10 tips for healthier baking

Victoria Taylor with freshly-baked scones

Victoria Taylor tells us how, with some careful recipe planning, you can have your cake and eat it.

Like many children, I was drawn to the joys of baking by the promise of licking the cake mixture from the bowl. Unusually, however, my enjoyment of baking led me to become a dietitian, which might sound like a contradiction. But is it? While the common view is that baking and healthy eating don’t mix, I’ve learned that baking doesn’t have to be bad for you, and healthier baking doesn’t have to taste, or look, terrible.

With a few tweaks, an eye on portion control and a sense of occasion, it’s possible for all of us to enjoy home baking as part of a balanced diet.

1. Make your own bread to use less salt

Bread is probably the bakery product we eat the most, which means that, while it might not be the saltiest food you can think of, it can make a significant contribution to the salt content of our diet.

"Using wholegrain flour instead of white flour will help to increase the fibre content and make your baking more satisfying to eat"

In recent years, many manufacturers have reduced the amount of salt that they add to bread, but it can still vary widely. A recent survey by Consensus Action on Salt and Health found that one in four loaves contained more salt in two slices than a packet of crisps. This means we all need to check food labels carefully but, better still, why not make your own bread so that you have complete control?

A teaspoon or less of salt per 500g (1lb 2oz) of flour will keep your loaf within government targets for commercial loaves, but obviously the less you use, the better.

2. Try different flours and flavourings

Making your own bread also gives you flexibility in terms of the type of flour you use. Wholegrain flour is a healthier choice than white, but it doesn't have to be just wheat -  you could try spelt, barley or oat, either on their own or mixed. Add some seeds or herbs to give an interesting crunch and flavour.

3. Make a quick soda bread

If all the kneading and waiting associated with a yeasted loaf sounds like too much effort, try our wholemeal soda bread flavoured with caraway seeds. You use bicarbonate of soda as the raising agent instead of yeast, so it needs to be eaten fresh, but it’s quick and easy to make. It’s delicious served with soup at lunchtime or a boiled or poached egg for breakfast.

Watch Victoria Taylor demonstrating a healthy scone recipe in our exclusive video 

4. Bake with unsaturated fat

Cakes should really be an ‘every now and then’ food. However, with a few tweaks to the ingredients and toppings, baking your own can be better for you than buying them.

Using an unsaturated spread instead of butter has more benefits than simply reducing the amount of saturated fat: it actually gives a lighter texture, especially if you’re making an all-in-one sponge cake. You can just swap spreads for butter in most recipes without making any other changes. Just make sure the spread you use is suitable for baking.

Hands shaping dough If you’re reluctant to use a spread, then oil is a good alternative. It can make cakes lovely and moist, but as it’s a liquid it will alter the balance of the mix, so find recipes that are specifically designed to use oil, such as our carrot cake recipe.

5. Add healthier ingredients to your baking

As with bread, using wholegrain flour instead of white flour will help to increase the fibre content and make your baking feel more substantial and filling. The flavour will be slightly different – some people say it tastes a bit nutty. If you want a more subtle flavour, you can try using half wholegrain and half white flour.

Using fruit and vegetables will also add fibre and sweetness. There might not be enough in a portion to count as one of your 5-a-day, but it’s a nutritious way to help keep your cakes and scones moist. And by using sweet vegetables such as carrots, beetroots or courgettes, or fruit such as apples, berries or pineapples, you won’t need to add so much sugar.

6. Healthier icings

Use a drizzle of glacé (water) icing rather than butter icing for cake toppings. Or, a light sprinkle of icing sugar may be all you need to give your bake the final touch. Try cutting out stencils from greaseproof paper and sifting your icing sugar over it for a professional-looking finish. 

7. Watch your portion sizes

Think about portion sizes, too: making ‘mini’ versions will mean you get all the taste, but without as much fat and calorie content per portion. Alternatively, tray bakes such as our carrot cake recipe are really versatile, as they can easily be cut into small squares.

8. Choose the right pastry...

Taking scones out of the ovenPastry isn’t known for being a heart-healthy choice but there’s a wide variation in the amount and type of fat used to make different types. About a third of puff and shortcrust pastry is fat, and if it’s made with butter or palm oil, it contains more saturated fat than if it’s made with unsaturated fats such as sunflower spread. These are our most commonly used pastries, but it’s worth trying to keep them for a treat.

Not all pastry is high in fat. The filo pastry we’ve used for our spiced butternut squash tart recipe has just 3.1g of fat per 100g and is low in saturated fat. It does have a different texture from shortcrust or flaky pastry and you need to use it differently, but it gives a lovely, crunchy crust and looks impressive in small tarts with savoury or sweet fillings.

9. ...and don't use too much

Try just putting a top crust on your pies, rather than lining the entire dish, to help to cut down on the saturated fat and calories. You can also bake discs of pastry and put them on top of a filling you have cooked separately.

10. A little of what you fancy

As long as you don’t find yourself tucking into the cream cakes every weekday afternoon, there’s no harm in indulging in a slice of cake every so often. A healthy diet is about balance so, as long as you stick to healthy eating most of the time, you can enjoy cakes, pastry and biscuits guilt-free.

Not keen on baking? Read how to choose healthier baked goods in the shops

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