy milks are a life-saver.

How you should use them: 

Non-dairy milks can often be used in place of cream and milk. Even coconut milk is a good substitute, and in most recipes, the coconut flavor is non-existent. Use non-dairy milks in a 1:1 ratio when substituting, and play around with different milks to see which flavors you like the best. For whipped cream, substitute thick, canned coconut milk. Refrigerate the can so the coconut water and fat separate, and use the fat for the cream, without the water.

You can even make your own non-dairy condensed or evaporated milk by reducing non-dairy milk on the stove (for evaporated) and adding sugar (for condensed), or substituting any variety of coconut milk/cream.

Recipe ideas: 

non-dairy creme brûlée, coconut whipped cream

Fruit and Vegetable Puree

Pureed fruits and vegetables are possibly the most “whole” (unprocessed) substitute you can find for other fats. Some recipes are obvious: pumpkin bread, carrot cake, and sweet potato pancakes. Others are more creative, so let’s spend some time in the produce aisle!

Why you should use them: 

As with the non-dairy milks, the first reason is cholesterol. Another important benefit of using produce as fat is that you can have your cake and eat it, too, without a single ounce of shame (not that you should ever be ashamed of your eating habits): different fruits/vegetables have different vitamins and nutrients. It’s also a way to surreptitiously sneak some fruit and vegetable goodness into other people’s diets.

How you should use them: 

Fruit and vegetable puree can be substituted for oil, butter, or eggs, and sweet puree (apple sauce, prune, banana) can even replace some of the sugar. For most fruit/vegetable puree, if you try to use it in cookies, they will end up softer than you expect.

Apple sauce: works best as an egg substitute, and is good in muffins, cakes, and cookies; replace eggs with equal amount of apple sauce by weight (1 large egg is 1.8 ounces or 52 grams; approximately 1/3 cup of apple sauce); if the pastries don’t rise as well, increase the baking powder.

Avocados: best in muffins/cupcakes, bread, and chocolate recipes, rather than cookies; replace 1/2 of the oil or butter with an equal amount of avocado, or substitute avocado for oil or butter in 1:1 ratio and increase wet ingredients slightly.

Here’s a fun party trick: raw, vegan avocado chocolate mousse (top it with the coconut whipped cream above!)

Bananas: denser than eggs or butter, bananas are good in quickbreads (muffins) and brownies; 1/2 of a banana equals 1 whole egg or 2 ounces of butter; 1 c mashed banana can be substituted for 1 c granulated sugar.

Beets: best in chocolate cakes, brownies, and spice cakes; they can substitute the butter/oil and red food coloring in red velvet cake (though your cake will be darker and less vibrant); they impart a lot of color, so beware of how you use them.

Dates: a whole substitute for granulated sugar, especially good in raw pastries as a caramel substitute; 1 c date puree is equal to 1 c granulated sugar.

Prunes: can replace butter in a 1:1 ratio, but try only replacing 1/2 of the butter first, then working up to an equal substitution, as prunes may add flavor to your pastry.

Other recipe ideas: 

vegan ginger muffins, chocolate avocado cookies, beet chocolate brownies

Black Beans

What’s the old saying? “Beans, beans, they’re good for your heart…et cetera, et cetera.”

Why you should use them: 

Your usual host of “why is produce healthy”: fiber, potassium, and protein. They’re legumes. That should be plenty.

If you need more: no gluten, no carbs. I personally worship carbs, but in case it matters to you, beans are the scourge of spare tires, where wheat is the spare tire’s best friend (and I am my spare tire’s keeper.)

How you should use them: 

Black beans substitute for flour in chocolate recipes, like brownies. 1 cup cooked black beans is 1 cup of flour.

Black beans may be limited to chocolate desserts, but you can use other beans, like chickpeas, for other desserts!

Recipe ideas: 

chocolate black bean brownies, chocolate black bean power cookies

Tofu

Whip it up and sweeten it with vanilla beans to make a lower-fat, vegan whipped cream; flavor it with chocolate or sweet potato to make a cheesecake substitute without the cream cheese; or turn it into a mousse to cut back on cholesterol from egg yolks.

Why you should use it: 

All the protein, none of the fat or cholesterol…or animal product-y stuff.

How you should use it: 

Because of its texture, tofu is a good substitute for heavy cream and eggs. 1/4 c tofu is 1 egg in baked goods. It’s best reserved for denser pastries, like pound cake, quickbreads, and brownies. You can also whip silken tofu like heavy cream, for non-dairy whipped cream or mousse, and beat in some powdered sugar to make frosting. Make sure you 1) press/drain out excess water, and 2) whip the tofu thoroughly.

Recipe ideas: 

tofu whipped cream, tofu brownies

Vinegar

Did you leave the white wine out overnight? Don’t fret: throw it into some cupcake batter to replace the eggs! Though, you really should already have some vinegar hiding in your kitchen. It’s very useful.

Why you should use it: 

Vegan and no cholesterol or fat. Plus, acid causes all kinds of useful chemical reactions.

How you should use it: 

Vinegar plus baking soda is an egg substitute. Use it in vegan cakes, cupcakes (for 100% whole goodness, make a tofu frosting!), and muffins. 1 Tbsp vinegar + 1 tsp baking soda is 1 egg. Use white or apple cider vinegar.

Recipe ideas: 

vegan blueberry muffins, vegan apple spice quickbread

Nut Flours and Nut Butters

Flavorful, healthful, and accessible, both nut flours and nut butter can be made at home if you don’t like what you see at the store. Homemade nut butter won’t be as smooth as factory-made, and nut flours may not be quite as fine as store-bought, but they’ll do wonders, regardless!

Why you should use them: 

No gluten! Nuts have good fats and useful protein, as well. Also, baking with nut flours and butter lends a hearty texture and some comforting flavors.

How you should use them: 

Nut flours can replace wheat flour to make your pastries gluten-free or to increase the amount of protein. Keep in mind the various roles of gluten, though, and if you need to make other substitutions, as well. Also, nut flours have no starch, so when making soufflés or choux pastries, for example, you’ll need some starch added.

Nut butter is like the fruit/vegetable purees above, but much denser. You can use peanut butter just like bananas, avocados, and butter (but not eggs: nut butter don’t substitute well for eggs), but you’ll need more of the liquids.

For both, 1:1 ratios, but mess around with the other ingredients and adjust accordingly. With nut butter, add extra liquid. For nut flours, add a little more oil/fat to help bind, and if using baking soda or powder, add more (to help the pastries rise.)

*From personal experience, I can tell you: making American pie pastry without gluten is a chore. If you want a pie without the wheat flour, do a crumb crust, try making a crostata, or even consider gluten-free pâte sucrée.

Recipe ideas: 

vegan peanut butter cookies, almond butter honey cake

Maple Syrup

Redolent of autumn, blushing maple leaves, and spiced, whole wheat desserts, maple syrup is flavorful on its own and useful as a sweetener in pastries. Unlike molasses, the maple flavor can disappear in pastries, depending on the pastry.

Why you should use it: 

Maple syrup has a lower glycemic index than granulated sugar. Though it ranks higher on the index than honey, it’s also more vegan-friendly (whether honey is or isn’t vegan, per se, is up to you to decide.)

How you should use it: 

Maple syrup substitutes for other sweeteners (honey, sugar, etc.) It can substitute for molasses, but because of the distinct flavors of each, be careful how you use it. Physically, maple syrup won’t act like sugar in certain pastries (cakes and caramel), but otherwise, you can substitute in a 1:1 ratio. If substituting for granulated sugar, decrease the amount of other liquids slightly.

Baking Tip: with anything, but especially with viscous and sticky things, it’s easiest to measure by weight instead of volume. Don’t know what a cup of maple syrup weighs? King Arthur’s got your back! Put your main mixing bowl on the scale, zero it out, and add the syrup directly. This way you get all of it with nothing stuck to the measuring cup/spoon (and there’s one fewer thing to wash.)

Recipe ideas: 

maple pumpkin latte syrup, maple cream, vanilla maple muffins

Flax and Chia Seeds

Not just for birds anymore! When I first started exploring vegan baking, Egg Replacer was the big thing, but then I found flax seeds. Now I add them to my muffins, even if I’m using eggs, and I love grinding them up into my protein shakes.

Why you should use them:

Fiber, the stringy things that make you poop! Seeds keep you regular. Additionally, they contain omega-3 fatty acids and some nifty protein.

How you should use them:

1 Tbsp ground seeds plus 3 Tbsp hot water is 1 egg. Beware that both will add visible specks to your food, as well as nutty flavors.

Recipe ideas: 

no-nut butter, blackberry oat bars, chocolate ginger chia seed holiday cookies, lemon chia seed scones

Agar-Agar

It’s spelled just like the sound I make when I touch hot cast iron with my bare hands, but far more useful in baking. In the Western world, agar-agar (“agar,”) is a recent arrival.

Why you should use it: 

It’s a vegan and gluten-free binder. Agar-agar is gelatin obtained from seaweed, rather than from animals. It can act like eggs, starches, gluten, and gelatin. Beware: it’s not easy to find. You may have to shop at your local Asian market (for reference, the Chinese/Japanese word for agar-agar is 寒天, “Kanten.”) It has none of the negatives that you’ll find in the above (eggs, starch, gelatin, gluten, carbs, fat, etc.)

How you should use it: 

If using powder, mix it into the dry ingredients as you would baking powder. Otherwise, it needs to be bloomed like gelatin in water. For liquid desserts (custards), bloom the agar-agar in your liquid. In gluten-free baking, the agar-agar replaces the gluten. For gluten, 1 cup of flour requires 1 tsp of agar-agar. 1 tablespoon of agar-agar equals 1 egg in other recipes.

Recipe ideas: 

vegan chocolate panna cotta, gluten-free carrot muffins

 

Regardless of how you read or use a recipe, know that the same recipe doesn’t make the same pastry for everyone. Sometimes when I follow someone else’s banana nut muffin recipe, which should give me one dozen muffins, I end up with a baker’s dozen…and unfortunately, muffin pans only have twelve cups. Don’t take the above substitutions as written in stone: try substituting halfway, and if that works, go all the way. You’ll still get the health benefits, even if you only replace half of the original ingredient.

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About Author

“Nick’s journey with food began in 2008, when he tried making cookies for the first time ever…and forgot half of the flour. Ever since, he’s been devouring culinary memoirs and cookbooks as voraciously as apple pie, tasting whatever foods he can get his hands on, and learning about cooking the only way he knows how: by trying, failing, and trying again. He currently works in retail management at a store that sells kitchen goods and hosts cooking classes, while blogging at Kitchen Klutz Blog, and studying for a Master of Arts in Teaching.” http://kitchenklutzblog.com/

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