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Tips for replacing the regular ol’ white flour and sugar

December 21, 2010
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Christmas cookies with whole ingredients

It’s baking time! Based on survey results I’m entirely making up, half of you are in the kitchen today covered in flour. Yay! What a fun time of year.

Baking Christmas cookies is not just about the cookies for me. I only bake my grandma’s cookies, and I only do it because Christmas doesn’t feel the same without her around. Ok, ok, I also do it because I LOVE cookies. But the best part is carrying on the traditions I remember from childhood.

Of course, I make some teensy changes to the recipes. If I’m going to eat a boatload of cookies, they need to be closer to real food – meaning whole grains and natural sweeteners. But honestly, I’ve found that using whole ingredients lends a more full bodied flavor to baked goods. White sugar is a hit of sweet on your tongue like cocaine to the brain! But pure maple syrup has true flavor. Think about it.

By the request of one of my friends, here are some tips for upgrading your holiday baking. Depending on how tied you are to the outcome, you might tentatively adjust the flours and that’s it. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous you can completely recreate your holiday favorites. It’s fun!

If you want some straight up, honest to goodness, yummy whole food recipes for your holiday table – you’re not alone. My recipe book has been flying off the virtual shelf! Pick up your copy now, download it and you’ll be ready to rock in like, 30 seconds!

Some white flour substitutions
White flour is more or less void of flavor and nutrition. But it does a damn good job of holding together and providing the right texture for baked goods! The trick is to substitute a whole grain flour for just a portion of the white flour in a recipe. Some recipes will work with 100% whole grain, some will not. So start with the suggestions below.

Whole wheat flour
For baking, try to find whole wheat pastry flour which is more finely ground than regular whole wheat flour. As you may already know, a whole wheat flour includes the germ and bran of the wheat berry. This means you actually get some fiber and nutrients! However, if you use too much it can make your recipe heavy and dense. Try substituting for 1/3 or 1/2 of the flour in a recipe.

Spelt flour
Spelt is a cousin of wheat. The flour is mild, even sweet, and lovely for baking. You can substitute 1/2 of the flour in your recipe with spelt flour.

Teff flour
Teff is high in nutrient value, including protein. It’s dark brown shade will definitely affect the look of your baked goods, but who cares? It’s delicious, especially with peanut butter. As a gluten-free grain, teff flour needs to be blended with a wheat flour for your recipes to come out the way you want. Try substituting 1/4 of the flour in your recipe with teff.

Oat flour
You know what oats taste like, so this is an easy one to work with. Use in recipes that lend themselves to an oat flavor – something with fruit or chocolate! But beware because oat flour can get gummy, and is gluten-free. It needs a wheat flour to keep structure in your cookies and breads. Start with substituting for only 1/4 of the flour in a recipe.

Some sugar substitutions
When I say “sugar” I’m referring to white sugar, brown sugar, cane sugar, etc. These are highly processed and hit your bloodstream like a ton of bricks. In switching to more natural ingredients, seek out gentle sweeteners that your body can more easily process.

This is my favorite for baking. Sucanat is a less processed form of sugar – the molasses is still intact. This flavor is gorgeous in most baked goods. If you take a close look you’ll see that it appears imperfect compared to white or brown sugar, and that’s a good thing! It works 1:1 for any white or brown sugar in a recipe. One note – it needs to be well stirred into whatever liquid the recipe calls for or it won’t dissolve.

Pure maple syrup
Who doesn’t love maple? Using pure maple syrup will give you sweetness and depth of flavor. However, it will throw off the liquid/dry ingredient ratio in your recipe so use with caution. If a recipe calls for 1 cup of sugar, I try 1 cup of maple syrup and reduce other wet ingredients a smidge. Sorry that’s not very precise – this is an art!

Raw honey
Honey has a great flavor for baking and will affect your wet/dry ratio less than maple syrup because it’s not as wet to begin with. Don’t buy the cheap honey in the bear-shaped jar. That stuff is too processed to be considered natural. Look for unfiltered (cloudy) honey, preferably local and raw. Note that it needs to be warm and mixed well to distribute evenly.

