Baking With Sugar And Sugar Substitutes

A complete guide to different kinds of sweeteners and sugar substitutes.

brown sugar in measuring cup
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Sugar performs many important roles in baking. It provides moisture and tenderness, liquefies as it bakes, increases the shelf-life of finished products, caramelizes at high temperatures, and, of course, adds sweetness. Refined sugar helps cookies spread during baking, allowing their crisp texture. Because of these critical functions, bakers can't simply replace sugar with a different sweetener. However, in many recipes, you can decrease the amount of sugar by one third without affecting the quality of the product.

Brown sugar and white sugar
Photo by Meredith.

Sugar Is Sugar

All refined sugars — brown sugar, white sugar, and "raw" sugars such as demerara or turbinado — are equal from a nutritive standpoint. Brown sugars simply contain a higher molasses content. Refined sugar is ninety-nine percent pure sucrose, a simple carbohydrate.

Other sugars, such as honey, taste sweeter on the tongue than granulated sugar. Therefore, you can use less honey to sweeten a batch of muffins than you would sugar. Maple syrup tastes less sweet than sugar, but its unique flavor is prized in baked goods and desserts.

Natural Sweeteners

Honey is 25 to 50% sweeter than sugar, and has a distinctive flavor. The flavors and colors of honey can vary depending upon the bees' diet — buckwheat honey, for example, is darker and stronger than clover honey. Baked goods made with honey are moist and dense, and tend to brown faster than those made with granulated sugar.

Photo by Meredith.

Use ¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon honey in place of 1 cup sugar, and reduce the other liquid ingredients by 2 tablespoons. Unless the recipe includes sour cream or buttermilk, add a pinch of baking soda to neutralize the acidity.

Maple syrup is made from the sap of sugar maple trees. The sap is boiled down into a sweet, delectable syrup. Grade A maple syrup is golden brown and has a delicate flavor. Grade B is thicker, darker, and is better for baking because it has a stronger flavor — and it typically costs a bit less.

Although maple syrup is only 60% as sweet as sugar, use ¾ cup for every cup of white sugar and decrease the amount of liquid by 3 tablespoons to compensate for its liquid state.

Molasses is a byproduct of refined sugar production. It contains small amounts of B vitamins, calcium, and iron. Molasses imparts a dark color and strong flavor to baked foods, but is not as sweet as sugar.

When substituting molasses for sugar, use 1 1/3 cups molasses for 1 cup sugar, and reduce the amount of liquid in the recipe by 5 tablespoons. Molasses is also more acidic than sugar; add ½ teaspoon baking soda for each cup of molasses used. Replace no more than half the sugar called for in a recipe with molasses.

Corn syrup is known as an "invert sugar;" it is useful in cooking and candy-making because, unlike other sugars, it does not crystallize. Corn syrup is less sweet than sugar, and does not add flavor like molasses or honey. "Golden Syrup," common in the United Kingdom, is a refinery syrup made from sugar. It is used in place of corn syrup. Some cooks believe sugar syrups have a livelier flavor than corn syrups and add more character to dishes such as pecan pie.

Other Natural Sweeteners

Refined fructose is sweeter than granulated sugar. It can be easily substituted in baking recipes — simply add one-third less. Some tasters find that, although products made with fructose taste sweet, they also taste a little flat. Fructose attracts more water than sucrose, so fructose-sweetened products tend to be moist. Baked products made with fructose will be darker than if they were made with white sugar. Fructose is available in health-food stores.

Brown rice malt syrup consists of maltose, glucose and complex carbohydrates. It is an amber-hued syrup resembling honey, but it is not as sweet as honey. It can be substituted cup per cup for granulated sugar, but the liquid ingredients should be reduced by ¼ cup per cup of rice syrup. Enzyme-treated syrup, as opposed to malted syrup, will tend to liquefy the batter of a baked product. Use the malted syrup for best results.

Fruit juice concentrates, such as apple juice concentrate, orange juice concentrate, or white grape juice concentrate, are wonderful substitutes for sugar and add interesting flavors as well. Juice concentrates are made up of fructose and glucose. Use ¾ cup for every cup of white sugar, and decrease the amount of liquid by 3 tablespoons.

Stevia is a naturally sweet herb that has been used for hundreds of years in South America. Available as a powder in individual serving-size packets, as a liquid, and as a mix for baking. Follow package instructions for ingredient substitutions.

What Can I Substitute for Granulated or Brown Sugar When Baking for a Diabetic?

"If you have diabetes, it's important to be mindful of carbohydrates and sugars," says Allstar Mackenzie Burgess, RDN and recipe developer at Cheerful Choices. "While sweet treats shouldn't be off limits, eating too much can cause high blood sugars." If you're looking for substitutes for baking with white sugar and brown, here are a few options Burgess suggests:

Monk fruit sweetener is a zero-calorie option that has little to no effect on blood sugars. You can even find a "golden" variety that makes an ideal replacement for brown sugar. In fact, you can replace 1:1 in any of your favorite baking recipes to lower the carbohydrate and sugar content.

Erythritol is a zero-calorie sweetener that contains 70% of the sweetness of sugar. It can be a good choice for those with diabetes or those following a low-carb diet as it contains zero carbs and therefore, has no effect on insulin and blood sugar levels. A few erythritol-based brown sugar brands you can try are Purecane's Brown Sweetener, Swerve, or Truvia.

Date sugar is made by dehydrating dates and grinding into a fine texture. Because it's derived from just one ingredient (dates, which are considered a fresh fruit), this means it contains no added sugars. Keep in mind, however, that it will still contain natural sugars and carbohydrates; that said, date sugar also contains fiber, which can help stabilize blood sugars. In general, you can use date sugar 1:1 in most cookie and baking recipes.

Artificial Sweeteners

These sweeteners have been approved by the FDA and are available for home use. While they provide a sweet taste, artificial sweeteners lack the browning, tenderizing and moisture-retaining properties of granulated sugar. Sucralose is the one sweetener than can be substituted cup-for-cup for granulated sugar in baking.

Sugar Substitutes | Artificial Sweeteners
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Saccharine is 200 to 700 times sweeter than sugar. It can be used in baked goods. However, the manufacturer recommends substituting it for only half of the sugar in a recipe. Substitute 6 (1-gram) packets for each ¼ cup sugar. It is sold under the brand name Sweet and Low®.

Aspartame is 160 to 220 times sweeter than granulated sugar. This sweetener is heat-sensitive: it loses its sweetening power when heated, and cannot be used for cookies or cakes. The manufacturer does recommend trying it in no-bake pies and in puddings after they have been removed from the heat. Substitute 6 (1-gram) packets for each ¼ cup of sugar. It is sold under the brand names Equal® and NutraSweet®.

Acesulfame potassium is 200 times sweeter than sugar. It is heat-stable, so it can be used in baking and cooking. Use acesulfame K in combination with granulated sugar when baking. Substitute 6 (1-gram) packets for each ¼ cup sugar. It is sold under the brand names Sunette® and Sweet One®.

Sucralose is made from sugar, but is not metabolized by the body like sugar. It is 600 times sweeter than granulated sugar. Granular sucralose is the form used when baking. Substitute 1 cup granular sucralose for each cup of sugar called for in the recipe. Recipes made with this product tend to bake faster than usual, so check for doneness sooner than the recipe specifies. It is sold under the brand name Splenda®.

Explore our collection of Sugar-Free Recipes.

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