During the cold, harsh winter months, many of the foods we eat are "comfort" foods. Dishes such as warm, creamy soups and hearty, robust stews and casseroles are delicious—but are often made with high-fat ingredients like heavy cream and cheese. Coincidentally, January is also that time of year many of us resolve to improve our health! So, how do we enjoy the foods that console us during winter, and at the same time, determine to follow a healthier lifestyle?
Many cream soup, stew, and casserole recipes include high-fat ingredients that create a creamy, smooth, rich texture and taste, such as heavy cream and cheeses. By aligning our food choices with the 2015–2020 USDA Dietary Guidelines, we can follow the USDA recommendation that all Americans make healthy eating decisions to reduce the risk of dietary diseases. We can replace high-fat ingredients in recipes, but we need to make other adjustments to keep the taste and texture appealing. The most straightforward low-fat alteration is in recipes that call for cheese. Try purchasing low-fat varieties, or just reduce the amount by a ¼–⅓ of the amount called for in the recipe. It will not adversely affect the taste or texture of the final product.
The other common high-fat ingredients are heavy cream and cream cheese. Simple thickening techniques used to reduce or replace these components can be utilized to keep the original recipe's consistency. The cooking procedures that create smooth, thick creamy soups, robust stews, and hearty casseroles follow three primary thickening methods. Two use a form of starch, while the third utilizes vegetables. Using this knowledge, we can reduce the fat in our seasonal foods while keeping the creamy texture.
The starch thickening options most frequently used are cornstarch and flour. Cornstarch is the best choice if you want to thicken a recipe without causing changes in color or clarity. Flour adds flavor, although it also produces an opaque color. Both methods only use a small amount and do not add to the caloric value—it often comes down to personal choice. If you are cooking for someone with wheat allergies, celiac disease, or gluten intolerance, cornstarch should be used. Many grocery stores now carry different kinds of flours, such as potato and rice, so alternative options to wheat flour are available.
If you are thickening with cornstarch, use a ratio of a ½ tablespoon of cornstarch to 1 cup of liquid. For best results, mix the cornstarch with a small amount of cold water to make a slurry, and while stirring the hot ingredients, add the cornstarch mixture and continue to stir until reaching the desired consistency. Thickening with cornstarch is a useful technique when replacing heavy cream with low-fat milk alternatives; it keeps the thick creamy texture of the recipe.
To thicken with flour, use a ratio of 1 tablespoon of flour to 1 cup of liquid. Once adding the thickener, bring the ingredients to a full boil while continuing to stir. Heat activates the thickening agent and also removes any starchy taste. If the recipe is too thin, you can add more flour ¼ tablespoon at a time. It is always easier to add more thickener than try to correct something that is overly thickened.
Using vegetables to thicken a recipe is also an option. Instant potatoes and cornmeal can be added, though both will change the taste and nutritional (calorie) value. A vegetable puree will help thicken the ingredients and add nutritional value to any recipe.
By applying some of the techniques described above, we can now make a few of our winter comfort foods healthier. The USDA's dietary guidelines suggest that making small changes in eating habits contributes to a healthier lifestyle. This also applies to cooking when converting your family's favorite recipe to use healthier ingredients. Start by using an alternative thickener as suggested in the following chart. The alterations mentioned are also beneficial for individuals with specific food allergies, dietary restrictions, and personal food preferences.
If the goal is to :
Pros and cons
Replace heavy cream
1 cup light whipping cream or half and half =1 cup heavy cream
Easy substitute, though only minimally reduces fat content amounts
2 T cornstarch + 1 cup milk= 1 cup heavy cream
Will reduce fat without changing nutritional value. Can use any variety of dairy milk, lower fat options; may slightly change texture or require an additional thickener.
1 to 1 ratio of cottage cheese and milk blend until smooth; equally replaces heavy cream
Reduces fat however, cottage cheese is high in sodium; may not be suitable for some individuals
Non-dairy alternative, for food allergies and dietary preferences
Replace any liquid dairy ingredients
2 parts soy milk to 1 part oil heavy cream replacement
May take trial and error with soymilk; may also require additional thickener
Mix equal parts silk tofu and soy milk
Increases protein; check soy product nutritional facts labels for calcium RDA
Replace cream cheese or heavy cream
1 to 1 ratio of Greek yogurt and milk= equal replacement
May change flavor slightly, will make a creamy texture and richness
Adapted from Healthline.com