I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter: Baking with Alternative Fats

I know you’ll think me strange, but I’ve never liked butter. As a child I ate my toast dry (these days I’ve graduated to the flavorful alternatives of jam or peanut butter – though never together, another quirk of mine). French pastries never did it for me either.

“How could you not like this?” friends would ask me. “I can taste the stick of butter in it.”

“That’s exactly why I don’t,” I’d reply.

Still, I love to bake. And, frankly, butter is sort of a staple when it comes to baked goods. Yet, it doesn’t have to be.

It wasn’t until I started working with a nutritionist in London that I learned the value of incorporating healthful fats into my diet. She encouraged me to experiment with alternative ingredients, such as gluten-free flours (spelt, brown rice, among others), nut milks and, yes, oils to replace the dreaded butter that seemed to find its way into my baking escapades, despite my best efforts to avoid it. After all, you need some fat-based ingredient to bind everything together, right?

My first attempts saw me replacing butter with coconut oil, which contains healthy saturated fats (no, that’s not an oxymoron–there are some saturated fats that actually raise your “good” cholesterol, known as HDL, while lowering the “bad,” or LDL). It may have a number of health benefits attached to its name, including weight loss, improved functioning of the immune system and stress relief, but coconut oil has a pretty strong flavor. While my colleagues in London licked the pan clean each time I made my coconut oil brownies, I didn’t enjoy them myself. What good was improved nutritional value without improved taste; I still didn’t want to eat what I baked!

It was only recently, this past November to be exact, at the San Diego Bay Wine & Food Festival, that I came to the conclusion that olive oil was the way to go, at least for me. One of the vendors–an olive oil company, actually, imagine that!–was sampling an olive oil cake with blood orange sauce. It was one of the most delicious things I’d ever tasted. The use of olive oil created a perfectly moist cake, without the heaviness that butter can impart. I’d already converted to olive oil entirely when it came to cooking–why not baking?

When I got home, I immediately began experimenting. Every recipe I wanted to make –cookies, brownies, you name it–where I saw butter, I decided to try olive oil instead. I looked up online the appropriate conversions, which I found at this site (I’m not the only crazy person who had this idea –there’s actually a website for crazy people like me!). In my opinion, at least, every recipe was a success. Mind you, I was actively trying to avoid the buttery taste in the first place, but for those unfortunate souls who were the victims of my evil experiments, not one of them complained. In fact, no one even questioned the ingredient list; it was only when I volunteered that I had used olive oil in place of butter that they even thought about it. And even then they admitted that it tasted good.

Of course, there are many types of olive oils, so it’s important to use a mild flavored style in baking unless you really want a particular pronounced flavor to stand out, such as nuttiness or herbaceousness. And, by all means, if you like butter, there’s nothing wrong with sticking to what you know and like. Anything in small doses is a good thing, right?

Coconut Oil Brownies

For those interested in testing out the health benefits and flavor of coconut oil, these brownies are what converted many of my UK friends. The recipe is based on my mother’s coveted brownie recipe, simply replacing the butter with coconut oil and the traditional white flour with gluten-free alternatives. I haven’t yet tried this with olive oil, but if you do, let me know. I’d be curious to hear the results!

2 eggs
3/4 cup sugar (raw brown demerara)
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 cup coconut oil
1 bar dark baking chocolate
2/3 cup flour (half spelt flour, half gluten free brown bread flour)
1/4 tsp. baking powder
1 cup chocolate chips

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Stir eggs with sugar and vanilla. Add coconut oil.

3. Melt chocolate on stove in a double boiler and add to egg mixture.

4. In a separate bowl, mix the flour and baking powder. Stir into egg mixture and add chocolate chips.

5. Pour into an 8 or 9-inch greased pan (you can use the coconut oil to grease, as well) and bake 20 or 30 minutes. You want them to be chewy, so after 20 minutes stick a toothpick in it to see if they’re ready.