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Mar 28, 2008 07:26 AM

Tried and true strategies for lightening recipes (in cooking, not baking)…

I know there are probably a million posts about this out there, so please feel free to provide links if you know of some helpful threads on this same topic, but do you all know some tried and true strategies for lightening recipes without compromising much flavor or texture? I know it’s a hard question to answer without some specific recipes in mind, but I’m just looking for general ideas. Otherwise, I just end up freelancing on my own when I’m in the kitchen, and that isn’t always so great. Specifically for cooking (I know baking is a whole other thing), how to significantly reduce or completely replace:

Would using—for texture-- a small amount of olive oil plus –for flavor--a dab of butter or even Molly McButter (made from butter solids) work?

~Heavy cream?
Would using evaporated milk work a lot of the time? I’ve heard quark can be a good substitute, too, though I haven’t tried it. Any real life experiences with this?

Lately I’ve been cutting the amount of sugar by about 25%, then using half sugar, half Splenda. I hate going the artificial sweetener route, though, so I would love some other ideas…

It’s not that I think butter, heavy cream and sugar are evil—I love them and normally feel happy to use a little bit them, but right now, I’m on a specific weight loss program where I’m allowed nonfat dairy products and some olive oil or canola oil every day and non, but not a lot of butter, heavy cream, or sugar. These constraints are only temporary, but they are real nevertheless…


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  1. For sugar (I really don't use the others much at all)
    Depending on what it is you are cooking, you can often substitute a sweet or semi sweet fruit. Asian pear and kiwi (Nashi pear usually compliments flavor while kiwi can change flavor quite a bit) is used a lot in Korean cooking as both a tenderizer and a sweetener (Pear is on the light side of sweet /kiwi very sweet).
    You could experiment a little with light flavored sweet fruits/juices and see how they go with your dish.

    Edit: I have also used apples and pineapple with pretty good results in general cooking.

    2 Replies
    1. re: hannaone

      Does this reduce the calories much? My impression has been the fructose (the sugars in fruit) are as caloric as refined sugars. Is that a mistaken impression? (I suppose I could look it up, eh?)

      Ok, looked it up. 1 ounce of fructose has 79 calories, and 1 ounce of sucrose (refined sugar) has 110. So yeah, it does have fewer calories... whattaya know! :)

      1. re: Morganna

        ...AND fructose is slightly sweeter than table sugar, so you need less of it to sweeten what you're making! (You can buy fructose sans fruit at health food stores and some supermarkets, if that works for you.)

        For heavy cream, depending on the application, often bechamel works like a charm... sauces, soups, mashed vegetables, pasta sauce...

        There is no substitute for butter. Ever.

    2. For butter subs, it often depends on the recipe. I've used applesauce, as well as, pumpkin butter & apple butter. Avocados work too.

      1. Substitute milk and flour or cornstarch for creams.

        Eggplant usually soaks up oil. Use a bit of oil to get them started, then add a bit of water until done. They still come out with a fried/sauteed flavor and texture but with much less oil.

        I use my homemade yogurt (albeit made with whole milk) instrad of creams or mayo for dressings and dips.

        7 Replies
        1. re: Sam Fujisaka

          I started using your suggestion with the eggplant and love it. I spray it with olive oil, fry but add chicken broth instead of water. It's not exactly the same as all fried but it's so much lighter and still tastes great.

          1. re: chowser

            I tend to bake or griddle mine, after brushing with oil. It's a good compromise.

            1. re: greedygirl

              I roast it that way, too. It's one of my favorite ways to have it--you can really taste the eggplant. There was a thread here about using the waffle iron with it and I want to give that a try, too.

              1. re: chowser

                I'm guessing that's the same as a griddle, right?

                1. re: greedygirl

                  Yeah, sam thing--and I have a panini press that I thought might work, too.

                  1. re: chowser

                    People were saying that the waffle press worked great. I have to try that.

          2. re: Sam Fujisaka

            I made the creme fraiche substitute with half cream and half drained yogurt (whole milk as Sam says) and was very happy with that. Especially since it had a little bit of rosewater in it that balanced the sharpness lightly.

            So maybe the part-yogurt trick has some other applications as well. Especially if the recipe calls for something like the rosewater that will balance things.

