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Smart Food Swaps for Healthy Cooking

I love food.  I love everything about it – the shopping, the preparing and most of all the eating.  This led me to pursue a onetime career as a pastry chef.  I loved everything about culinary school and my sweet tooth got even larger – swaps just weren’t on the agenda.  Fortunately when you work in a busy restaurant you burn off a lot of what you taste, but now that I am back to my old ways in front of a computer all day, the calories aren’t coming off as quickly.  Time to diet!

fruit twist

A healthier diet choice!

As you would expect this knowledge that I would have to change my food habits presented some challenges to my sugar coated mind. I kept thinking – I’m probably not the lone foodie working towards a healthier waistline so what do we do when we know we have to build better habits?

Now, those of you who have met me in the CalorieKing forums know there is nothing I like better (next to food) than a good project.  I decided I would sit down and create a food lover’s – and a calorie counter’s – guide to some smart swaps and healthier eating.

First there are the obvious swaps of eating more fruits and veg over processed foods and carbs, and switching to smaller portion sizes and healthier options on menus.  Then there is the idea of going “brown” – switching to whole wheat breads and pastas, and to brown rice over white.

But as I went back through my culinary school recipes and started doing some research on lowering fats and sugars, I found the key to a food swap can be as much about technique as it is about swapping the food itself.  Experimentation will be key to finding what works for you.  That shouldn’t be a problem for any foodie – so let’s get cooking with these CalorieKing Tips!

Cooking Techniques:

Switching to the low fat version of your fatty favorites such as sour cream, cream cheese, cream, milk, evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, mayonnaise, cheese, yogurt or creamy soups.  This may seem an obvious change – and it is really – in today’s era of many choices most large food producers realize they need a lower fat version to maintain market share.   There are a few rules though:

  • Beware that some of the lower fat versions may contain more water so you may need to adjust cooking times to slightly longer if using these swaps in baking or casseroles.  This rule applies when switching margarine or a vegetable spread for butter as well.
  • Additionally, some products like lower fat mayonnaise and yogurts may actually turn sweeter when heated so be careful when using.  You can usually count on lower fat cream cheese to present the same flavor profile and texture in your cooking.
  • Many lower fat cheeses do not melt the same as their higher fat versions.  If you need to use cheese in a cooked food remember it is usually strong tasting and often you can simply halve the amount of ricotta, cheddar, or parmesan in your recipe.

Switching to lower fat goes for meats as well.  Here are some things to remember:

  • Buy the lowest fat ground meats as you can – try switching from ground beef to ground chicken or turkey.  Use low fat substitutes such as turkey bacons or even vegetarian options for a deeper swap.
  • Buy lower fat cuts such as loins, sirloins or white meats, remove skins and trim extra fats.
  • Cut the volume of your meats  or your meat use altogether– you can do this by adding crushed cereals, bread crumbs or oats to your meatloaves or meatballs as an extender, and adding extra beans in your soups, stews and chillis in place of meat.

Lower your salt intake to stay heart healthy and prevent the retention of water.

  • Use fresh herbs wherever possible to amp up flavor without the salt.  If you use dried herbs remember these are concentrated so often you need to add less to get that flavor boost.  Experiment with a range of spices to add new depth to your dishes – and don’t forget about orange, lemon and lime rind for a twist.  Looking for heat?  There are tons of chilis to experiment with.
  • Try using low salt chicken stock instead of milk or cream in mashed potatoes or winter vegetables and stir-frys.
  • Always use lower salt soy sauces for regular soy sauce in those stir-frys.

Switch from deep frying to oven roasting, broiling or grilling.

  • If you are looking for that deep fried crunch try tossing your potatoes in just a tablespoon of oil and baking them at a higher temperature, stirring often for even browning.
  • Use low fat margarine or milk to bind bread crumbs to chicken or fish before baking to get a deep fry like “crunch.”

Switch whole eggs for egg whites or egg substitute in cooked products such as casseroles or omelettes.  About ¼ cup egg substitute serves as one egg in a recipe.

Baking Techniques:

  • Use margarine instead of butter or shortening in cobblers and cookies – just remember there is more water in margarine so watch your cooking time.  Often you will need to shorten time in the oven to prevent burning as the water evaporates.
  • You can often reduce the butter or oil in quick breads, cookies and cakes by switching the required amount for half of the butter/oil and use a fruit puree for the other half.  Watch your cooking time – due to the water content of the fruit purees evaporating quickly you might need less time.  Look for a crown and a cracked top to signal doneness – and always use a cake tester!
  • Pie crusts require a higher fat to bind the flour together and butter is usually the best for a flaky crust.  If you use margarine, beware about overworking your dough and remember the extra water content might require pre-baking the bottom of your pie first to prevent it from getting soggy.  With this technique, experimentation will be your guide.
  • Toasting increases the flavor profile of some fatty ingredients such as nuts and dried coconut.  You can add half of what a recipe requires after toasting.
  • Baking and desserts are also a great place to dial up your seasonings – use more vanilla bean, essences/oils, cinnamon and the like.
  • Many people are turning to sugar substitutes to lighten up their baking and/or desserts.
  • Always read the label to find the manufacturers recommended use – in some cases the substitute can actually be sweeter than sugar and you’ll be able to use less than you would with sugar.
  • Try using rice syrup or agave nectar in cases where you might add sugar in desserts such as sorbets, sauces or pie fillings.  Just remember these substitutes are often sweeter so you might want to use less.  They can also get thinner when heated or processed. If need be trying adding a little arrowroot dissolved in water as a thickening agent.
  • Sometimes less is more – instead of decorating with a heavy frosting try using a light dusting of powdered sugar.

Chocolate is a go to for many.   Though it may be hard to admit, you can cut back!

  • Try using cocoa to “chocolatize” a recipe.  You can do this by adding cocoa to your mix – but remember you will need to account for the volume of the cocoa so reduce your flour by the amount of cocoa or your batter will be too stiff.
  • A good substitute for one ounce of unsweetened bar chocolate is: 3 Tbsp of cocoa, 1 Tbsp of oil and 2 tsp sugar.
  • Remember that dark chocolate has a sharper flavor than milk – often you can use less if shaved as it will blend in farther in the batter.  Or, if using chocolate chips try using ½ cup mini chips for each cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips which will also spread farther and seem like more!
  • A dusting of dutch cocoa also makes a lovely frosting substitute.

I always love ending on a sweet note so I’ll let it rest on chocolate.  As I mentioned earlier, the idea of swapping and creating lower fat/sugar options will depend so much on your taste preferences in both what you like to eat before starting a healthier diet and in the experimentation once you start getting into the swing of substitutions.

Now, I’m going to issue the challenge to all of you to tell me your favorite swaps so we can build this list!

1 Response to Smart Food Swaps for Healthy Cooking

I love these suggestions! And what’s more … and this is unprecedented for me … I think I’ll even try a few of them. Thanks for all your work in compiling these, Eileen!

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