In Baking Hows, Whys, and WTFs, food editor Shilpa Uskokovic will answer your burning baking questions and share her tips and tricks for flawless sweets. Today: Can you use applesauce instead of oil or butter for baking?
When I was asked this, my first reaction was: Are people really doing this? Substituting fruit for fat? Then I remembered my aunt, a self-certified “health nut” who scrabbles for raspberries during her hikes and runs an almonds-for-snacks household. She once told me that she made a chocolate cake but used applesauce instead of oil. “It tasted good, but I had to use my electric knife to cut it.”
So this is for my aunt and everyone else like her. In a nutshell, the answer to the question, “Can I replace oil or butter with applesauce?” is a resounding, “Sometimes.” Let me explain.
Whether store-bought or homemade, unsweetened applesauce is just cooked and puréed apples. It contains lots of water, some natural sugar, fiber, and pectin. This high water content is both good (because it adds moisture to the final product) and bad (because high moisture = more gluten development = tough cakes). Pastries made with oil or butter are soft and tender because the fat surrounds the flour particles, preventing strong gluten bonds from forming. Fat also opens up and amplifies fat-soluble flavor molecules (in other words, it tastes good). Fully cutting out fat from your sweets will have dramatic results.
But it’s not all bad news. There are some situations where you can exchange applesauce for oil or butter. Here’s the fine print.
Proceed with caution.
Recipes containing oil or melted (not solid) butter are a good place to start experimenting with applesauce. Since these recipes don’t depend on the creaming properties of the fat for their structure, using applesauce instead of oil is more likely to be successful. Start by swapping out 20–50% of the oil or melted butter for applesauce. (Do not swap out more than that. It will not work! I warned you.) This chocolate-covered sweet potato cake, these whole-grain muffins, and this carrot loaf cake slathered with cream cheese frosting are good contenders.
Any recipes that use a solid fat like cold or room-temperature butter or coconut oil will absolutely fail if you use applesauce to replace any of the butter. Most of these recipes start by creaming the butter and sugar, a process that traps microscopic air bubbles that later expand in the oven for tender, lofty treats (like this tight-crumbed almond cake or crumb-topped blueberry and ginger buckle). Applesauce, with its high moisture content and slack nature, doesn’t have the physical ability to trap air, resulting in dry, brick-like baked goods. Thank you, next.
Proceed with abandon.
In any baking recipe that already calls for a fruit or vegetable purée, applesauce can be swapped in quite freely. There will be slight changes in the outcome because different purées have different densities and water contents, but the overall result will be satisfactory. Start by substituting 50% of the purée with applesauce, and if it goes ok, you can increase the ratio the next go-around. Try this in banana bread, pumpkin cake, or these vegan pancakes.