Reading ingredient labels on snacks shouldn’t require reading glasses and a chemical dictionary, but that has become the case with additives, preservatives, fats, and unnecessary ingredients finding their way into our treats. As an alternative, baking your own snacks at home allows you to control the ingredients and be more health conscious. It may seem daunting, but with tips from local bakers and through trial-and-error, anyone can become a seasoned baker.
“There has been a real shift in many people’s approach to health, with the quality of the food we eat being of real concern,” Jordan Gregory, owner of Swoon Gluten Free Bakery and The Cake Box in Ridgefield, explains. “Knowing what’s in the food you’re eating is of great importance because eating a healthy diet is a great first line of defense. The old adage ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’ holds true and ‘pay the farmer now or pay the doctor later’ seems to be catching up.”
Gregory noticed the demand for gluten-free products was increasing and decided to open up Swoon, a gluten-free version of The Cake Box that is also a nut-free bakery.
“I can say that aside from our customers who have Celiac Disease and absolutely must avoid gluten, we do have a lot of customers who tried going gluten-free and told us that many of their health problems were alleviated, from post-nasal drip to arthritis,” Gregory explains.
If you are looking to avoid baking with gluten, Gregory recommends using only certified gluten- free flours and grains. “We have a proprietary flour mix at Swoon that is a blend of rice flours and is very close to a traditional cake flour which is very delicate and does not negatively impact flavors,” Gregory notes. “With a rice flour you don’t have to add extra fat or sugar for it to taste good. Our recipes are the same recipes we use at The Cake Box and we substitute our flour with a 1:1 ratio. We also sell our Swoon flour in three-pound bags.”
Pam Nicholas, founder and owner of Izzi B’s allergen-free wholesale bakery in Norwalk, advises staying away from pre-processed foods, and suggests baking with wholesome flours, not those that are bleached. For those with food allergies, Nicholas recommends knowing all of the ingredients. “Keep it clean and simple. That’s what we do at our bakery,” she states.
If you are looking for an alternative to baking with sugar, Nicholas suggests maple syrup, date syrup, monk fruit, or agave.
Similarly, Megan Palmer Rivera, culinary and events director at Palmer’s Darien, prefers using natural products in her baking.
“I focus my efforts on finding simple substitutions that can lower the amount of sugar and fat in a recipe while keeping the flavor,” Rivera explains. “One thing I completely avoid are trans-fats. I would recommend completely avoiding the use of any products containing partially hydrogenated oils, including margarine, Crisco, and many baking mixes.”
Rivera suggests swapping out chocolate chips for raisins in cookies and substituting pureed tofu or applesauce for vegetable oil in brownies. Using fresh fruits and vegetables are popular alternatives in baking, as well.
“There are many recipes out there that use vegetables and fruits to cut back on the amount of processed sugar,” Rivera notes. “I keep seeing recipes that incorporate cauliflower, pureed cannellini beans, grated apples, mashed bananas, zucchini and carrots.”
Salt is a huge health concern for many people, but since salt is necessary for many recipes, Rivera suggests using Kosher salt, instead of table salt, when baking: “The crystals are much bigger and you end up adding less sodium per teaspoon.”
Michele Stewart, owner of Michele’s Pies in Norwalk, began selling her pies, which integrate local fruits, at farmer’s markets. “Store-bought pies sometimes contain more than 20 ingredients,” Stewart explains. “Our pies have about four ingredients. By using fresh ingredients, you really taste the fruit rather than an overload of sugar.”
Stewart warns bakers to stay away from canned fruit and use as little sugar as possible.
“Taste the fruit before you add the sugar,” Stewart advises. “If it is overly sweet, you don’t want to add too much sugar.”
Stewart suggests testing out new combinations like adding raspberries, cranberries or blueberries to a traditional apple pie. With the upcoming fall season, experiment with different squashes — sweet potato, butternut squash, and Hubbard squash. If pie-making seems stressful, Stewart recommends baking turnovers or buying a pre-made pie crust.
“It’s important to follow recipes very carefully,” Gregory concludes. “Even the slightest deviation from the measurements or mixing time can alter the quality of a baked good. That said, there is room to play and experiment with ingredients, as long as you don’t mind a few failures and some lost ingredients.”
Next time you’re at the grocery store, instead of reaching for the cookies in the middle aisle, try baking a healthier snack at home, keeping in mind that baking is still a science.