Baking Without Sugar

Not to put too fine a point on it… baking sweet treats without sugar is hard!

Reducing sugar is easy. I find that most recipes, and all commercially produced foods have too much sugar in them, overpowering the very flavors the sweetness is meant to enhance. I can easily do without about 1/2 the sugar in my old favorite recipes, but removing refined sugar altogether? That is another story.

But I have learned that the refined sugar I grew up with is not doing me any favors health wise, so I buy it only for the hummingbirds these days. I still like a sweet treat now and again however and, over time, I’ve tried all sorts of alternatives including:

Sugar substitutes for baking

Sugar and some other sweeteners.

  • Agave Nectar
  • Honey
  • Crystalized Fructose
  • Stevia
  • Fruit Juice
  • Splenda
  • Date Sugar
  • Pulverized whole Dates
  • and recently a new product called “Just Like Sugar” (not)
  • Molasses

I’ve had varying success with all of these! Almost all of these are far more expensive than sugar, but a little restraint with the treats is a good idea anyway. :) Here are some of my thoughts on each…

Agave Nectar is fairly flavor neutral, and will actually carmelize, making it handy for a caramel flan. I run into trouble with it in recipes at times because of moisture content. Also, though it is supposed to be lower glycemic, my carb senstive partner has trouble with it.

Honey is supposed to be an anti-cancer food. I don’t know it that’s true (I hope it is) and I also have no idea whether the heat of cooking honey would remove any benefits. I use honey mostly for sweetening tea and cinnamon toast. In cooking, I usually choose Agave Nectar over Honey.

Crystalized Fructose is flavor neutral – a little sweeter than cane sugar. It works OK in recipes, adds weight and bulk much like sugar, but does not carmelize, and as a refined product does not bring any nutritional benefits to the table.

Stevia. I can’t really figure out how to use this well. It adds no bulk or weight to a recipe usually meaning I have to rethink all the ingredients. It also is almost too sweet, hard to regulate the right amount, and for me, it has a mild but unpleasant aftertaste. The best way I’ve seen stevia used was in a berry pie. It sweetened the berries and I could not detect the aftertaste, so as a fruit or beverage sweetener, it seems to work best for me.

Fruit Juice. I’ve had good success making tasty treats using fruit juice in the place of sugar and liquid (e.g. orange juice instead of sugar and milk). While it is a milder sweetness than the sugar, it tastes good and hits the same sweetness receptors.

Splenda. Not bad, I’ve used this successfully in quite a few recipes. It tastes OK, it’s a little too sweet for me, I have to back off on the 1 for 1 conversion they recommend. My main gripe with this is I don’t like to use anything that does not add to the dish nutritionally, and I shy away from anything made in a lab. The only reason I’ve tried it is my Mom uses it.

Date sugar and pulverized whole dates. I love the flavor dates give a dish! Rich and brown sugar butterscotch-ey. Dates add weight, and moistness to the finished product. Dates add fiber and some nutritional value also. They are however, heavy, dark in color and do not dissolve, making them an inappropriate choice for dishes like angel food cake. :)

Just Like Sugar. I was excited when I found this at the health food store. Made from chicory root fiber, calcium vitamin C, and orange peel extracts, it seems like a pretty decently healthy choice, extremely high in fiber. It is a lot like Splenda in weight and color. I tried making sugar cookies with it and was pretty happy with the look and texture. However, it hits different sweetness receptors than sugar. It didn’t taste sweet until it hit the middle and sides of my tongue, and then it was too sweet. It also had a lingering effect, like the sweetness would not go away, which I found cloying. Too bad. “Like sugar” it is not. It might work better in a recipe that does not depend so much on the sugar for taste as well as sweetness. I’m gonna give this stuff one more try.

Molasses. I love molasses’ flavor, but it tends to overpower other ingredients, so unless you are looking for this flavor, like in gingerbread and molasses cookies, it is too strong to be an all purpose sugar substitute.

I have also tried barley malt and brown rice syrup with limited success.

