Hack your muffin recipes: 4 easy ways to make healthier muffins

January 10 | Guest post by copycait
By: N i c o l aCC BY 2.0
I LOOOVE eating muffins for breakfast! They are the perfect food for me and my husband when we are on the go — I can eat them in the car relatively mess-free, take them to work in a packed lunch and have them survive relatively smoosh-free, and eat them in the movie theatre relatively guilt-free!

However, I am the first to admit that my mother was right when she warned me that muffins are really cookies in disguise. So, I have been on a quest to find healthy muffin recipes ever since.

What I've found is that most muffin recipes only have one or two factors that make them "unhealthy," like too much sugar or too much butter. FORTUNATELY, there are easy fixes for most of these problems that allow me to make the muffins healthier, while still enjoying this tasty treat.

Muffin Recipe Hack #1: Substitute butter with applesauce

People who are watching their cholesterol levels need to limit their intake of tasty, tasty butter. An easy solution is to replace butter with margarine, but this causes its own set of problems by increasing the amount of trans-fat.

Solution?: Apple Sauce! I recommend substituting half of the amount of butter called for in the recipe with apple sauce. If you don't mind a much denser muffin, you could even go whole hog and replace it all.

Muffin Recipe Hack #2: Substitute white flour with whole wheat flour

This one is pretty self-explanatory. Whole wheat flour is healthier (surprise!). I recommend replacing half of the amount of white flour called for in the recipe with whole wheat. Again, if you don't mind a much denser muffin, you could replace it all with whole wheat.

Muffin Recipe Hack #3: Reduce the amount of sugar

This is where matters of personal taste really become… well… personal. I prefer to leave my muffins largely unsweetened, and then add the sugar back after the muffins have baked in the form of jam or peanut butter. To do this, I simply reduce the amount of sugar. I try to not add more than one teaspoon of sugar per muffin into my recipe, so this means that if my recipe makes 12 muffins, I'd only add ¼ cup of sugar regardless of what the recipe calls for. You can reduce the amount of sugar to whatever you like without really affecting the texture of the muffins. Fair warning, though: NO sugar usually equals no taste!

Some people can't live without the sweetness, though, and I totally get it. You could replace sugar with sweetener, but I personally hate the chemical taste. One solution that works really well is ground nuts! Toast your favourite nuts in the oven for a few minutes and then grind them into a fine powder in a food processor. Warning: They shouldn't be processed for too long or they turn into nut butter. Substitute half of the sugar called for in the recipe with your "nut powder" (haha!) and you're good to go.

Muffin Recipe Hack #4: Add fresh fruit

Add up to 1 cup of fresh chopped fruit to any muffin recipe for an extra-tasty health boost. You may need to increase the baking time slightly.


So how do these tricks look in real life? Here is a "before and after" muffin recipe that I use ALL the time. As a side note, this recipe freezes beautifully as well.

Original oatmeal muffins (makes 12)

From Gourmet magazine, February 1995. Available on epicurious.com:

Ingredients:
• 1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
• 1 cup buttermilk
• 1 large egg, beaten lightly
• ½ cup firmly packed light brown sugar
• 1 stick (½ cup) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
• 1 cup all-purpose flour
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• ½ teaspoon baking soda
• ½ cup dried currants

Method:

  1. In a large bowl, combine oats and buttermilk and let stand 1 hour.
  2. Preheat oven to 400°F. and butter twelve ½-cup muffin tins.
  3. Add egg, sugar and butter to oat mixture, stirring until just combined.
  4. Into another large bowl, sift together flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda and add to oat mixture, stirring until just combined. Fold in currants.
  5. Divide batter evenly among prepared muffin tins. Bake muffins in middle of oven until golden and a tester comes out clean, about 20 minutes.

Healthy-fied blueberry oatmeal muffins (makes 12)

Ingredients:
• 1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
• 1 cup buttermilk
• 1 large egg, beaten lightly
• ¼ cup firmly packed light brown sugar
• ¼ cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled
• ¼ cup apple sauce
• ½ cup all-purpose flour
• ½ cup whole wheat flour
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• ½ teaspoon baking soda
• 1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries

Method:

  1. In a large bowl, combine oats and buttermilk and let stand 1 hour.
  2. Preheat oven to 400°F. and butter twelve ½-cup muffin tins.
  3. Add egg, sugar, butter and applesauce to oat mixture, stirring until just combined.
  4. Into another large bowl, sift together flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda and add to oat mixture, stirring until just combined. Fold in blueberries.
  5. Divide batter evenly among prepared muffin tins. Bake muffins in middle of oven until golden and a tester comes out clean, about 22 minutes.

  1. These are all great tips! And really easy swaps.
    I'd like to suggest two more:
    1) Instead of using whole eggs in the recipe, use egg whites. 2 egg whites per whole egg needed in the recipe (this can also be used to half a recipe that only uses 1 egg).
    2) More than just adding fresh fruit, add nuts and seeds. I add flax seeds for an instant, tasteless, fiber boost.
    Bonus: Add extra spices. Savory muffins can include oregano or thyme, sweet muffins can include cinnamon or ginger. All 4 of those herbs/spices help with good digestion, and are mighty tasty.

