Creating paleo adaptations of our favorite recipes (a.k.a. paleofying) helps us stay on board with paleo through the holidays (and many other times of the year), help us feel like we can still celebrate and partake in all of the fun and food luxury of the season. I know that many of you are pulling out your old favorite recipes and wondering what to do with them (I’ve had many questions lately about rules of thumb for flour substitutions, and alternatives for those with nut or egg allergies). I am too. I have several family favorite recipes that I am tackling this year.
Paleofying is as much an art as it is a science. I vaguely remember a time when I did not have extremely well-honed cooking instincts (I think that was back in middle school). But even starting out as a fairly good cook, there was still a learning curve to all of these new ingredients and to baking without gluten. After a year of paleo baking (and blogging!), I have a much better understanding of how to adapt conventional recipes now and thought it was high time I share some of this knowledge and experience with you, in addition to my perfected recipes. This is the second in a 4-part post series to help you start the process of adapting your recipes.
This post is the second in a 4-post series. In the first post, I discussed paleo flours and other ingredients that add bulk to a recipe. This post will discuss binders (ingredients that hold baking together). Part 3 will discuss leavening agents, fats and sweeteners. Part 4 will discuss some strategies for doing iterations and troubleshooting your recipes. You may also be interested in some of my posts that reference paleo baking ingredients: Important Pantry Items for The Paleo Baker, Paleo Flour Substitutes, Sugar vs. Sweeteners, and Is Sugar Paleo?).
Binders are ingredients that help hold baking together. The most common binders are eggs and gluten. Most of us are happy using eggs (although I will discuss egg substitutes here too). But replacing the binding power of gluten can be quite a challenge. Once you’ve figured out your flour substitutes, you still might need to add or change other ingredients to help your baking hold together.
Egg—Eggs are by far the best binder in the paleo toolkit. If your recipe needs a little help holding together, adding an extra egg (or two) is a great strategy. If adding a whole eggs adds too much moisture to your baking, try just adding an extra egg white (which is the part of the egg that really does the binding job).
If there are eggs in your recipe, they might be there to act as a binder or for another purpose. Eggs can bind, but they can also add moisture and add lightness to a recipe. If an egg is adding moisture (often the case if the recipe calls for several eggs) and you want to use a liquid sweetener instead of granulated sugar, you can try using 1 or 2 less eggs. If eggs are just there to add moisture, replacing with any wet ingredients is pretty straight forward if you have a reason to avoid eggs.
To add lightness to a recipe (especially cakes and breads), try beating your eggs for 3-5 minutes before mixing with your other ingredients (see my paleo “multigrain’ bread for an example). A very powerful strategy for cake recipes is to separate the eggs and beat the whites until stiff peaks form and then fold into the other ingredients (see my holiday trifle recipe).
But, eggs are not the only binders in town. You might want the flavor contribution of another binder or you might be trying to avoid an overly eggy taste in your baking. Adding too many eggs can also give that omelet type texture that might not be what you’re looking for. And, since eggs to add liquid to a recipe, you might be battling with too moist of a dough or batter. Many people are sensitive to eggs and want to avoid them completely. There are some great alternatives to eggs for your paleofying adventures. The binders below might be used in conjunction with eggs and some of them as egg substitutes (exact substitutions are mentioned where appropriate). These work in a variety of ways (some better than others). You’ll also note that many of the ingredients listed below were also listed as flour substitutes. Keep this in mind as you adapt your recipes. Depending on your recipe, you may want to use one or several of these binders to get a bit more hold.
Nut and Seed Butters—Almond Butter, Sunflower Seed Butter, Tahini, Hazelnut Butter, Macadamia/Cashew Butter, Sprouted Macadamia Butter, Walnut Butter, Pecan Butter and others. Adding nut butters to replace or add to the fat ingredients in a recipe can actually help a recipe hold together quite well. This is because of the fiber and the fats in nut butters. This is a great strategy for cookies and squares since it also doesn’t add much moisture. I wouldn’t recommend substituting all of the eggs in a recipe with nut or seed butters, but you could substitute 1 or even 2. To use as an egg substitute, substitute ¼-1/3 cup nut butter for each egg.
Flax meal (a.k.a. ground flax seed)—Flax can add hold and elasticity to a recipe when added either as a dry ingredient, replacing some of the flour, or as a wet ingredient, replacing or adding to eggs. 1 Tbsp of ground flax seed mixed with 3 Tbsp of water (and left to sit for 2-3 minutes) makes a very reasonable egg substitute. There is no difference between regular ground flax seed and ground golden flax seed in terms of kitchen chemistry, although you might desire the look of one versus the other. Sometimes a recipe needs the hold of an egg but not the moisture that an egg gives. In this case, you can mix 1 Tbsp of ground flax seed with 1½-2 Tbsp of water (see my paleo chewy granola bar recipe as an example). Chia seeds can be used similarly, but chia is a pseudograin and Prof. Loren Cordain comes down pretty hard on them in his book The Paleo Answer. Another similar seed in hemp seed. I haven’t seen a good argument for or against them (but maybe a good option for those who are sensitive to flax but not seeds in general).
Mashed Banana—You know how bananas feel pretty slimy when you mash them? That’s what makes bananas such a great binder. It’s because of the starch and fiber in bananas (this is true for plantains, yucca, and taro too). Slimy=good binder. The only downside is that bananas have a habit of overwhelming whatever other flavors you have going on, so this really only works if you want a distinct banana flavor in your baking. To substitute 1 egg, add 1/4 cup mashed banana (about ½ of an average sized banana).
