By Contributor Marie Spano, MS, RD


By the time I was a teenager, I had free reign of the kitchen. I spent quality time leafing through food-stained, dog-eared cookbook pages daydreaming of taking the typed lists of ingredients, altering them, changing one ingredient for another or adding a dash of this and a pinch of that and creating something that came alive. A dessert of my own creation so beautiful you wouldn’t want to disturb it yet the aroma tempted your taste buds to the point you couldn’t resist..…

My magnificent creations turned out delightfully at times – like the mouth-watering, soft taste of buttery rich, mildly bitter dark chocolate fudge so rich it practically melted on your tongue. And to this day I can practically still taste the endless buttery swirls of cinnamon sugar in my cinnamon buns.

And, then just like that, the fat-free craze forced itself into my kitchen. Fat is bad? How can I take the fat out but make my desserts taste good? I was up for the challenge. And my zealous desire to prove that healthy could also be tasty quickly turned into muffins as hard as hockey pucks and loaves of bread that resembled doorstops.

Through the years since my kitchen experiments began, I’ve used a variety of food substitutions that both enhance the flavor of food and those that by all means were meant to improve the nutrition profile. And, here are a few things I’ve learned along the way:

There is no substitute for butter in decorative cake frostings and many traditional cookies. The water content of soft spreads and margarines can make for pancake thin cookies. And, as every cake decorator knows, the consistency of your frosting is almost as important as your decorating technique. And, if a recipe calls for butter, use butter or risk a soft, pliable mess of decorations that look like they’ve been through a heat wave.

Fat free isn’t always necessary. Fat free doesn’t always equate to “better for you” depending on what you’ve replaced the fat with. Sure, fat adds calories but it also adds flavor and texture and if you take out the fat but add a sugary substitute, you may end up with just as many calories. So, if it’s liquid fat, keep it unless you want a lower calorie product. Or, substitute half of the fat with a liquid product such as applesauce or a fruit puree if desired. Egg yolks can often times be substituted with egg whites (though giving up a measly 5 grams of fat isn’t really worth it considering what you are tossing in the drain with that nutrient-packed egg yolk).

Whole grains can be used, in moderation, at times. I’m all for fiber. But, whole grains add a slightly coarse texture that is refined out of refined grains. Trade too much flour for whole grain flour and your guests may feel like they are chomping on fiberboard. Your best bet is to add a little at a time by altering the recipe a little more each time you make it – start by substituting one quarter to one-third of the flour. Another one to try – add a little soy or peanut flour for more protein.

Weigh instead of measure ingredients for optimal results for cakes, pastries and other fine desserts.

Baking isn’t as forgiving as other types of cooking. A cooked dish can often be resurrected whereas one wrong step in baking can yield disastrous results. In general, the lighter the baked good – a cake or delicate pastry, the more closely you should follow the recipe. It took me a few years to realize that I needed less of a rich, tasty dessert than a fat-free, sugar-free baked good that never quite satisfies my taste buds.

For more tips on light baking, see the Art of Low-Fat Baking from Cooking Light.

Recipe: Double-Caramel Turle Cake, Cooking LIght