Why Pastry Chef Joanne Chang Started Baking with Less Sugar

July 14, 2015

Joanne Chang—owner of Flour Bakery, author of Baking with Less Sugar, and all-around dessert wizard—has discovered that less sugar can often mean more flavor. 

Today, Joanne explains what piqued her interest in low-sugar baking and recreates a favorite cookie recipe using only 6 tablespoons of sugar. 

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I bake because I have an insatiable sweet tooth, because I am fascinated by the alchemy of flour/butter/sugar/eggs, and mostly because I love making people happy with pastries. You instantly become the most popular person in the room when you walk in with a plate of homemade cookies or a frosted layer cake. 

The person I love to bake for the most is my husband. It was part of our wooing process many years ago: He treated me to ice creams and cupcakes and I answered with homemade pies that we would share on his porch. We are similarly obsessed with all things sweet, and this shared passion was one of the many ways I knew he was the one.

It never occurred to me that his occasional mood swings—upbeat one moment and groggy the next—might be related to our sugar intake. Over the years I've learned the signs: He is full of energy for a short while and then he crashes. When making treats for the one you love leads to less than ideal consequences, you immediately pause to redirect. I decided to see what I could create if I reduced or eliminated white sugar in my baking.

As a pastry chef, I will never call sugar the enemy. It's one of the magical elements in my baking arsenal. However I've now learned that if you limit or remove white sugar from your baking, the happy result is a new spectrum of tastes and pleasures.

The first recipe I wanted to tackle for Christopher was his favorite cookie, Flour's oatmeal raisin. This cookie is a classic: It's full of oats and raisins with just a whiff of cinnamon. It's got some heft and chew, but at the same time, parts of the cookie bake off lacey and caramel-y. It's a study in textures and rich, buttery flavors. 

Stock your pantry with these 5 natural sugars and kiss the granulated sugar goodbye.

While you'll never exactly replicate the original if you reduce one of its key ingredients—white sugar—you can still bake a cookie that is fully sweet, addictive, and just as good, if not better, than the one made with all of the sugar. The main difference is to adjust your expectations of texture. Sugar is what causes the cookie to be crispy; it turns to caramel in the oven, giving the cookie crunch. This reworked cookie contains 6 tablespoons of white sugar whereas the original contains over 4 times that (26 tablespoons of both white and brown sugar). 

After making this for the last year or so, I now prefer this one to the full sugar version. We chop about half of the raisins into tiny pieces so that every bite of cookie gets some natural sweetness from the raisins. We up the cinnamon and vanilla—by a lot—and it really makes your tastebuds think sweet without actually needing sugar. Without the sugar you really taste the nutty oats. The raisins. The butter! The walnuts add crunch and the vanilla brings out the warm flavors of the cinnamon. You don't miss the sugar. At all. Try it and tell me what you think. 

Low Sugar Oatmeal Raisin Cranberry Cookies

Makes 16 to 20 cookies

3/4 cup (75 grams) walnuts, roughly chopped
16 tablespoons (2 sticks/225 grams) unsalted butter, melted and completely cooled)
6 tablespoons (75 grams) granulated sugar
2 large eggs plus 1 large egg yolk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 cup (105 grams) all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups (150 grams) old-fashioned rolled oats (not instant or quick-cooking)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 cup (120 grams) raisins, about half of them chopped roughly
3/4 cup (120 grams) dried cranberries

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Last photo by Bobbi Lin; all others by James Ransom

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Suzanne Morrell
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I am a pastry chef/restaurateur in Boston passionate about all things sweet and savory. I co-own Flour Bakery+Cafe and co-own Myers+Chang, both in Boston. I love my work, I'm crazy about my husband, my staff keeps me going and is truly the most amazing group of people I've ever known, I am addicted to ice cream and fruit of all kinds. I used to run marathons but have scaled back a bit and am trying to be more well-rounded by attempting yoga. I read voraciously, I plan obsessively, I feel so very lucky to have found a life partner and a life passion both of which make me happy every day.