Applesauce or grated apple—Apples are high in pectin, a fiber that has a fair bit of thickening and binding ability (pectin is added to jams to make them gel). Pears can also work here with not quite as much binding ability. Applesauce also adds moisture, so this is a great binder for cakes of all kinds (muffins, brownies, coffee breads, etc.). It’s also not so strong of a flavor that it can be hidden by other ingredients. Chunky applesauce (applesauce that is fork mashed as opposed to blended) can add a nice texture to muffins and coffeebreads. Blending applesauce will give a smoother texture to your baking. Grated apple is a neat trick to add a binder to fruit pie fillings. To substitute eggs with applesauce in a recipe, sub 1/3 cup applesauce for each egg.
Pumpkin—Pumpkin puree can act as a binder (starch and fiber) although not as well as banana or applesauce. It also has a flavor that is very easy to mask. To substitute 1 egg, add 1/3 cup pureed pumpkin.
Pureed Plantain (ripe or green)—Both green and ripe plantain puree can add substantial hold to a recipe (yep, fiber). Green plantains add more starch and a little less hold than ripe plantains, but have a very neutral flavor (watch this video from my YouTube Channel to learn more about green plantains). Ripe plantains are fantastic binders and add a little sweetness, but similar to bananas, ripe plantains add a distinctive flavor. To substitute 1 egg, add 1/4 cup mashed ripe plantain or 1/3 cup mashed green plantain (1 average sized plantain typically yields ¾ cups puree). I’ve used plantain as a flour and binder in my perfect paleo pancakes, paleo crepes, and decadent double chocolate cookies.
Gelatin—This works brilliantly as an egg substitute for custards, cakes and muffins. Dissolve 1 Tbsp of gelatin into 3 Tbsp of warm water and substitute this for 1 egg. If you substitute too many eggs with gelatin, you will get an overly spongy, chewy texture, so if your recipe calls for several eggs, you can replace half with gelatin and half with one of the other egg substitutes listed here. Gelatin has the added benefit of adding some protein in the form of those healing amino acids glycine and proline.
Agar—I always use gelatin in lieu of agar, since gelatin is so healthy. However, agar works similarly. To replace a whole egg, dissolve 1 Tbsp agar powder into 3 Tbsp water. You can also use agar as an egg white substitute. For each egg white, dissolve 1 Tbsp plain agar powder into 1 tbsp water. Whip, chill and whip again.
Pectin—Pectin is a fiber naturally found in fruit (the reason why apples make such a good binder). You can buy pectin powder (usually with the canning supplies) and add 1-2 tsp to bread and cake recipes as a binder (see my hot cross bun recipe as an example). Be cautious with this one though because the added fiber can be tough for some people to digest.
Tapioca Starch—Tapioca starch or flour is ground dehydrated cassava root (also called yucca and manioc). It can act as a binder in a recipe that doesn’t add to the wet ingredients (this can be very helpful if you are substituting a liquid sweetener like honey for granulated sugar in a recipe). Keep in mind that tapioca is a gluten cross-reactor and that Prof. Loren Cordain comes down pretty hard on bitter cassava root (the sweet cassava is what is typically found in stores and used to make tapioca) in his book The Paleo Answer.
Honey and Molasses—Replacing granulated sugar in a recipe with a liquid sweetener can be tricky, but honey and molasses do help hold baking together and can contribute a nice chew to cookies. Maple syrup does so as well but to a lesser extent. I will discuss these as a sugar substitute more in the next post in this series.
Pureed Root Vegetables—Yucca (aka Cassava, aka manioc, aka yucca) is brilliant at holding baking together. Peel it and cube it (removing the tough string that runs down the middle of it) and boil as you would potatos in salted water until the pieces slide off a knife when posed (typically 20-30 minutes, depending on the size of your cubes). Drain and mash by hand with a potato masher or strong fork. It is incredibly slimey and will do bad things to a blender or emersion blender (I haven’t tried it in a food processor and have no intensions of trying after what it did to my hand blender). It’s also tough to clean, so clean anything by hand (a dishwasher won’t touch it). For an example, see my paleo biscuits recipe. Taro is very similar. To use taro, steam whole taro roots (unpeeled) for 10-20 minutes depending on the size, until soft enough to pierce with a sharp knife but still a little firm. Let cool, peel, and mash by hand. Taro and yucca also are a little sweet, which can be very helpful in some recipes. Other pureed vegetables can help hold baking together too. Typically, the starchier they are, the better. Other great options are mashed sweet potato, parsnip, winter squash, and carrot (pumpkin and plantain have already been covered).
Coconut oil (and other fats)—Adding some extra fat to your recipe will help it hold together. Coconut oil is probably the best for holding baking together and gives baking a bit more chew (great for cookies, brownies, etc.). Palm shortening, butter or lard will give it a bit more lightness and still help it hold together. As a general rule ¼ cup of oil is equivalent to 1 egg.
I hope this will get you started on your paleofying adventures. As you play more and more with these ingredients and get to understand their properties better, it will be easier to intuit what will work in any particular recipe. But, I still have recipes that take me many iterations to get right. And of course, if you adapt a recipe that is absolutely awesome, you are welcome to contact me using the form on this page to discuss sharing it on the blog.