Like they say, bodies are not made in the gym but in the kitchen, and any good athlete knows that protein is essential when trying to add lean, metabolic muscle to your frame.
Since you can only eat so much food over the course of the day, most of us default to protein shakes for an extra dose of aminos. That can get boring, though, especially when you really want to nosh, nibble, or crunch. Time to cook creatively—with protein powder.
There are tons of ways to incorporate protein powder into actual real-food recipes, and anything from soup to salad to sweet treats can benefit from a scoop or two. “By treating protein powder as an ingredient versus just the base for a shake, you can create healthy foods that taste unhealthy yet are packed full of nutrition-dense ingredients,” says Anna Sward, MA, Ph.D., author of The Ultimate Protein Powder Cookbook. “My thinking is, Why have a shake when you can have a cake?”
A word of warning, though: Cooking with protein powder is a little more complicated than just chucking in a handful and sticking it in the oven. It takes a little practice and sometimes a good dose of patience. Here is what you need to know before getting your bake on.
Never treat protein powder—especially whey protein—as a flour substitute because it will not react the same way chemically with the other recipe ingredients. “Whey is a very unique type of protein,” Sward says. “It has a tendency to dry up your recipes and turn them rubbery, and you end up with hard ‘things’ that are more like weapons than food.”
When baking, make sure that 30 percent or less of your batter is whey protein or default to a plant-based product. “The veggie powders are wonderful because they’ll never turn gross or rubbery,” Sward says. “The worst thing that can happen is that it’ll end up a bit dense.”
And for those dubious souls who don’t think that plant proteins are as good as animal-based ones, chew on this: A study in Nutrition Journal found that rice protein was just as effective as whey in building muscle and strength among active people. And for those who are dairy sensitive or lactose intolerant, plant protein won’t lead to bloat or GI distress.
When cooking with protein powder, you might encounter an issue with dryness. “Protein wicks moisture and does not contribute any,” says Courtney Nielsen, BA, AFAA, and author of Protein Powder Cooking…Beyond the Shake. “If you’re baking, take care that the consistency of the batter looks as thin or slightly thinner than your traditional dough or batter. Don’t oversaturate the recipe with protein on the first try, reduce the other dry ingredients slightly or add a little extra baking powder to baked goods.”
Also, not all protein powders dissolve in the same manner, and the added ingredients can change how they react in a recipe. “Casein, for instance, uses more liquid to dissolve than whey,” Nielsen says. “And a cheap brand may put in less actual protein and more fillers to keep costs low.”
Curds of Whey
Anyone who has ever tried to heat milk for hot chocolate can tell you that curdling is an issue, and because whey and casein proteins are milk derivatives, they can act similarly if heated directly. Sward recommends stirring the powder into already-hot things like oatmeal—once they’re fully cooked (and slightly cooled), and if you want to make a sauce or soup, stick to vegetable-based powders. “Pea protein is wonderful to make soups or sauces with,” Sward says. “It won’t curdle and will assimilate nicely into your recipes.”
Go All Natural
Most powders, especially whey, are designed to mix up into creamy shakes when you add liquid, and they thicken because of added gums and emulsifiers. “You don’t need those things when you’re cooking, and those ingredients can actually work against you,” Sward says. “The gums, especially, will make the texture of your foods weird. The best powders to cook and bake with are the ones with only one ingredient: protein and nothing else.”
Another note on sweeteners: Not only have they been shown in clinical studies to trick your metabolism into thinking you’re ingesting sugar, spiking insulin levels and shifting you from fat-burning to fat-storing mode, but they also can make your recipes overly sweet (think: sugary vanilla meatloaf).
Don’t Be a Cheapskate
Cheap powders might seem like a good idea financially, but many subpar products contain added ingredients, artificial colors, hidden trans fats, and even heavy metals such as cadmium, zinc, arsenic, mercury, and lead, which have been linked to toxic poisoning and cardiovascular disease.
“Choose an rBGH-free product to ensure it’s made from hormone-free dairy,” Sward says. “For the veggie powders, try to find a non-GMO, organic source. It’s a bit more expensive, but it’s of higher quality and worth spending that little extra on.”
Keep On Keepin’ On
Because of the variety and volume of protein powder brands on the market, even a published recipe might not turn out how you were hoping on the first go. “If you make something that disappoints you the first time, try making it again a little differently next time,” Nielsen says. “Use different ingredients or different amounts of things. It often takes a few attempts to get something right. It can be worth it to find a new favorite!”
