Kitchen Theater

The Thick and Thin of Fat

by Claire Spampinato

With the holiday season comes the annual test of willpower as we try to negotiate our way through the wealth of delicious goodies that abound. At times like these, we often wonder why so many tasty foods are so high in fat. The answer is, fat is often the reason they taste so good. In baked goods, fat retains moisture, affects texture and carries flavor. Knowing this allows us to alter recipes by replacing some of the fat with healthier alternatives that perform the same functions. Then we can allow ourselves to concentrate on celebrating instead of counting calories.

The pumpkin spice cake recipe shown here has been altered to require less fat. Most quick bread, brownie or cake recipes can be similarly adjusted. Replacing all of a recipe's fat, however, is not recommended, as that can result in a rubbery, bland product.

Tips for Converting Your Own Recipes

Once you've tried the pumpkin spice cake, you may wish to alter recipes for some of your favorite baked goods. Here are some guidelines for reducing fat while maintaining the quality of your recipes:

Retaining Moisture: Since oils do not readily evaporate, foods containing oil are moist. This moisture can be maintained in a converted recipe by replacing half of the solid fat (butter, shortening, margarine) with a pureed fruit. The pumpkin spice cake recipe shown here uses canned pumpkin, which also adds fiber and vitamins, but not much sugar. You can try unsweetened applesauce, prunes pureed with water, or almost any baby-food vegetable or fruit. If using a very sweet fruit, like the prunes, adjust the sugar in your recipe accordingly.

Oils can be replaced with fruit juices. Again, replace only half the oil. Since a small amount of fruit puree or juice is used in conversions, the dish's flavor is not affected. For the pumpkin spice cake recipe, however, we added extra pumpkin puree to the original recipe because we wanted a noticeable pumpkin flavor.

Retaining Texture: Eggs are included in most recipes for baked goods because of their importance in maintaining texture, but the yolks are high in fat. Replacing some of the yolks in your recipe with egg whites maintains texture but does not affect the quality of the dish. Each whole egg in your recipe can be replaced with two egg whites.

Gluten, a type of wheat protein, is important in providing the chewiness that we want in yeast breads, but that we do not want in cakes, brownies or pie crusts. Choosing a low-gluten flour such as cake flour will result in a less-chewy cake.

Replacing fat in recipes that depend heavily on butter, such as pastry or shortbread, is difficult at home. In a recipe for an item like biscuits or pie crust, try substituting up to half of the butter with non-fat cream cheese. Sometimes it takes a bit of experimentation, but that's part of the fun!

Retaining Flavor: In addition to maintaining moisture and texture in a recipe, fat also carries flavor. This is why some low-fat recipes end up tasting "flat." Remedy this problem by adding extra quantities of flavorings, even doubling the amounts of spices such as vanilla and cinnamon. Finely grated lemon peel is another low-fat flavor enhancer. Toasting nuts before adding them to recipes enhances their flavor and allows you to use fewer nuts.


To learn more about the science of food, visit Carnegie Science Center's Kitchen Theater, "where science tastes good." Demonstration times vary, but a daily schedule is posted in the Science Center entrance lobby. The Kitchen Theater is sponsored in part by the Jewish Healthcare Organization.

Claire Spampinato is an educational coordinator in the Kitchen Theater.

Pumpkin Spice Cake

1/4 cup butter or margarine, softened

1 cup solid packed pumpkin (replacing 1/4 cup shortening)

1/2 cup water

1 cup plain non-fat or low-fat yogurt (replacing 1 cup sour cream)

1 whole egg + 2 egg whites (replacing 2 whole eggs), slightly beaten

1 1/2 cups brown sugar, packed

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/4 tsp baking soda

1 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp ground cloves

2 tsp ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp ground nutmeg

Optional additions: 1/2 cup chopped raisins, 1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans

Optional icing: 3/4 cup sifted powdered sugar mixed with approx. 2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice (enough to give mixture a creamy consistency).

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Prepare 13x9-inch pan with cooking spray or parchment paper.

Cream butter or margarine in electric mixer.

Add remaining ingredients, except raisins and/or nuts. Beat on low speed 30 seconds. Scrape sides of bowl and beat on high for three minutes. Stir in raisins and/or nuts, if using.

Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake 30-40 minutes until toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean.

Cool on wire rack. Drizzle with optional icing, if desired.

Recipe contains less than 50 grams of fat.

Recipe modified from Betty Crocker Cookbook, 1988