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Skip the Butter: Making Holiday Desserts Dairy-Free & Vegan

Winter has landed: the weather outside is frightful, bells are jingling, and you’re dreaming of a white Christmas. Chances are, you’re also dreaming of warm, sweet, baked goods—holiday desserts to make you feel cozy and comfortable inside your winter wonderland. If you’re as in love with winter desserts as we are--candy-sprinkled sugar cookies, spiced gingerbreads, warm fruited cakes—you’re probably wondering how to make the holiday classics a bit healthier. We’ve got some great tips for baking holiday desserts dairy-free. With these simple pointers, you’re going to be baking up dairy-free delights right up until Santa Claus comes to town.


You’ve already mastered the art of DIY for a greener holiday gift-giving season, and are now onto the food for the holidays. Whether you’re looking to slim down, you’re lactose intolerant, or you’re a conscious vegan, there are many reasons to dabble in dairy-free baking. After all, ‘tis the season to bake, and you deserve to have your holiday cake and eat it, too—so how do you do it without the butter and milk?

Many people are surprised (and perhaps even skeptical) to learn that the butter in most baked recipes can easily be substituted with oil. Olive oil happens to be a fantastic choice for baking—not only does it contain a myriad of health benefits, but it also lends a deliciously fruity flavor and soft texture to baked recipes.

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When substituting olive oil for butter, keep this in mind: butter contains only about 80% fat (the remaining 20% being moisture that evaporates as the recipe bakes), but oil is 100% fat. So when converting a traditional butter recipe into an olive oil-based one, you’ll need to do a simple conversion. Don’t worry, you don’t need to break out your calculator or Abacus—there’s a painless conversion chart that gives you the straight breakdown of how much oil to sub in for a specific amount of butter. Easy. Substituting olive oil for butter works great in: quick breads (such as gingerbread, scones, and other holiday breads that don’t use yeast to rise); drop cookies (those that don’t need to be mixed into a chilled dough); and cakes.

Recipes for rolled cookies, like the definitive holiday sugar cookie, require the creaming of butter and sugar—olive oil isn’t the best choice for this. Instead, replace the butter with coconut oil. Coconut oil is high in saturated fats, as is butter, as this quality makes it a unique plant oil that solidifies when chilled and lends the same flaky, buttery quality to baked recipes that real butter does. And there’s a lot of recent research showing the health benefits of coconut oil, so it’s yet another reason to experiment. When substituting coconut oil for butter, go ahead and use equal measurements. We recommend using refined coconut oil, as it doesn’t have any coconutty flavor, and leaving it in a dark, cool cupboard, where it will remain semi-solid. This way, it will act as softened butter would, and you can cream it with sugar and eggs in all your holiday baking.

As for substituting milk in holiday baking recipes, that’s a cinch. Substitute the highest fat non-dairy option you can find (we like rich, creamy hemp milk) for milk in most recipes. If a recipe calls for buttermilk, use this easy substitution: For each 1 cup buttermilk, use 1 cup non-dairy milk with 1 tablespoon vinegar (white, apple cider, or even lemon juice!) whisked in. Allow the mixture to sit for 5 minutes to slightly curdle, then use as directed. The only trouble you will come across is if a recipe calls for whipping heavy cream—for this, you’ll need to purchase a prepared dairy-free whipped topping at the market (we like Soyatoo vegan whipped cream).

Enjoy the holiday season, and enjoy baking up a winter storm inside your kitchen. Santa may even leave an extra present or two in your stockings when he discovers the dairy-free cookies waiting for him at the fireplace.

Image adapted from Xymena, Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0

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