Great ways to lighten up recipes

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No matter what the setting or occasion, today’s conversations almost always turn to dieting. Losing weight has become a national obsession – one that concerns almost every member of our society because every family has someone in it who needs help. Here are some really easy ways to get great results:


CHOOSE LEAN MEATS AND COOK THEM IN TASTIER WAYS THAT DON’T ADD TONS OF CALORIES. Any butcher will be happy to tell you that FAT IS FLAVOR. When I was in culinary school, we actually used to chant that in butchery class. Without the natural mouth-feel, flavor and tenderness of fat, lean meat is more of a challenge to cook to rave reviews. There are, however, some tricks to creating flavor. For example, marinating is a wonderful method for adding a lot of flavor, tenderness and moisture to lean meats. You can also pound these meats to break up the protein strands and then you can use quicker cooking methods. When cutting leaner meats, cut across the grain, which also breaks the protein strands and in turn tenderizes them. Especially in the case of a flank steak, when you cut across the grain, you can even quickly grill the meat – just a couple of minutes on each side – and it will be tender.

Longer cooking methods are usually used for thick cuts of leaner meats that are tough – like whole flank steak, roasts, round, etc. These are methods like braising and poaching. These methods cook the meat gently and give it time (through osmosis) to absorb flavors from the cooking liquid. With little fat to keep it juicy on its own, lean meat will tend to dry out quicker, so these methods are excellent for flavor and mouth-feel. Creating one-dish braised or pot meals is great for people on the run. In this case, the vegetables are cooked together with the meat, making them easy and stress free preparations. You can pop filled braising pots in the oven, go get a project done and come back a couple of hours later to a lovely and balanced meal.

You can even sauté with a little stock and/or onions instead of butter to reduce calories. – And yes, as the liquid cooks away, you can even caramelize the meat. You can always add extra spice to increase flavor in dishes that don’t have a lot of components. Spicy dishes are key in diet foods because they can make you feel fuller and their tastes linger longer.

Just as the fat in your body helps to keep you warm, the absence of fat in lean meats causes them to cool down quicker. To combat this, you can increase the density of the food by adding a low fat sauce. Or, if you don’t want to add even the few more calories of a sauce, come up with a presentation where the food is close together on the plate or stacked. Then all of the elements will snuggle together and keep each other warm.

REDUCE FAT IN INGREDIENTS. Read labels and choose ingredients with lower fat content. Dairy products are easy ones in this category. You can buy reduced calorie versions of most of them that work well. Just be careful to replace ingredients with another one of the same consistency or you could adversely affect the texture outcome of your dish. You can replace milk and cream with evaporated skim milk, for example, but you might need to thicken the end product so that it isn’t too runny. Mayonnaise and sour cream can be replaced by yogurt, etc. There are too many options for substitutions to list them all here, but if you go to you can visit the substitutions page for more ideas.

USE COOKING SPRAY INSTEAD OF BUTTER FOR GREASING PANS. Spraying for 2 seconds adds only about 1 gram of fat or 9 kilocalories.

REDUCE THE AMOUNT OF BUTTER YOU USE IN YOUR RECIPE. You don’t have to cook with a lot of butter in your dishes to make them taste good.  Above all, you don’t want your dish to come across as “greasy” anyway. Adding just a little at the end can yield great results. This is called “mounting” butter and it brings the buttery taste forward. When you add just a bit of butter to hot soup just before serving, you also get a beautiful, glossy look that is really attractive as well as the buttery taste. It tastes like the soup is full of butter when it’s not.

REVIEW YOUR COOKING METHODS. Roast, steam, simmer, poach, grill and blanch instead of other methods like frying that require a lot of fat.

MAKE YOUR OWN STOCK or buy fat free stocks. The fat in stock separates when cooled so you can easily scrape it off the top before using it in your recipes. To increase flavor in stocks, you can boil them down by 1/3. The evaporation of the liquid intensifies the taste. Although this takes a little time, my habit is to always put the stock on the stove first. Then it simmers away and reduces while I’m chopping vegetables or whatever else I need to do to prepare the meal. Take care while reducing though. At first it will seem like the amount of liquid is not changing, but as it simmers down it will reduce faster and faster. You can actually reduce it so far that it practically disappears. Then it will burn; then the pan can overheat; then it will catch on fire. So long story short: Keep an eye on it!

USE REDUCTION AS A METHOD OF THICKENING. Reducing the liquid in soups and sauces by simmering to evaporate some of the liquid takes longer but ensures that you don’t have to add flour or other thickening products which in turn add calories. For those who need gluten free products, this can be especially important. Soups and sauces can also be thickened by incorporating starchy vegetables like potatoes and beans. In addition to thickening, these products add nutrition.

Here’s something that is a great illustration of the power of reduction. Over several hours, you can simmer a whole gallon of fresh cider down to one to two cups. Then cool and refrigerate what is left and it will become a beautiful jelly. The taste of this jelly is seriously good and it can be used for example for glazing a pork roast when it comes out of the oven, as a flavor enhancer in pie filling, to give an apple taste to a cabbage dish or simply spread it on your toast in the morning for a sugar-free mouth full of flavor. It’s one of my favorite things.

COOK VEGETABLES IN A MIXTURE OF 1/3 STOCK AND 2/3 WATER.  This doesn’t add many calories but does add flavor to the vegetables. In most cases, you can get away without adding any fat or butter.


KEEP AN EYE ON PORTION CONTROL. Eating less is clearly (and some of us food lovers would say unfortunately) the best way to lighten up a meal. When using canned goods in particular, notice that the calorie counts are always “by portion”. A full can may contain 2 or 3 or more portions. It’s a way of showing fewer calories in the nutrition label, but if you eat more than one portion and you don’t recognize this, your total calorie count consumed can be way off.


Part of this issue, however, is psychological because if you suddenly start reducing your portion sizes to more reasonable amounts, you feel like your plate doesn’t look full. To make the plate more appealing, add things to fill it up that don’t add a lot of calories, like low fat sauces or salsa. Sliced vegetables like tomatoes also take up a lot of space but add very few more calories. Feeling like you ate a large plate of food is a lot more satisfying – and that’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it.

About Lynn M. Miller

Lynn M. Miller is Executive Chef for MexAmerica Foods. She is also the author of the FLAVOR SECRETS: BACK TO THE BASICS cookbook and host of the Flavor Secrets television show. She teaches private cooking classes and is an active member of the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs and the American Culinary Federation. Her web-site is: