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I've been getting so many emails asking about baking and adapting recipes for the holidays that I thought I'd put a big post together.
"Made HH soft molasses cookies with my nephew...yum!" - Corinna
If you're looking to adapt an old family recipe to just be vegan, that's easy. Flour is vegan. Sugar is vegan** (see "Sugar" section below for more info). Oil is vegan, and you can replace butter with a vegan margarine like Earth Balance. Not all margarines sold at the store are vegan (many contain animal products), but you should be able to find one if your store does not sell Earth Balance. (You can find Earth Balance at any health food store).
Adapting the recipe to be plant-based (vegan) and healthy (or at least, healthier) and fat-free is where it gets a little tricky, but it's still possible with these tips and tricks.
Replacing Eggs in Baking
I've heard about 10 different ways to replace eggs in baking, but here are my top three:
1/4 cup applesauce. Add with wet ingredients, but avoid using more than 1 cup total applesauce in a recipe. Applesauce works best in breads, muffins, and cakes.
1/2 mashed banana. Cream banana with sugar. The riper the banana, the sweeter and more banana flavor you'll have.
2 1/2 tbsp ground flax seeds mixed with 3 tbsp water. Add as you would add an egg in the original recipe. Note that flax has an earthy, flavor so it may not work in most recipes.
There is also a commercial egg replacer. I don't use it, but it can be helpful when you're starting out. Some people remark it has a chalky taste, but I've never experienced that.
If you're looking to replace egg glaze, try almond milk, maple syrup, or apricot jelly.
Here is a great PDF I created for replacing eggs in baking, click here (see page 2).
Replacing Fat in Baking (Making Low-Fat Goodies)
My go-to choice for replacing fat (oil or butter) is applesauce. My second favorite is pureed pumpkin. I've also used beans, bananas, shredded vegetables (like zucchini in my chocolate-zucchini muffins), and prunes.
For more information, see this post, "How to Replace Fats in Baking."
If you're looking to cut out oil or butter, but aren't also trying to make it low-fat, avocado can be a great choice — provided your baked good is darker in color to mask some of that green coloring. I've also heard you can use nut butters, but I haven't tried using them myself in place of butter.
Here is a great PDF I created for replacing fats in baking, click here (see page 1).
Understanding Flours (and interchanging them)
Not all flours are the same. For gluten-free flours, skip to the section on gluten-free baking below.
White Flour/All-Purpose Flour (the most common flour) is highly processed and refined. The most nutritious part, the wheat seed, as well as the bran and germ, are removed from the wheat grain to make this flour. In fact, this flour is so devoid of nutrition that the FDA requires manufacturers to artificially add some nutrition back in, which is why you'll see many flours say they are "enriched." Only a fraction of what removed is artificially added back in.
This flour may be bleached or unbleached to be more white.
Unlike white/all-purpose flour, whole-wheat flours still contain all these nutrients, but there are three very distinct types of whole wheat flours, which are described as follows.
(Regular) Whole-Wheat Flour
Whole-wheat flour is made from red wheat, which is why it is so dark in color. It is very dense and grainy, making it great for hearty breads but not delicate baked goods like cookies, cakes, and most muffins. Generally speaking, you do not want to use whole-wheat flour in place of white (all-purpose flour). Your goods will come out heavy and dense. Whole-wheat flour is also much, much thirstier than all-purpose, so if you don't also add more liquid, you may end up with wheat bricks instead of goodies. I don't recommend using regular whole-wheat flour, particularly if you are a novice baker.
Stone-ground flour is regular whole-wheat flour, the difference being that it is milled with a stone wheel over another stone wheel, slowly, to make flour. Most mills today use a steel roller to grind flour (not stone), hence the difference.
White Whole-Wheat Flour
White whole-wheat flour (what I use in most of my recipes) is ground from white wheat instead of red. White whole-wheat flour is not bleached. It's the different type of wheat grain — the white wheat, that makes it white in color. It's also softer and lighter, making it a great (nutritious) choice for baked goods. White whole-wheat is a healthy alternative to white flour (all-purpose). Your baked goods will not be as light and fluffy, but they will be much softer and lighter than if you used regular whole-wheat. Most supermarkets carry white whole-wheat flour.
Whole-Wheat Pastry Flour
Whole-wheat pastry flour is made from red wheat but has a slightly lower gluten content. It is lighter and fluffier as a result, and makes a great alternative to all-purpose (white) flour in baking, though it can be more expensive and harder to find. (You can usually find it at health food stores).
For more information on flours in general, see this post, "Flour — White, Wheat and Gluten-Free part 1."
Self-rising flour is flour mixed with a leavening agent (see below for more information on leavening agents). A recipe that calls for self-rising flour needs self-rising flour (it won't rise without it), and a recipe that does not call for self-rising flour cannot use self-rising flour. Basically, they are NOT interchangeable.
For more information and a recipe for DIY self-rising flour, see this post: "The Difference Between Self-Rising Flour and Regular Flour."