Suzanne M. September 23, 2018
I am late to this thread, hopefully someone will still respond. When melting/cooling butter do you let it cool to the post where it becomes a solid again? When I make this I never get the light fluffy/butter mixture? PS.. please come teach again at Dallas Central Market :-)
Laura September 24, 2018
No, you do not want the butter to become solid again. You want it to be liquid so that it fully incorporates with the sugar. (Because you're using so little butter, you want to guarantee that all of it is engaged in the batter.) Keeping the butter cool prevents it from scrambling the eggs, which are added in the next step.
Laura September 24, 2018
I meant to say, "Because you're using so little SUGAR..."
Megan S. January 29, 2018
I loved the idea of these cookies, but managed to botch them. Butter is expensive where I live, so I used ghee instead, and to top it off, I'm at a high altitude and didn't adjust the recipe. Any tips for trying again?
Migda March 10, 2016
I like ideas using low or no sugar. I use coconut sugar as a direct replacement for white sugar and haven't seen any problems. Great book for healthier alternatives to sweeties. by Zomick's Kosher Bakery
Debbie J. August 19, 2015
I think ever person needs to make his/her own decision based on their bodies and medical issues if sugar at all is good for you. Joanne is providing us all with still wonderful desserts, but less sugar. So choose your poison, full sugar or less sugar, or no sugar at all. Me? This recipe sounds divine to me so I'm going for it. And it doesn't mean I have to eat all the cookies in one sitting either. Moderation as with everything else.
Laura August 2, 2015
Folks, can we take a step back here? Joanne never mentioned anything about diabetes and glycemic loads in her article. The people submitting comments did. She never represented herself as a nutritional expert schooled in the ways that sugar/glucose adversely affect the body and overall health. She just wanted to make the point that traditional recipes modified to contain less granulated sugar can still be tasty and textually satisfying. Thank you, Joanne. I very much appreciate your article, just as it is.
Joanne C. August 3, 2015
Thanks Laura! I couldn't have said it better myself :)
Jenny B. August 17, 2015
And thank you for your comments, Laura. I now know not to read any further comments and to just make these cookies!
Maggie July 20, 2015
Leave the sugar out and replace it with banana, it adds a chewy-ness to the cookie as well :)
MrPete July 20, 2015
By the way, having seen the serious impact of "real" sugar on people (everything from eye surgeries -- it's a leading cause of blindness) to coronary bypass, kidney failure, and leg amputations... I will gladly use the safest artificial sweeteners any day of the week. (I realize that will generate a lot of heat for some... but please visit a diabetic suffering the effects of sugar before you complain too much! Having seen a dying diabetic whose leg has calcified is enough to cure anybody of sugar addiction...)
Artificials are MUCH safer than natural sugars in any form, for those who must avoid sugar. We prefer "yellow sugar" (generic equivalents to splenda) for most purposes, as it can be used in most cooking safely. Sadly, its chemistry doesn't work for cookies :(
MrPete July 20, 2015
Joan, your article and further comments indicate a need to learn about glycemic index and glycemic load (also mentioned by several other commenters.) For the 1/3 of the population that need to control glycemic load (not just diabetics; people with Metabolic Syndrome and other conditions also need this)... several of your suggestions are simply inappropriate:
1) "White" sugar has nothing to do with it. Any form of sugar, natural or not, must be greatly reduced. That includes honey, brown sugar, fruit sugars of all kinds, etc.
2) Raisins and other dried fruits all contain large amounts of sugars. (By the way, fruit juice is even worse -- basically the same glycemic load as pure sugar.)
3) Rolled oats are better than instant oats not only because of texture. Instant oats have the same glycemic value as table sugar! Key: lots of fiber slows down the sugar rush. (When searching for breads in the grocery, we look for at least twice as much fiber as sugars.)
4) Be careful of database errors. For example, Brown Rice Syrup somehow got a low glycemic index in one online list, which has propagated. However, it's actually pure glucose (in three forms: single, double, and triple-glucose molecules) and has among the highest glycemic values.

Perhaps it would help people to understand that glycemic index/load are not at all theoretical: they are obtained by measuring the blood sugar response of diabetics to each food!
Stephanie July 20, 2015
I regularly halve the sugar in most baking. There is still an awful of more fat in these than any cookie recipe I am familiar with.
Laura415 July 19, 2015
Absolutely agree that excessive sugar has some detrimental effects on the human body system. That said I think there is a fine balance between removing some sugar and thinking that you can get a quality baked good (texture, color, moistness etc.) by removing all the sugar. Fine if your taste buds don't mind but I'll simply eat less cookies made with the amount of sugar that works. Joanne is not removing all the sugar but just enough to compromise but not obliterate the good chemical reactions sugar gives baked goods. Also it's not just sugar itself that diabetics and others seeking to reduce sugar need to watch for. Grain flours and dried fruits are loaded with carbs and turn to mood shifting sugar in the body. There is no magic method or bullet that allows one to eat all the baked goods they want without suffering the consequences. It's all a compromise and moderation is key.
judifree July 19, 2015
Thanks for this recipe. Have you tried it with leaving out the sugar altogether? There is already a lot of sweetness in the dried fruits.
Jane G. July 19, 2015
Hi, Joanne. I love "Flour" and thank you so much for posting this great recipe. Sugar, that addictive stuff, also tenderizes. But with the soft, fatty oats and butter, and the fat from nuts, you've achieved lift-off!

My question is (and I'm sure you've heard it before), can you sub gluten free flour? If so, do you have to change up the butter sitch and do we add xanthan gum? It's always tricky .. I know. But it's tempting. Thank you!
Joanne C. August 3, 2015
Hi Jane- I haven't tried it yet with a GF flour but we use cup4cup for our muffins with great results!
Jane G. August 4, 2015
I use cup4cup too and think it's a great product - one of the best on the shelf. Thanks for taking the time to reply.
tamater S. July 19, 2015
I cut sugar back over time; for most recipes, by about 2/3. IMO, dried fruit is not a substitute for sugar, it is (loaded with).