    12 agree
    • These are great ideas, too! I think my previous roommate threw in a bit of flax seed oil in muffins that used oil, too. I forgot all about that.

      Also, I've never heard of the egg-white trick! I'm going to try :)

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    • Vanilla extract (the real stuff, not artificial) is another thing you can add to boost the flavor when you reduce the sugar. I usually add 1/2 a teaspoon to a batch of 12 muffins.

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    • I think I'm going to have to try these breakfast muffins! They look awesome!

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    • When you do egg whites instead of whole eggs, what do you do with the yolk? We can't feasibly compost here, and I hate just throwing it away, but I never know how to use just plain egg yolk. Ideas, anyone?

      2 agree
      • You can totally freeze egg yolks for 3 months! Freeze them in the egg carton they came in, then transfer them to freezer baggies. You can even put some seasoning right in with them if you want to (like sugar or salt depending on how they'll be used). Thaw them out to room temp and use as called for.

        Delicious things that count as "treats" tend to use egg yolks. Things like pudding and hollandaise sauce. I'm not sure if I know of anything healthy that calls for just yolks, but I'm not a TOTAL health freak so I'd totally go for it :)

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      • Save it to make lemon curd? You have to have several, though, and I'm not sure how they'd keep. I've kept them before but it seems like the outside becomes sort of filmy and dry. I wonder if you can store unbroken egg yolks in water….

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      • I use egg yolks in home-made icecream (have to make my own to remove the dairy) and often wonder what to do with the whites! :)

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      • Egg yokes are used as a glaze. Ever seen challah bread? That shiny coating that many challahs have is made by glazing the dough with egg yoke. Hollandaise sauce is the other egg yoke recipe I could think of, but I don't know what to use it on other than eggs benedict.

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        • You can use Hollandaise to jazz up plain steamed veg or if you add capers, finely chopped gherkins and some herbs (or whatever your taste runs to) it'd make a nice sauce for serving with fish. I've even heard of adding things to a basic Hollandaise to make sauces for meat dishes as well.

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  2. Holy cow, this was fantastic! Thank you for the hacks and the recipes! I can't wait to try the applesauce substitute this weekend.

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  3. Excellent advice.

    I also like to add a shot of bran to any muffin recipe that I make.
    Combine one cup of wheat or oat bran with one cup of milk, buttermilk, or dairy alternative (vanilla almond milk is my dairy substitute of choice). Let it sit for at least 5 minutes, stir and fold into batter at the end.

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  4. Awesome post! I wanted to add 2 cents.
    To keep frozen blueberries from sinking to the bottom of the muffin lightly toss them with some flour before you mix them in.
    I'm wheat-intolerant (but can eat gluten) so I usually sub spelt flour in, it's denser, sort of like whole wheat, but muffins and cookies can handle it.
    I love adding flax seeds to chocolate chip oatmeal cookies, and I imagine they'd be great in muffins, someone told me you ought to crack them to get the most nutritional benefit out of them, ie run them in your food processor, or coffee grinder for 2-3 seconds.
    Cass- I'm loving your bonus items!

    1 agrees
    • Lucky! I'm wheat and gluten intolerant. =(

      But, wheat and gluten free people can still have muffins (hurrah!). Just substitute gluten free baking mix for flour (it works cup for cup). Pamela's and Better Batter are two that I love.

      Nice idea about the fresh fruit! Fresh blueberries in muffins are totally amaze-balls. tehe

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  5. Yay for muffins! I use applesauce in almost everything I bake. It's adds moisture that I really like. You can also sub in pumpkin puree instead of applesauce sometimes as well…because pumpkin is delicious.

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    • Pretty much any fruit or veggie puree will work. But it does limit the shelf-life of the muffins.

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  6. For sugar, I know you can also substitute honey, stevia and agave syrup. So there are some alternatives that are pretty popular and healthier. One of the cooking blogs I read generally uses alternatives and gives options within that and these are high up on their options list.

    2 agree
    • These also make great sweeteners :) Just note that these aren't always 1:1 substitutions (i.e. you would never substitute 1/2 cup of sugar with 1/2 cup of stevia…it would make you so sad! You can find a useful conversion chart for stevia here: http://www.stevia.net/conversion.html. Also, I heart agave syrup so hard!

      1 agrees
      • also seconding agave sirup – it´s kind of a soft sweetness, i use it for porridges and baking and and..