Adapting a recipe to be gluten-free is a little tricky, but manageable. The easiest way to convert a recipe is to use a gluten-free all-purpose flour blend such as Bob's Red Mill Gluten-Free All Purpose Flour in place of the flour called for. One note: I find gluten-free flours tend to be a little thirstier, so you may need to add a little more liquid.
In most recipes, you cannot just use a gluten-free flour (i.e., rice flour, chickpea flour) in place of wheat flour in a 1:1 ratio. You need to use a blend of gluten-free flours with a binder such as xanthum gum. You cannot just use, say, chickpea flour. If you want to make your own blend, see the recipe in EHH and HHA.
Homemade oat flour is a pretty good solution, but it can come out gummy AND you have to make sure your oats (and oat flour) are certified gluten-free, as oats can be cross-contaminated with gluten.
If possible, I suggest doing a "trial run" before you're serving the GF goodies to others so you can tinker with the added liquid.
For more information on making oat flour, see my post, "Oat Flour: The Gluten-Free Solution?"
For more information on gluten, see my post, "What is Gluten?"
"We, too, rolled out the Soft Molasses Cookies. What fun...we added a little more applesauce and more flour until we could roll them. Thanks for making the kiddos happy AND healthy!" — Robin
If you need to avoid wheat (but not gluten), spelt flour is a great substitute and can be used in a 1:1 ratio. Spelt flour, however, does have a slightly nutty taste to it, so it might not be complementary in every baked good.
I'm of the opinion that sugar is sugar. I try to use the least processed sweetener I can, but at the end of the day recognize that sweetener should accent my diet and not play a large role since it's not and never will be a health food.
White sugar, brown sugar, and confectioner's (powdered) sugar are pretty much the same from a health and nutrition perspective. Most brown sugars and powdered sugars are made from white sugar, but you can make your own brown sugar and make your own confectioners sugar at home using raw sugar.
Taste-wise, however, these sugars are different and generally cannot be interchanged. For example, if a recipe calls for 1/2 cup sugar, you can't use 1/2 cup confectioners sugar.
*Vegan Issue: If you (or someone you love) is vegan for ethical reasons, some brands of white sugar may not be suitable for them as the sugar is processed through bone char. No bone or animal product ends up in the final product, but the use during processing has led some ethical vegans to abstain from white sugar. You can, however, find certified vegan brands of white sugar at most health food stores.
Dry Sugar Substitutes
There is a great chart in the back of all of my cookbooks for how to replace sugar in recipes. The easiest alternative is raw sugar (also called turbinado sugar), which is a little less processed than white sugar (but is still sugar and not a health food). Sucanat is similar.
Date sugar is another option. With date sugar, use 2/3 cup to replace 1 cup of sugar.
For more information on dates as sweeteners, see my post, "How to Make Date Syrup & Date Sugar."
Wet Sugar Substitutes
Switching from a dry sweetener (like raw sugar) to a liquid sweetener (like maple syrup) can be a little tricky. You always need to reduce liquids if you're using a liquid sweetener. For example, with barley malt syrup and brown rice syrup, you usually need to reduce liquids by 1/4. You also don't want to do a straight 1:1 ratio. If a recipe calls for 1 cup of sugar, use 3/4 cup syrup. (I find agave nectar is so overpoweringly sweet that I usually only do 1/2 cup for 1 cup sugar, plus more liquid). With pure maple syrup specifically, reduce liquid by 3 tbsp and add 1/4 tsp. baking soda.
Other Sugar Substitutes
If you don't want to use any sweeteners at all, one option is stevia. I have never used stevia myself (I can't stand the taste), but most websites recommend 1 tsp. stevia to replace 1 cup sugar.
Another option is to use juice (i.e., apple juice) in place of sweeteners, but be mindful that most commercial fruit juices are no healthier than a Pepsi and some are so acidic you may need to adjust your leavening agent. You'll also need to reduce your liquids.
For more information, see my post, "What is Sugar? & Sugar Substitutes"
Baking soda, baking powder, and yeast all make baked goods rise. They are not interchangeable! You also don't want to fuss with the amounts called for in a recipe.
Baking soda is used when you have an acidic ingredient in the recipe like chocolate, soy yogurt, buttermilk (see note below).
If your baked goods have an awful bitter taste, you used too much baking soda. If your baked goods rise then collapse, you used too much baking powder.
For more information, see this post, "Baking Powder and Baking Soda."
[*Buttermilk — You can make vegan buttermilk by combining 1 cup soy milk with 1 tsp. lemon juice or 1 tsp. apple cider vinegar.]
1. You should always whisk dry ingredients (flour, baking powder/baking soda, salt, spices) together before adding wet ingredients to ensure equal distribution.
2. Spoon your flour into measuring cups, don't scoop or dump!
3. Use an oven thermometer to find hot spots and to ensure your oven is heating at the temperature you think it is!