Swapping ingredients in a recipe is a common practice in the kitchen. You may be missing an ingredient – and therefore use oregano instead of basil – or it may be an addition, like making mashed potatoes that also incorporate sweet potatoes. Replacing one ingredient with something else can also turn your favorite recipes into a healthier version of themselves. This can be done to change flavors or textures, to reduce the calorie count, or to increase the nutritional value of the recipe.
“The food is comforting. Food is joy,” says Maggie Evans, registered dietitian, nutritionist, and certified diabetes educator at Monterey Peninsula Community Hospital. Evans says there’s more than nutritional value to what we eat: culture, emotion and memories influence all of our food choices. After all, eating is one of the most pleasurable experiences we can enjoy every day. For this reason, changing ingredients for health reasons is not black or white.
Jordan Champagne, owner of Happy Girl Kitchen Co., a cafe and shop in Pacific Grove that produces its own jams and pickles and also offers cooking workshops, has seen growth in plant-based meals and cooking from zero among workshop participants. Champagne has often noticed that people do not feel comfortable in the kitchen, but they are interested in diversifying the recipes they cook on a daily basis. Champagne and Evans have a slew of suggestions on how to swap ingredients and make meals healthier.
When a recipe calls for cornstarch, which is normally used as a thickening agent in soups and sauces, Champagne instead uses agar-agar, a flavorless jelly substitute made from red seaweed. . “Cornstarch is usually an ingredient made from genetically modified corn, and I like to do everything completely organically,” she explains.
Another easy way to modify a recipe is to reduce sugar or sodium intake. Instead of getting a pint of vegetable broth from the store, which will be high in sodium, try saving leftover vegetables such as skins, tops, bottoms, and stems whenever you cook (but avoid veggies leaves such as Brussels sprouts, cabbage or broccoli as this can add a bitter taste), place in a bag and freeze. You can store leftovers for months before putting them all in a slow cooker with water to make your own low-sodium vegetable broth.
Champagne says a slow cooker or rice cooker can be a lifesaver because you add your vegetables or legumes and it will cook it for you. Cooking some things in bulk – rice, beans, chickpeas – is another easy way to start a healthier cooking lifestyle. “You can toss them into a salad all week long,” she adds.
If you like recipes that call for sour cream or mayonnaise, fat-free yogurt is a great substitute. Some brands offer the same creamy texture and tangy flavor to top your nachos, casseroles or baked potatoes. Evans says this will help reduce saturated fat.
When baking, you may find that many recipes call for large amounts of sugar or oil. Champagne suggests using alternative sweeteners such as maple syrup or agave nectar. Or, just try cutting back. In many recipes, “you can cut out half the sugar and it’s still sweet enough,” she says. At Happy Girl Kitchen, instead of making their jams with a 1-to-1 fruit-to-sugar ratio, they make them with a 4-to-1 ratio. Champagne says reducing the sugar allows other flavors to come through.
To reduce the oil, try replacing half with bananas or applesauce. Evans says both provide moisture and add sweetness to baked goods recipes.
If you don’t have (or don’t want to use) eggs, you can use “flax or chia eggs” – one tablespoon of ground flax seeds and two and a half tablespoons of water, or one tablespoon of ground chia seeds and three tablespoons of water per recommended egg. For either, let it sit for five minutes until it thickens, behaving like an egg minus the cholesterol.
If you feel overwhelmed with advice at this point, don’t bother integrating everything at once. Evans says baby steps are the best way to adopt a healthier lifestyle – small tweaks such as adding fiber or vegetables, or committing to a meatless Monday and eating beans or lentils instead of meat that day.
And who knows, your newly modified recipes might form the basis of new food memories.