Date sugar
LOVE date sugar. In my local store it is only available during the holidays, so take advantage. Date sugar is just crushed dates. That’s it. It’s fruit, and it’s naturally sweet. It tastes great and can be used 1:1 for sugar in a recipe.

A note on butter
Use it. Margarine is man made crap. Vegetable shortening is trans fat central. Good quality butter is what people have used for centuries upon centuries. It contains important vitamins and bakes beautifully. Buy organic to avoid added growth hormones and antibiotics.

Happy baking! Isn’t it all the more happy knowing you are feeding yourself and your loved ones something…real?

Some books you might like:
Super Natural Cooking by Heidi Swanson
Good to the Grain by Kim Boyce

  • laurie

    Great info! Also, I’ve substituted white flour with equal parts white flour, wheat flour and wheat germ. Works great.

  • Alina @ Duty Free Foodie

    Amen re: butter!

    Most of your guidelines say to replace part of the recipe with the alternative flour. When a recipe calls for white, can you replace half with whole wheat pastry flour and half with spelt, or should you only replace half in total?

  • Michelle

    Laurie – Ooh that’s an interesting idea!

    Alina – You can try, it will often work! It depends how picky you are about texture, y’know? Typically I start with modest substitutions and then get bold. This year my cookies are all 100% whole grain combos.

  • Katherine: Unemployed

    Great thoughts; so good to know these!

  • Kelly

    I am interested in the date sugar, mostly because it can be a full on swap for regular sugar. I haven’t looked in my grocery yet, because frankly, this is the first I ever heard of it. What I am wondering is, if my grocery store is like yours and only carries it seasonally, does it keep? Can I load up on a years worth or does it have a shorter shelf life than white and or brown sugar?

  • Michelle

    Kelly, that’s a good idea. I suppose you could keep date sugar for a good long while, though I haven’t tried. I mean, dates keep well. These are dried to a powder so I assume they’d be fine :-)

  • redmenace

    Wonderful ideas! I love whole wheat pastry flour. It adds a whole new nutty dimension to the typical baked good. Happy Holidays!

  • Lori

    I love baking too and played around with a few of my favorite recipes this year. I find that white whole wheat flour is great in place of AP. I’ve been meaning to get some teff to try it and I definitely have to try date sugar. I also use butter and sometimes coconut oil. Virgin coconut oil makes a mean chocolate chip cookie! :) Happy Holidays!

  • Joanne

    So funny story. Last week I was baking cookies for a party and I realized I had run out of AP flour! Thankfully I had some whole wheat. I subbed it in…and no one could tell the difference! In fact, people said they really liked the nutty flavor. Too funny. Happy holidays!

  • Stella

    Hey Michelle, I use organic, whole grain spelt and oat flour all the time. That being said, I do use A.P. flour for exactly the reason you mentioned. I’m going to try really ard to use less of it this year. It shouldn’t be too hard. I don’t think (smile)…?
    In reference to the sugars though, the substitutes are just so darn expensive. I go through them like their candy. Hmm, something to think about;)

  • Stella

    Ooh, I meant to tell you that your grandma’s cookies look so familiar to me and wonderful. Nice!

  • Zibi

    I wish I read this post before I got covered in flour last week!

    I have tonnes of raw honey since I’m learning to beekeep, I use it sweeten everything except baked goods ’cause I’m scared of wrecking the texture… your post is encouraging, I will experiment more :)

    Hope you enjoyed the holidays

  • Michelle DK

    Hi Michelle
    I love your blog and follow it all the way from Denmark (the World is luckily a lot smaller thanks to the internet! :-) ). I’m suffering from Candida and therefor love your way of thinking when it comes to especially wheat and sugar. It’s really no good for us – even though it tastes delicious! ;-) Regarding to the substitutions above I was a little surpriced you didn’t mention Stevia as a possibility? Here in Europe they still haven’t approved it for human consumption but I’ve read a lot about it and know that it is available in the States. It should have a slightly different taste though? Regarding the date sugar I’m not sure we have that but fresh dates could work too I guess?
    Anyways, thank you for all the inspiration!

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