Maple Banana Protein Pancakes
Makes 2 servings
- ½ cup vanilla whey protein powder
- ½ cup 2% Greek yogurt
- ½ cup liquid egg whites
- 1 ripe banana
- ½ cup oats
- 1 tbsp natural maple extract
Mix ingredients in a bowl and set aside. Coat skillet with cooking spray and place over high heat. When spray starts to sizzle, reduce heat to medium and pour batter in small dollops into the pan. (This “toasts” the sides of the pancake without burning it.) When bubbles appear, flip pancakes over and cook through. Repeat process until all batter is cooked.
Nutrition Facts (per serving): calories 283, protein 34 g, carbs 29 g, fat 4 g
Four-Ingredient Protein Pizza Crust
Makes 2 small crusts
- 1 cup gluten-free oats
- ½ scoop unflavored pea protein powder
- 1 whole egg
- ½ cup liquid egg whites
- Sea salt, rosemary, and thyme, to taste
Place all ingredients in a food processor and blend until a thick, pancake-like mixture is formed. Coat a skillet with cooking spread and place over high heat. Pour mixture into pan and spread with a spoon or spatula to thin out. Reduce heat to medium and cook until bottom is firm. Then flip and cook through. Coat a baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray, then place crust on sheet. Add desired pizza sauces and toppings. Place under oven broiler 15 to 20 minutes, or until cheese melts.
Nutrition Facts (per 2 crusts — without toppings): calories 269, protein 28 g, carbs 26 g, fat 6 g
Red Pepper Protein Wraps
Makes 4 servings
- ⅛ cup ground almonds or ground oats
- 1 cup unflavored whey protein
- 1 whole egg
- 1 egg white
- 1 red bell pepper
- Sea salt, to taste
Place all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Coat a skillet with cooking spray and place over high heat. When spray sizzles, reduce heat to medium and spoon mixture into the center of pan and spread with a spoon. Cook through on one side, then flip and cook through on the other side. Repeat for all batter. Fill wraps with chicken, veggies, cheese or hummus.
Nutrition Facts (per serving): calories 59, carbs 4.7 g, protein 7.6 g, fat 1.2 g, fiber 3 g
The first three recipes excerpted from The Ultimate Protein Powder Cookbook: Think Outside the Shake, by Anna Sward, Countryman Press, 2014.
Quick Homemade Tomato Sauce
Makes 8 servings
- 1 (15-oz) can diced tomatoes
- ½ (6-oz) can tomato paste
- ¼ small yellow onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled
- ¼ cup packed fresh basil leaves
- ½ tsp white or black pepper
- ¼ tsp salt
- ¼ cup plain protein powder
Add all ingredients except protein powder to a blender and blend until smooth. Heat a large saucepan over medium-high, then add mixture. Bring to a simmer and cook 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat and slowly add protein powder, whisking constantly to incorporate without curdling. Serve over zoodles or chicken.
Nutrition Facts (per serving): calories 51, protein 5 g, carbs 7 g, fat 0 g, fiber 1 g
Makes 10 servings
- 1 head cauliflower, roughly chopped
- ½ cup plain protein powder
- ¼ cup butter
- ¾ tsp garlic powder
- ½ tsp onion powder
- ½ tsp ground white pepper
- ½ tsp salt
Preheat oven to 400 F. Coat a cookie sheet or shallow baking pan with cooking spray and spread cauliflower out evenly. Place on the middle rack and bake until soft, about 25 minutes. Remove from oven and place cauliflower in blender with remaining ingredients and puree. Add seasonings (to taste).
Nutrition Facts (per serving): calories 126, fat 5 g, carbs 5 g, fiber 2 g, protein 17 g
Vanilla Breakfast Cookies
Makes 35 cookies
- 1 ½ cups + 2 cups rolled oats, divided
- ⅓ cup vanilla protein powder
- 6 medjool dates, pitted
- 6 dried apricots
- ½ cup liquid egg whites
- 3 oz (6 tbsp) pureed avocado
- 6 tbsp granulated stevia
- 6 tbsp Greek yogurt
Preheat oven to 350 F. Coat a cookie sheet with nonstick cooking spray. Place 1 ½ cups rolled oats into a food processor with other ingredients and blend thoroughly. Scoop mixture into bowl and add remaining 2 cups rolled oats. Mix until well-combined. Spoon 1 ½-tablespoon portions of dough onto cookie sheet and bake 10 to 12 minutes, or until golden brown on top and soft in the middle. Allow to cool, then serve.
Nutrition Facts (per cookie): calories 56, protein 3 g, carbs 10 g, fat 1 g, fiber 1 g
The second three recipes excerpted from Protein Powder Cooking … Beyond the Shake: 200 Delicious Recipes to Supercharge Every Dish with Whey, Soy, Casein and More, by Courtney Nielson, Ulysses Press, 2016.