          3. Since the diet is only for a limited time, I would try cutting out the sugar all together and see how it feels. This is coming from a sugar freak. Sometimes I think the only thing that would get me to stop eating sugar would be if they erased it from the planet. Which makes me wonder. What if you just had fresh fruit instead? The most successful dishes are always ones that are not compromised and there are plenty of dishes that use no butter or heavy cream or sugar to begin with. Think cuisines--Umbria/Tuscany, Greece, Mexico, Spain and East Asia for instance, use very little dairy all together. That you way get to eat absolutley beautiful food with no weird substitutions for creamy dreamy.

            8 Replies
            1. re: fayehess

              Yes, I understand your point, exactly, fayehess, but part of my request is being driven by my desire to participate in the cookbook of the month and it seems very likely that this month's cookbook will be Simon Hopkinson's "Roast Chicken and Other Stories," which seems to feature recipes that call for a lot of butter, heavy cream, egg yolks, and sugar, as well as featuring some fattier meats like bacon, lamb, and duck. So, I've already resigned myself to skipping the desserts and the recipes that call for fattier meats because I just don't think it's possible to do those recipes without completely change the nature of the dish, I would still like to try my hand at some of the other dishes in the book.

              And while temporary, this period of time in my life will likely span about a year. Yes, it's temporary, but it's still a long time and I do feel a need to do some experimenting so I don't get bored. Plus, here in the upper midwest, we don't get a lot of nice fruit year-round. Right now all we get is frozen fruit or fruit shipped from afar...


              1. re: The Dairy Queen

                I completely understand, and "Roast Chicken and other stories" is really good, and entirely heavy on the cream. How about making your own cookbook of the month club thread with books that are going to keep you from getting bored and help you stay on top of your requirements. I love the Rogers and Gray books. (ie Italian Easy, Italian Two Easy--beautiful photos, gorgeous food and simple recipes)
                I lived in Champaign/Urbana for a few years and they had one of the best Farmer's Markets I have ever been to.

                1. re: fayehess

                  I would nominate Sally Schneider's book A New Way to Cook for that kind of thread. It wouldn't hurt me to do a bit of cooking from that book as we head into spring and summer.

                  1. re: karykat

                    I wouldn't want to take anything away from the "real" cookbook of the month, but if anyone wants to join me in cooking from a New Way to Cook, I would be delighted to start a thread on that. Ironically, I just returned that book to the library yesterday when I picked up Roast Chicken! But, I can get it back! I was a little overwhelmed by it to be honest, but if others were cooking from it too, it might seem easier.

                    karykat (and anyone else, of course), would you like me to start a thread for ANWTC?


                    1. re: The Dairy Queen

                      See my post below! I'd have a go - it would at least counteract the Hopkinson lard-fest.

                      1. re: greedygirl

                        Hi Greedygirl, I would be happy to start a new thread...but, just to clarify, I don't want to take anything away from the "real" COTM, partly because I still want to try some of the Hopkinson recipes. But, it sounds like there's some interest in ANWTC, so, why don't I start a thread on that?

                        P.S. Thank you everyone for such terrific suggestions. Many of these are new to me and a few are familar ideas that I'd forgotten. This is fantastically helpful! Keep the ideas coming! Thank you!


                        1. re: The Dairy Queen

                          Maybe ANWTC should be a suggestion for next month's COTM?

                          1. re: greedygirl

                            I was the person who suggested it for April. :)

                            Anyway, if folks want me to, I would be happy to start an ANWTC thread...


            2. I've posted on your other thread that half-fat creme fraiche is a good alternative to heavy cream (that's double cream for us Brits, right?). It's a bit sharper than double cream, and you have to be careful that it doesn't split, but it's pretty good on the whole. Some brands are still quite high in calories, but the President brand (French) is the lowest I've found.

              For sugar, you could try a product called Xylitol. It's made from natural fruit sugars, and is much sweeter than regular sugar, so you can use less of it. It's also good if you're on a low-GI diet.

              As you're going to be on your regime for a while, I'd also really recommend Sally Schneider's book A New Way to Cook, which has tons of ideas as to how to lighten food without sacrificing flavour. I saw that it was suggested in for COTM - I don't think that's a bad idea at all, especially with the summer coming up (although it's still FREEZING here in London).