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    • Agave nectar is really trendy right now, but it's not actually a health food (at least not the kind that's sold here in America). Here's an article explaining why: http://www.foodrenegade.com/agave-nectar-good-or-bad/

      (Note: this is just the first article I pulled up when looking for a link to include. I make no claims regarding the reliability of that particular website, however it is not the only article I have read about Agave Nectar)

      2 agree
  7. I usually use paper cups instead of buttering the muffin pan to cut back on fat even more. Recipes with nutritional information do not usually take into account the stuff used to grease the pan and butter is crazy bad for you in excess. Also, although it's pretty expensive, almond and coconut flour are healthier substitutes for bleached flour, and are a little sweet, so you can pull back more on adding sugar to the recipe.

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  8. After I read this, I made muffins. Tasty, tasty muffins.

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  9. Applesauce hack has to be my favorite. I shall try someone (when I'm done being scared of my new apartment's gas-and-light it yourself oven).

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  10. Red Velvet & Chocolate Heartache by Harry Eastwood (guys – link it through your amazon thingy!). A cookbook full of yummo cakes, that are made without butter! All cakes include veges hidden in the mix to keep the cakes moist and light. Veges instead of butter – and it works! The book uses rice flour as a base for the cakes, with most also including almond meal as well. Crazy good, healthy, and easy. Totally recommend it – 110%.

    1 agrees
    • Cool! I'm going to see if I can get it from the library. Now that I have babies, I can imagine that I will want to find ways to sneak veggies into everything they eat one day :)

      1 agrees
  11. I'm not sure of the apple sauce substitution. Store-bought apple sauce contains a lot of (added) sugar, so essentially you are swapping fat for sugar. And undoing your sugar-reductions.

    0 agree
    • Sorry, I guess I should have specified that I use unsweetened apple sauce! President's Choice makes a store-bought one called "Just Apples" or something like that (that is actually just apples, with no preservatives). And of course, you can always make your own apple sauce.

      I guess apples contain a lot of natural sugars, too, but I was thinking about it more as a substitute for butter for people who are worried about that part of the recipe, specifically.

      Good catch :)

      1 agrees
  12. A fellow Weight Watcher shared a super-easy muffin recipe that's great if you're not much of a baker:

    Combine one box spiced cake mix with one 15-oz can of pumpkin puree and one cup of water. Put into muffin tins and bake at 350.

    I made mini-muffins for a few parties last month, and they were a hit.

    0 agree
  13. Instead of using applesauce, try mashed sweet potatoes, pumpkin, butternut squash, or really, any kind of squash! They add color (beta carotene!) and a little sweetness.

    Ditto any other kind of soft, mashed fruit: bananas (hi, banana bread!), cooked pears, even things like persimmons could all be yummy.

    I have a recipe for sweet potato cake (like a snack cake) that I cut the sugar in and serve plain with a little milk or heavy cream instead of frosting. The recipe calls for oil instead of butter, has a couple eggs (for a 9×13" pan), and uses beer as the acid to leaven the baking soda!

    Okay great… now I want to make sweet potato cake… good thing I have mashed sweet potatoes in the fridge!

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  14. You can replace the white flour in just about any baking recipe with all whole wheat flour very easily: Stir together the flour and any liquids called for in the recipe, let soak overnight. It's called "soaked grains" so you can find more recipes, but in all reality it makes the whole wheat work just like white flour in a lot of recipes. Not roux though. That's a whole other ball game.

    If you have a sourdough starter, you can make any of these quickbread recipes into sourdough really easily: 12-24 hours before you want to bake, scoop out half the amount of flour as sourdough starter (so if your recipe calls for 1 cup flour, use 1/2 cup starter). Then add the rest of the flour (now 1/2 cup) as whole grain, any dried additions like nuts or craisins, and any liquids including liquid sugars like maple syrup. Let sit overnight, stir in the rest of the ingredients and bake.

    Removing the egg yolk doesn't make a recipe healthier though. That myth was disproved in the 80's. The yolk has enzymes that process cholesterol, and in fact process more cholesterol than the yolk can give you. Besides the fact that we now know that cholesterol is only very minimally impacted by diet anyway.

    There are a LOT of fat-soluble flavors, and sweets are especially fat-soluble. You can reduce fat or sugar, but don't do both–besides the fact that messing with recipe ratios will result in a lackluster product, reducing the fact means you taste the sugar less.

    Leave that egg whole because it's good for you. Switch to better-for-you fats if you are avoiding butter for whatever reason; flax seed, coconut (melt it first), and nut oils are great for that. You can switch to a liquid sugar like honey or maple syrup, but if you also soak the wheat flour and/or add fresh/frozen it makes it too goopy again–though the addition of the oats helps. Make your own brown sugar by mixing some molasses with turbinado or raw sugar–the molasses has a lot of flavor and nutrients including some that help slow the digestion of sugars. Nuts & dried fruits help reduce the liquid again, especially if you include them in the batter that soaks overnight (which can also include the liquid sugars). They also add a lot of flavor & natural sweetness that helps you cut back the refined sugars a bit.

    My favorite tip though is what Cass said above: ADD SPICES! You can add them with the leaveners (baking soda/powder) or even the grains that soak overnight. Yum Yum Yum.

    0 agree

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