Why Honey is a Smart Alternative to Sugar (& How to Substitute)

August  4, 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: This light and airy sticky morning bun is made entirely with honey, which means you'll keep enjoying it even after the first couple bites.

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The old adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" reverberated through my head as I was testing recipes for my latest book, Baking with Less Sugar. Did it really make any sense at all to create a no-sugar version of our famous sticky bun? When Bobby Flay declares your pastry "The Best Thing I Ever Ate" on the Food Network, you don't really want to mess with it. However, I was discovering how to bake with honey to make many—make that most—pastries, and I wanted to see what would happen if our sticky buns were made with the warm perfumey sweetness of honey. 

Honey is one of the oldest sweeteners known to man and has been used since ancient times for medicinal and nutritional purposes. It contains trace enzymes, minerals, vitamins, and amino acids. And if you're looking to bake without refined white sugar, it's a smart alternative.

Since honey is actually a bit sweeter than sugar, you can usually reduce the amount of honey in a recipe that normally contains sugar and still have a wonderfully sweet pastry; the rule of thumb is about 20 to 25% less honey than sugar.

Here are some other points to consider when substituting in honey for sugar:

  • If you are using honey instead of sugar in a cookie or cake recipe that has baking powder or baking soda, you will want to add an additional 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda to the dry ingredients for every 1 cup of honey. Why? Because honey acts as an acid in baked goods and it will react with the baking soda and make your cake/cookies rise. When when you bake with sugar, on the other hand, there's no chemical reaction between the sugar and the baking soda and therefore no need to add it. (Baking soda is often in recipes that include white sugar because it reacts to other ingredients in the recipe: brown sugar, sour cream, cocoa, buttermilk, etc.).
  • Honey browns faster than sugar, so you’ll want to reduce the temperature of your oven by around 25° F if replacing sugar with honey.
  • A great attribute of both honey and sugar is that they are hygroscopic, which means they attract water and keep pastries moist. Pastries made with honey will be fresh and tender for at least a few days, if not longer.

Our original sticky bun recipe contains honey, as well as as copious amounts of brown sugar. In this recipe for Honey Cashew Morning Buns, I wanted to focus on highlighting the taste of honey (not just its sweetness) and of cashews. Instead of using brioche dough as the base—which is what we use for our sticky buns—I make a lean bread dough that is a terrific neutral canvas for the rich syrup and nuts we add to the buns. The dough is spread with some butter and spice and lots of toasted cashews. Then, after the buns are shaped, they proof and are baked in a pan that is filled with a honey goo—a mixture of cream, honey, water, and butter—that gives the buns their sweetness. There's not a lot of honey—a 1/2 cup for 8 buns—but it's just enough to bring its characteristic flavor to this wonderful breakfast treat.

Honey Cashew Morning Buns

Makes 12 buns

For the bun dough:

240 grams (1 cup) water, at body temperature (when you put your finger in it, it should feel neither cold nor hot)
1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast or 3 grams (0.1 ounces) fresh cake yeast
350 grams (2 1/2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus up to about 35 grams (1/4 cup) more, if needed
1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
50 grams (1/4 cup) olive oil or mild vegetable oil

For the honey goo:

115 grams (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
170 grams (1/2 cup) honey
120 grams (1/2 cup) heavy cream
120 grams (1/2 cup) water
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

For the bun filling:

240 grams (2 cups) raw unsalted cashews, chopped
115 grams (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, very soft
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

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

First photo by Joseph De Leo; second by James Ransom

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Gabi Valladares
    Gabi Valladares
  • Beth Johns
    Beth Johns
  • Lynn Mahony
    Lynn Mahony
  • Bella B
    Bella B
  • s
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.


Gabi V. July 27, 2016
These sound SO great. I love honey and definitely want to give these a try. Also - you are amazing, Joanne! I used to work right next to the Flour in Back Bay and it was a dream! ?
Beth J. August 9, 2015
1/2 cup of honey as the only sweetener? I was skeptical. Unsweetened dough, no sugar in the filling? Hmmmm.... I must say, they are absolutely delicious!
Lynn M. August 8, 2015
Flour is my all time favorite bakery and it takes every bit of will power to keep me from stopping by everyday. These morning buns look absolutely divine. I can't wait to take them on a test drive.
Bella B. August 4, 2015
Good post. I love using honey in recipes.
s August 4, 2015
Honey is no healthier than white sugar. Reducing sugar is good. Substituting honey for sugar in an effort to be more healthy is silly. You can talk about trace amounts of enzymes, etc., but in the end honey=sugar.
Calli August 4, 2015
^Amen to this! And "sweeter" per amount doesn't mean it has less sugar but just tastes sweeter. It means it has more. So you're still using the same amount of sweetness, the volume is just different.

Sugar is sugar, whether it's in the form of honey, white sugar, agave syrup, maple syrup, etc. It all hits your body the same way (quickly and can spike your blood sugar).
drunkenboxer August 18, 2015
Actually, our tongues and brains register different levels of sweetness from different sugars. On a molecule per molecule basis, fructose (the sugar primarily found in fruit) is sweeter than sucrose (table sugar; 1 molecule of fructose + 1 molecule of glucose), which is sweeter than glucose (the sugar our cells use as the main form of energy).

However, honey has the same degree of sweetness as table sugar, so it is not that you actually use less when you reduce the amount by 25%, it is that the liquid form packs more sugar molecules into less space than granulated sugar, which has air between the crystals. Same concept regarding table salt, kosher salt, and large flake sea salt; the same volumes have different amounts of NaCl.
Caroline L. August 4, 2015
these are GORGEOUS. i can't wait to try.
Miachel P. August 4, 2015
Super handy guide. Thanks!