It took a couple of years, but finally, my former sugar addict husband finds all baking but mine and that of our health food store, too sweet.

People, the best plan is to cut out as much sugar as you can, out of your diet, BEFORE actually getting diabetes. It doesnt have to be a drag, like a big sacrifice or punishment.

But once one HAS diabetes, (has worn their pancreas out to the point where it just quits) they don't really have a choice; even one of these cookies will be too much for most diabetics. And not just sugar, but both simple and complex carbs need to be severely monitored. That's really tough, and can seem like punishment.

It's a tragedy what we're doing to ourselves with sugar. Thank you, Joanne Chang, for bringing up the sugar thing.

Laura W. July 19, 2015
Hello...I have my culinary degree from The Natural Gourmet in NYC and this type of cooking is what we would talk about and learn about all day every day...substitutions are key and also part of the fun...but if you are dealing with Type II Diabetes, honey is not a good alternative for sweeteners at part of the natural honey production process, the bees already break it down through their own systems and it is almost pure glucose, the form of sugar your body breaks most things down into to fuel itself...the higher amount of glucose, the quicker it gets broken down and thus spikes the blood sugar and causes the "rush"...higher glycemic index...the lower the glycemic index, the energy can be utilized slower and used as long haul fuel, not the rush...because honey is so high in straight glucose (I don't know the actual %), that is not at all advisable for those dealing with Type II Diabetes...also be wary of the instant or quick cook oats, because those also spike the blood sugar...two good alternatives for sweeteners that have less sugar (I think I remember the numbers being 25% less) but are still natural and have great taste are brown rice syrup and barley malt syrup...brown rice syrup is much less sweet, but like Joanne recommends, upping the peripheral flavors and crunch of nuts, gives your tongue other flavors to satisfy the lack of sugar...after you get used to less sugar, your palate has a chance to taste all the other flavor and texture layers and nuances and eating a high sugar food tastes too strong...barley malt syrup has a stronger flavor and is much less neutral, but I have warmed it and added a bit of Myer's Dark Rum (def optional) and cinnamon and used it as a glaze on top of my pecan pies made with the same barley malt syrup...substitution baking was my favorite class and experimenting with alternative sweeteners was something I took a big interest in...sorghum syrup, pomegranate molasses, date syrup...visit a middle eastern/international foods market or look to all and thanks Joanne for the cool recipe...gonna add it to my baking files...Laura
Smaug July 18, 2015
Raisins have a huge amount of sugar- I don't think subbing them for cranberries to reduce sugar is a good plan.
Orit I. July 15, 2015
How much important is it to use the old fashioned rolled oats and not the instant ones? Will it affect the texture of the cookie?
Joanne C. July 16, 2015
Hi Orit! The instant ones are a lot softer so they'll end up with a softer texture in the cookie- not quite as much heft or chew. I haven't tried it myself but I think you would still end up with a very delicious cookie.
Orit I. July 16, 2015
Thanks! the cookies look great and will try them soon for sure!
Julie W. July 15, 2015
Looks awesome .
Erin July 15, 2015
Do the cookies work as well if walnuts are omitted? Also, don't dried cranberries tend to have added sugar? Or are there particular kinds (unlike the major brand) that don't?
Joanne C. July 15, 2015
Hi Erin! I haven't tried without walnuts- they do add a lot of crunch which is missing with the less-sugar batter. But I'll bet they will still taste delicious!
Joanne C. July 15, 2015
And yes dried cran have sugar so if you are looking to reduce sugar even more substitute equal amts of raisins!
Brenda July 15, 2015
Thank you for this recipe, Love the less sugar idea with the mini chopped reasons. I have been using more & more dried fruits in my baking for the sweet bite . Mini chopped dates or apricots does wonders in cookies too.
Sarah J. July 15, 2015
THANK YOU! I'm new to Type II diabetes and I'm doing good keeping my blood glucose under control, but I've also loved baking and have been on the hunt for tasty, satisfying baked goods that won't make blood sugar go nuts.
Craig F. July 15, 2015
I don't know the specifics but I just had dinner with someone very knowledgeable about food and the glycemic index (speed with which carbs make it into bloodstream). He indicated that Irish and Scottish oats are considerably slower to metabolize...
Don't know anything about their relative merits otherwise as it relates to cookies...
Jane R. July 15, 2015
I don't think Irish or Scottish oats will work in this recipe because they take a much longer time to cook than old fashioned oats. Also, I think dried fruits are very high on the glycemic index and dried cranberries have added sugar.
Joanne C. July 15, 2015
HI Jane- yes dried cran have added sugar so if you are looking to reduce sugar even more substitute more raisins!