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The healthy kitchen

How to cook with less fat, salt and sugar—and not have your food taste like cardboard. Also, how to add complex carbs to your repetoire and how to stock a healthy kitchen.

Cooking with Less Fat

Some fats are more desirable than  others when creating nutrient-conscious menus. You may improve recipes by choosing the right type of fat, but sometimes the solution is not straightforward. Fat is an essential nutrient, and it performs many important culinary functions. It contributes to the flavor and texture of foods, and blends flavors of other ingredients. Fat-soluble nutrients and flavor compounds are hidden in foods that are prepared or served without fat.

Fat helps to create a crisp texture when used in fried and sauteed foods, helps to tenderize and create a flaky or crumbly texture in baked goods and helps retain moisture. It contributes to feelings of satiety and can actually help you to eat less.

Although many people want to eat less fat, they are usually unwilling to sacrifice flavor or texture. The first step in creating low-fat recipes or reducing fat in existing recipes is to evaluate whether the recipe can be made with less fat. Rather than toss vegetables with butter, use flavored olive oil or a starch-thickened sauce. Sometimes, though, the fat contributes to the finished product in a more complicated manner. The butter in a cake batter affects the leavening, color and texture of the finished item. After the function of the fat is identified, you can figure out how to improve the fat content of a dish.

You can use a leaner cut of meat or replace a high-fat meat with a fish steak. or replace meat in a stew with legumes or vegetables. Choose saturated fats wisely. Render bacon fat and pour off most of the fat before proceeding with the recipe.

You may also remove fat while cooking. Soups, stews and braises can be refrigerated overnight. The fat will rise to the top and solidify, making it easy to remove.

Many low-fat and fat-free ingredients can replace fat. You’ll have no trouble finding high-quality reduced-fat dairy products. Some nonfat dairy products may not be suitable for cooking and baking because they tend to break down when subjected to high heat.

Replace cream cheese in a cheesecake with reduced-fat cream cheese, nonfat yogurt drained of its whey and pureed low-fat cottage and ricotta cheeses. Evaporated skim milk can be used in place of cream in many dishes. Egg yolks can often be omitted from recipes, too. To thicken a cream soup use pureed vegetables or potatoes, rice or legumes.

When baking use cooking spray, a silicone baking mat or parchment paper to line a pan. To replace fat in batters and doughs, use fruit purees like applesauce or mashed bananas; fruits with high pectin and sugar levels can replace up to 75 percent of the fat in some recipes.

Meringues can provide volume in cake and souffle batters, a good substitute for whipped cream. Use buttermilk in lieu of milk or cream; it adds a pleasant tang to the dish, and its high acidity helps to leaven and to create a more tender product.

Cooking with Less Salt

Salt intensifies other flavors, which is why a small amount is often added to desserts and baked goods.

Improperly seasoned foods taste bland and unappealing, but under-seasoning foods in the kitchen is unwise. Cooked foods often require more salt to achieve the same amount of flavor than if they had been salted while cooking.

It’s possible to create flavorful dishes without adding a lot of salt or using high-sodium ingredients. Aromatics are fundamental; they often go into the pot first so their flavors and aromas can infuse everything else in the dish. Look to cuisines from other countries for ideas. Greek cuisine often uses olive oil, lemon, cinnamon, tomato and oregano; Asian dishes use ginger, garlic or scallion.

Herbs and spices are essential to healthy cooking. Choose those that have intense or unique flavors, such as rosemary and saffron. Chiles add a pleasant heat and a piquant zest to foods. Smoked, dried and fresh chiles are widely available.

Pungent ingredients can add bold flavors. Mustard seeds and dry mustard, horseradish, tamarind pods and wasabi provide a noticeable kick. Soy sauce and fish sauce, Worcestershire sauce and pastes like tapenade can add a depth of flavor beyond mere saltiness. The bright flavors of acidic foods can reduce the need for salt altogether.

Cooking with Less Sugar

Humans are born with a preference for sweet foods, which can make it difficult to limit the use of refined sugars and to resist desserts. Providing your guests with the option to choose foods that taste delicious but do not contain excessive amounts of sugar is a hallmark of healthy cooking.

Before you turn to refined sugars, try to capitalize on the natural sugars present in many foods. Fruits are a source of sugar, but they also are packed with nutrients. Combining several fruits expands a dessert’s flavor profile. Caramelizing foods enhances their natural sugars. Cooking foods using a dry-heat method browns them, creating a deep, rich, complex flavor.

Sweeteners other than sugar add flavors beyond just sweetness. Consider how different gingerbread would taste if it were sweetened with maple syrup rather than molasses. Honey often has a flavor that hints of the flower from which it originates; sage and eucalyptus honey are rather bold, while orange blossom honey is sweetly citrusy.

Adding Complex Carbs

Refined grains like white rice and pasta, and starchy vegetables like white potatoes, affect blood sugar almost as dramatically as cake or cookies do. Farro, wheat berries, amaranth and wild rice are high in nutrients and flavor, but some diners may not like their chewy textures and strong flavors.

You can make these grains more palatable by combining them with familiar ones. Pilafs made of barley and wheat berries, or a blend of rices or sweet potatoes boosts nutrition. Stirring cooked greens, toasted nuts, or fruit into a grain dish expands its flavor and adds texture and nutrition.

Equipping the Low-Fat Kitchen

Although you don’t need special equipment for low-fat cooking, having some items on hand can make it much simpler. Nonstick pans have become much more durable in recent years and are appropriate for professional kitchens. Well-seasoned cast iron is also useful. Both prevent sticking and encourage browning.

Defatting pitchers can be used to remove fat from small amounts of liquid. These have spouts at the bottom that allow the liquid to be poured out when the fat has risen to the top. Defatting ladles can be used to remove fat from large amounts of liquid and are easier to use than regular ladles. Defatting ladles have a raised rim above small slots. The fat flows through the slots and is collected in the bowl of the ladle.

The new silicone bake mats are handy for baking. They are nonstick and heat resistant, and can be used to line sheet pans. Parchment serves a similar function, though it is not as effective.

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