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Dream Muffins

I want baked goods to be healthy, but I don't want them to taste healthy.

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With hope in my heart, I bought another “healthy” (read: low-fat) muffin the other day. Like a girl who keeps going for the wrong guy, I should have known better. It was predictably disappointing—overly sweet and rubbery, with the texture of paper pulp. I tossed it after two bites.

Sure, I could have gone for the regular muffin, and I do now and then. But let’s face it, those are really just cake in a muffin tin—loaded with butter, sugar, and white flour, and coming in at (gulp!) more than 500 calories each. Not something I consider an everyday food. It seems that there are two kinds of muffins in the world: either delicious and not so healthful, or healthful and not so delicious. But wouldn’t it be great if there were a tender, moist, utterly scrumptious muffin that was also light and chock full of wholesomeness?

I have good news for you: With a few simple tweaks to the standard recipe, I was able to make my dream muffin a reality. And what’s even better is that those tweaks can be applied to other baked goods, so you can have your cake and eat it, too.

Good-For-You Blueberry Muffins
Good-For-You Blueberry Muffins

The secret ingredient
Fruit purées like applesauce or mashed banana (or even vegetable purées made from pumpkin, carrots, and sweet potatoes) make muffins and other baked goods tender and moist while allowing you to reduce the overall fat and sugar in the recipe. Normally it’s fat that helps baked goods stay moist, because it surrounds the starch granules and protects them from gluten development, locking in moisture. But the pectin in fruit and vegetables does essentially the same thing, making it possible to cut back on the fat in a recipe without sacrificing moisture. Fruit purées also provide sweetness, so you can add less sugar to your batter.

In my muffin recipe above, I was able to cut the fat by half (there’s just a quarter-cup of heart-healthy oil in this whole batch of muffins, and no butter) and reduce the sugar by a few tablespoons without compromising flavor and texture. I particularly like applesauce, which I use here, because it has a neutral flavor and color, so it’s perfect when you want the purée to be essentially undetectable.

Liquid asset
A fast track for making baked goods healthier is to use oil instead of butter, lard, or shortening. That’s because oil is unsaturated fat (“good fat”), while butter, lard, and shortening are mostly saturated fats (“bad fat”). For muffins, quick breads, coffee cakes, and even pancakes, trading all the solid fat for oil works perfectly. Pastries, piecrusts, and cookies, however, need butter to get the right texture, so it’s best to leave those recipes alone. I like to use canola oil for its mild flavor, but if the treat has a Mediterranean flair, then a fruity olive oil works well.

Flour equation
I want my baked goods to be healthy, but I don’t want them to taste healthy. By using half whole-wheat flour and half all-purpose, I get the antioxidants, fiber, and essential minerals of the whole grain, but I also hold onto the tender lightness produced by white flour. As you’ll see, the proof is in these muffins, which are golden, moist, and cakey, with just the right touch of sweetness—they’re a dream come true.

Good to Know
Use these guidelines to make some of your favorite sweets more healthful
1. Use fruit purées to cut down on fat and sugar. Purées work best in recipes that already have a fruit or vegetable element, like banana bread, carrot cake, and the blueberry muffins above. Try substituting 1 cup purée for 1/4 cup of the butter or oil in your recipe; taking the sugar down by 1 or 2 Tbs., depending on the sweetness of the purée; and reducing the liquid by 1/4 cup.

2. Swap solid fat with liquid fat. In other words, instead of butter or shortening, use oil. If a recipe calls for 1/4 cup butter, use 1/4 cup oil instead. This works best for moist sweets like muffins, quick breads, coffee cakes, and pancakes, where you can substitute all of the solid fat with oil.

3. Use half whole-wheat and half all-purpose flour. To make just about any sweet treat healthier, substitute half the total amount of all-purpose flour with an equal amount of whole-wheat.

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  • Phyacia | 06/10/2015

    I love absolutely love these! They're nice and raise properly. You can also improvise with this recipe by adding currents, raisins, nuts and seeds, using 1-2 tbsp. for seeds or 1/3-1/2 cp. using any dried fruit or nuts. There may be a few ingredients to mix but if you double the recipe you can easily store the rest in freezer in a plastic, tight-lid container for weeks! Just take out what you need an hour or before or warm up in a low oven (or microwave) for about 10-15 minutes. Note: You can also leave out the oil entirely if preferred.

    1 tbsp. molasses
    2 tbsp. water
    1 med. zucchini, shredded
    1 med. carrot, shredded
    1/2 apple, shredded
    3/4 cp. cooked/cooled oatmeal
    1/4 cp. brown sugar, raw sugar, honey, agave, etc.
    1/2 cp. almond milk - or other non-dairy
    1/4 cp. rice bran oil or any
    1/2 tsp. vanilla - optional; tends to bring out the other flavors
    1 egg
    2 cps. oat flour (for an inexpensive version, grind your own by first toasting the oats in 350F (180c) oven for about 12 minutes to bring out a more 'oaty' flavor)
    Separate and set aside 1/4 cp. of the flour
    1 tbsp. ground flax seed (you can add whole flax seed to oats when grinding)
    1/4 tsp. salt
    1/8 tsp. nutmeg
    1 tsp. cinnamon
    1/2 tsp. cardamom
    1/2 tsp. baking soda
    1 tsp. baking powder
    1/2 cp. toasted, chopped walnuts - optional
    Lorrainesfav's topping sounds nice! - optional
    --------------------------------------------------------
    Preheat oven to 350F. Toast/grind oats in either a blender or food processor. Grease/flour muffin molds using 1/4 cp. of the oat flour (I use rice bran spray oil). Mix water with molasses and set aside. Then mix together the next nine ingredients in mixing bowl with large wooden spoon. Set aside. In another bowl, add 1-3/4 cp. of the remaining flour and rest of dry ingredients. In thirds, fold in the dry ingredients into the wet just til combined. Spoon batter evenly into the muffin molds. Use Lorrainefav's topping idea if desired, before placing in oven. Bake about 20 minutes or when toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.

  • Manateecook | 08/11/2010

    I tried these muffins for the first time today. They were very good. Though a bit soft and no, they didn't rise a ton, I thought they were great for a healthy muffin recipe. I use all King Arthur flours (another commented on this) and found that the muffins still didn't rise a great deal. Perhaps this has more to do with the chemistry between all of the ingredients (buttermilk, baking powder) than with the whole wheat flour. I usually use the King Arthur Flour muffin recipe which calls for sour cream, butter and whole wheat flour and compared to these, the KA are much stiffer and drier. I always welcome a more healthful version of a favorite. I like this recipe and will make it again!

  • User avater
    Lorrainesfav | 01/06/2010

    Sorry Ellie, there is nothing special about these muffins. I consider myself an expert in making muffins taste great lightened up. First the muffins have hardly any rise at all! That's because they are loaded down with heavy whole wheat flour. King Arthur makes a great WHITE whole wheat flour that would considerably give this muffin more rise and not be as heavy. Consider the taste also...butter is better and adds taste to any baked goodie. Just use less. How about a topping?... a bit of oatmeal sprinkled on top and then dusted with cinnamon? This recipe was really not worth baking as there are lots better lightened up recipes out there.

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