I’ve not really intensively evaluated the health benefits (or lack there of) of the sweeteners I’ve tried so far, nor do I know which are best from a blood sugar standpoint – I read varying reports and not all agree. My instinct is to use the least refined, most natural choice when baking sweet treats – one with fiber and nutrients intact – so my favorite sweetener right now is dates and date “sugar”.

Let me know what sweeteners you use, and how they work for you!

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  1. hazeleyes says:

    I find that for texture of finished product, reliability of texture, structure, flavor, success of baking, my palate requires the sharp clean sweetness of granulated sugar.

    However, right now I’m on 30 carbs or less per day (I save my carbs for steamed and buttered leafy greens, have been eating lots of steamed curly endive and escarole), so I’m not baking these days. When my blood tests normalize, I might bake again, but carbs gave me such a bad time that I stopped baking. I won’t trade a minute on the tongue for more bad health.

    But that aside, I learned recently from American Egg Board newsletters that eggs now replace gluten in many home- and commercially-baked products, and so I know that I can keep the carbs in some baked items down by using eggs instead of grains (flours), and can use small or moderate amounts of sugar, as you mention. For instance, my favorite intensely-chocolate cake, requested by friends who’ve had it, is a flourless cocoa sponge cake. The granulated sugar, the cocoa, and the recipe’s 7 eggs provide the cake’s structure — fragile though it is. I sometimes bake it as a thin flat sheet and roll whipped cream or lighteneed vanilla cream cheese filling into it, and sometimes bake it as a 9″ round, top slices with mounds of real whipped cream (only very lightly sweetened, hyped with vanilla) and drizzled with chocolate sauce. The cocoa and sugar give the cake a sharp, clean chocolate flavor undiminished by flour. In fact, now that I’ve had it, I no longer care for the tamer flavor of floured chocolate cakes.

    I wonder if it’s possible to find ways to finagle other favorites to lower levels of carby grains, or none at all. For instance, for an almond sponge cake, instead of flour, uing the same ingredients as my chocolate sponge cake but instead of flour and cocoa, using almond flour — which won’t amount to very much by weight — the same amount of sugar used in the chocolate sponge cake, and the same number of eggs, “almond” flavoring, and the same preparation directions I use for the chocolate cake.

    I believe that some cookie favorites can be “copied”, for instance some work as meringue cookies, but I wonder about things like scones, muffins, pastries, and crusts. I’m sure I’ll learn eventually. I’m anxious to spend less time hunting for info and more time cooking.

    Is anyone out there having success using eggs and lowering the amount of grain in baked goods?

  2. I use sugar in the raw when I can, but honestly, I do this because it *looks* healthier. It’s probably not! My grandmother used it, which is why I am drawn to it, I think.

    I’ve tried Splenda, but my daughters classmates did a project on artificial sweeteners and found that Splenda has chlorine in it or it’s washed with chlorine (can’t quite remember) and that was enough to turn me off.

    We do use honey and agave nectar quite a bit.

  3. Hey y’all the best sugar substitute of all is using 100% maple syrup. You do not have to adjust measurements in recipes, its healthy and tastes just the same as sugar when you bake with it. Try it, you’ll like it.

  4. Hi y’all. I agree with hazeleyes that for certain things, there simply is no substitute for sugar. It adds weight, chewiness and a crispness to the edges of brownies that I have not been able to duplicate (and I’ve tried!). I love maple syrup too, but it adds moisture that changes the end product, and calls for careful adjustments. It is also expensive and has a distinct flavor that improves some things but overpowers more delicate flavored baked goods. Trying to really lower the carbs in baking products as hazeleyes is, is even harder. Rather than looking for an overall fix, I’m working on it one recipe at a time as each recipe has its own challenges and different solutions work for each. Food bloggers, let me know when you find a good recipe and if you’d like to guest post it.

  5. This was the most helpful site I have found yet on cooking without sugar. Most sights are for diabetic purposes rather than just health purposes. I have a terrible sweet tooth and am trying to satisfy it, but in a healthier way. I have found that eating an orange will take away a craving many times, but sometimes you just want a cookie dangit! I also want to give my kids the same health benefits of avoiding refined sugar.

    Anyway, thanks for all the details, I printed it out and will be trying some recipes again!

  6. Good luck Dixie! Check in and let me know how it goes.

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