The Challenges of Baking with Less Sugar (& How to Fix Them)

September 15, 2015

Joanne Chang—owner of Flour Bakery and all-around dessert wizard—wrote the book on baking with less sugar. 

Today, she's sharing 5 of her favorite recipes from her book, along with ways to overcome the challenges that go along with reducing white sugar while baking.

Low sugar: Oatmeal Raisin Cranberry Coookies

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Challenge: Sugar is what causes the cookie to be crispy; it turns to caramel in the oven, giving the cookie crunch. And, of course, the cookies—with only 6 tablespoons of sugar compared to the 26 tablespoons in the original—are less sweet.

Solution: Adjust your expectations of texture and use other ingredients to up the sweetness quotient. For these cookies, we chop about half of the raisins into tiny pieces so that every bite of cookie gets some natural sweetness from fruit, and we increase the amounts of cinnamon and vanilla by a lot. It really makes your taste buds think "sweet" without actually needing sugar. 


Chocolate as sweetener: Mint-Chocolate ice Cream Sandwiches

Challenge: Sugar depresses the freezing point of liquids, a property that chefs use to turn fruit purées into sorbets and custards into ice creams. If you omit sugar, like I do in these ice cream sandwiches, you run the risk of rock-hard treats.

Solution: There is sugar in the mousse—just not added sugar. The sugar that is in the chocolate itself helps keep the mousse from freezing rock-hard. Second, to compensate for how firm the sandwiches get, I suggest you remove these from the freezer at least 15 minutes before serving. As the sandwiches start to defrost, they become softer and ready to eat.


Honey as a substitute: Honey-Cashew Morning Buns

Challenge: 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. But I wanted to make sure the flavor—not just the sweetness—of the honey was highlighted, even if only a small amount was being used.

Solution: I use a lean bread dough rather than a brioche dough as the base; it’s a terrific neutral canvas for the rich syrup and nuts we add to the buns. When substituting honey for sugar, keep in mind that, for every cup, you'll want to add an additional 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda to the dry ingredients. You'll also need to reduce the oven temperature by about 25° F.


Maple syrup as a substitute: Pear-Maple Tarte Tatin

Challenge: Maple syrup can caramelize like regular sugar, but it's a bit trickier to work with.

Solution: When you bring maple syrup to a boil, it has a tendency to foam up and take over the pot, so make sure you use a nice big roomy pot. Once the syrup foams, turn the heat down to a steady low simmer, then watch it and monitor the heat to keep it from foaming up.


Fruit as a sweetener: Carrot-Pineapple Cake with Cream Cheese Icing

Challenge: First, because there is no white sugar in the cake, the cake itself doesn't color like a typical cake does in the oven. For the first several trials of this cake, I baked the layers too long, as I kept waiting for the cake to turn a rich golden brown. And second, sugar adds moisture to cakes, so I expected that this one might turn out a little dry.

Solution: Since the cake stays pale, use your fingers to poke at the center of the cake to test doneness. When it springs back when you press it in the middle, it's ready to come out. And as for moisture, the generous amounts of raisins and pineapple in the batter not only add sweetness, they also make the cake tender and far from dry.

Photos by Bobbi Lin, James Ransom, and Joseph De Leo  

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Michele
  • ptmd
  • Joan Klein
    Joan Klein
  • theresa chan
    theresa chan
  • Julie Wolman
    Julie Wolman
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.


Michele October 26, 2018
I’m excited to try baking with less sugar. We hear how less is more( never with baking)😂 Thanks!
ptmd February 21, 2018
I baked a cake and forgot the sugar :( Can I salvage this otherwise delicious cake?
Joan K. May 2, 2017
Many "sweets" are just too sweet. I'd like to lessen the sweetness but if I lessen the amount of sugar in a recipe what should I add (not sweet) to make sure the consistency is correct for baking .
theresa C. January 22, 2017
A banana, especially a ripe banana, always increases the sweetness as well as moisture in pretty much any baked good. The added flavor is subtle, wouldn't interfere with the intended flavor. Try it with your next carrot cake.
Julie W. September 20, 2015
I love all your less sugar recipes . Thank you so much !!!! I guess you could consider adding a variation at the end for all of us with more "European really less sugar" palates .