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How to Bake Healthy Holiday Treats

More and more people are avoiding ingredients that have always ruled baking recipes. Fortunately, seasonal treats can be just as sweet without them.

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For Gluten-Free Baking


Most grocery stores now carry at least a few gluten-free flour blends. They typically contain four kinds of flours, including starches like potato or tapioca to help bind and tenderize. If you are trying to go low-carb, seek out nut- or bean-based blends, which are generally higher in protein, fiber, and other nutrients; use them in recipes with chocolate, spices, or other strong flavors that mask the flour’s slight beany notes. For lightly flavored cakes, such as angel food, choose a mild-flavored blend with white-rice flour at the top of the ingredients list. Single flours like almond, coconut, or quinoa work well, too, but be sure to add a binder.


When baking without wheat, you need to add a binding ingredient to re-create the gluten-based structure that forms when the wheat flour is mixed with liquid and which serves to hold together ingredients. Otherwise your goodie will fall flat or crumble. Replace 1/4 cup of liquid with one egg. For a vegan alternative, mix 1 tablespoon ground flax with 1/4 cup water in place of one egg. Or try xanthan or guar gum, powdered binding ingredients sold at health food stores. For bread, use 1 teaspoon of gum per cup of flour; for cakes and cookies, just half a teaspoon—any more and they will turn out rubbery.


Gluten-free flour blend, eggs or flax seeds, xanthan and guar gums

For Low-Sugar Baking


Most sugar-abstainers are ditching refined sweeteners like table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, but some even avoid unprocessed simple sugars like honey and maple syrup. Luckily, it’s possible to bake sweets without most of these by substituting in a whole-fruit puree, which also adds antioxidants, fiber, and other nutrients to the dessert. To make, soak dates, prunes, or other dried fruit for a few hours or overnight, drain, and puree in a food processor or blender. Replace up to half the fats and sugar with an equivalent amount of puree. (You’ll need to experiment to get the proportions just right.) Use purees in fruit-based recipes, such as blueberry muffins or fruitcake, or in chocolate desserts, which harmonize well with fruit flavor.

For folks looking to avoid even fruit, stevia is a plant-based sweetener that doesn’t impact blood glucose levels.One teaspoon of stevia powder replaces a cup of sugar. To replace bulk, add 1/4 to 1/2 cup pumpkin puree or other moist puree.

See alsoCurb Unhealthy Cravings


Apple juice, applesauce, dates or other dried fruit, stevia powder

For Non-Dairy Baking


Replace butter with liquid plant-based oil rather than using margarine, which contains processed or partially hydrogenated oils. It’s an easy swap in buttery cookie recipes: just use 10 tbsp oil for each cup of butter.

Choose a heart-healthy option like extra-virgin olive oil (rest assured, the grassy flavor bakes off), or walnut or canola oil. For flaky results in pastries, such as pie crusts, scones, or biscuits, chill the oil first and drizzle it into the flour slowly, then quickly add any remaining liquid and shape the pastry. Or replace butter in pastries with equal parts chilled and solidified coconut oil. To use, simply grate oil into flakes and toss with the flour. Try raw-nut purees or nut butters to add richness in baked goods: Replace half the fats with peanut or almond butter in granola bars, cookies, or cakes.


Replace milk or cream with nondairy milks; almond and coconut are the most neutral tasting and have good body for baking fluffy cakes and muffins. Higher-fat canned coconut milk is more like cream, great for ganache or ice cream. To make “whipped cream,” chill a can of coconut milk overnight. Pour off watery liquid and scoop solid cream into a chilled bowl. Add 1–2 tbsp confectioner’s sugar and whip until fluffy. Chill until ready to serve. For a stand-in for cream cheese or sour cream, make cashew cream. Soak 2 cups raw cashews overnight, drain, then puree in a food processor, adding water gradually until creamy. This yields 2 1/2 cups thick or 3 1/2 cups “pourable” cashew cream. Sweeten to taste with agave or maple syrup.


Olive or canola oil, non-dairy milk, canned coconut milk

For Vegan Baking


Strict vegans often avoid white sugar because it is filtered through cow-bone charcoal. However, raw sugars are not filtered that way and are considered vegan, and vegan sugars like Wholesome Sweeteners and Florida Crystals are also available. Instead of honey, which vegans leave to the bees, you can use agave, maple syrup, or a fruit-based honey replacement like Bee Free Honee.


To bake without eggs, you need to replace the binding power of egg whites. Use binders made from ground flax or starches, such as arrowroot, potato starch, or tapioca. To replace 1 egg, whisk 1 tbsp of finely ground flax seed with 1/4 cup water. Or whisk together 1 tsp arrowroot, 1/2 tsp baking powder, 1/4 tsp guar gum, and 3 tbsp water. A store-bought egg replacer powder, such as Ener-G brand, combines a few starches with some leavening. For moisture and body, use purees of banana, pumpkin, or tofu. Silken-tofu puree is great in cheesecakes, and can replace half the fat in cookies and muffins.

See also: Can Going Vegan Be a Path to Enlightenment?


Vegan sugar, ground flax seeds, maple syrup, egg replacer, pumpkin puree, silken tofu, raw cashews

Robin Asbell is a chef and author of six cookbooks, including Sweet & Easy Vegan.