5 secrets for baking healthier holiday cookies

By: Stacy Fraser  |  Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Every year when I was a kid, my mom, my sisters and I baked dozens of rich, buttery cookies to fill our famous holiday gift tins. I still love giving homemade cookies as gifts to friends and family, but I don’t want to feel like I’m sabotaging someone’s diet with my present. So this year, I’m going to fill my cookie tins with healthier cookies, like these delicious Boot Tracks and 9 more irresistible cookie recipes for 100-calories or less.
To make the cookies in your holiday tin healthier (and still use your favorite recipes), try my5 secrets for baking healthier cookies:
Tip 1: Replace fats with heart-healthy oil or fruit puree.
Swap out some of the butter, margarine or shortening for heart-healthy oils, such as canola oil or olive oil, or pureed fruit or even vegetables. We’ve had good luck replacing up to 50% of the butter in a recipe. One of my favorite cookies is Princess Tea Cakes, a makeover of Russian Tea Cake cookies, which uses 100% canola oil in place of butter.
You can also try pureed fruit (applesauce, pear butter or prune puree) in place of some of the butter, margarine or shortening. This tips works well in softer-textured cookies, such as oatmeal cookies, ginger molasses or these chewy and tender Orange Spice Molasses Cookies, which I’ve made almost weekly since I first tried them.
Tip 2: Eliminate some unhealthy fats by adding yogurt or buttermilk.
Try replacing some of the butter with nontraditional cookie ingredients, such as nonfat plain yogurt, nonfat buttermilk or even fruit juice. Try 1 to 4 tablespoons of a liquid ingredient, like yogurt or buttermilk, in place of some of the butter to keep the cookies from getting dry. No one ever guesses that these Double Peanut Butter-Chocolate Chewies have yogurt in the batter.
Tip 3: Add fiber to your cookies.
Try replacing some (or all) of the all-purpose flour with whole-wheat flour, whole-wheat pastry flour and/or oats, like in our 2009 prize-winning Double Nut & Date Tassies. Using whole-wheat flour in place of all-purpose flour gives your cookies about four times the amount of fiber in every batch.
For delicate-textured cookies or if you are still getting used to the taste and texture of whole-wheat, try using more finely milled whole-wheat pastry flour or mild-flavored white whole-wheat flour in place of about half of the all-purpose flour—you’ll still get the added benefit of extra fiber without much wheaty flavor.
Tip 4: Keep sodium in check.
Some baked goods can be surprisingly high in sodium. Aim for no more than 1/2 teaspoon salt per batch of cookies. If you’re on a salt-restricted diet, try reducing the salt in a batch of cookies to 1/4 teaspoon. Here are some of my favorite cookie recipes with 1/4 teaspoon salt per batch or less: Double Nut & Date Tassies, Lusciously Nutty Holiday Logs and Ginger Crinkle Cookies.
Tip 5: Eliminate trans fat & other artificial ingredients.
Steer clear of ingredients that contain partially hydrogenated oil (or trans fats), such as margarine and most vegetable shortenings. Consider limiting other artificial ingredients, such as artificial food dyes.
One of the benefits of homemade baked goods is their simple list of ingredients. By making your own cookies, you can use whole ingredients and avoid most or all processed ingredients that are found in many packaged cookies. Learn more about trans fats, like the fat in margarine and some shortening.
I’m not a Scrooge—I know holiday cookies look more festive when decorated with sprinkles or colored frosting—but I like to keep ingredients as “natural” as possible. If you’d like to avoid artificial ingredients, look for all-natural food dyes, such as red dye made from beets, available in natural-foods stores or online. Or try a drizzle of chocolate or a sprinkle of finely chopped nuts to give cookies extra appeal. See more cookie-decorating tips from the EatingWell Test Kitchen.