Cake

Is it Possible to Reduce Sugar in a Baking Recipe?

I’m all for baking with alternative, natural sweeteners, but another option for baking with less sugar is to, well, cut down on the sugar. But how does cutting back affect the final product? And how far can I cut back before my dessert turns into an inedible mistake?

To test this, I took two Food52 recipes (the Ovenly's Secretly Vegan Salted Chocolate Chip Cookies and the Perfect Chocolate Cake, made into cupcakes) and prepared them using three-quarters, one-half, and one-quarter of the recommended sugar—plus no sugar! The results were both surprising and—mostly—delicious.

Photo by Sophie - Wholehearted Eats

Using Three-Quarters the Sugar

For both the cookies and the cake, using three-quarters of the total amount of sugar made for totally delicious baked goods. The raw cookie dough tasted amazing (I had to try it for science) and the baked cookie had a crisp exterior and a soft, moist middle.

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The cake also turned out as if I was using the full amount of sugar—the top was glossy, with a nice rise, and the interior was moist and chocolaty. All in all, you would not notice that missing sugar.

Three-quarters the sugar on the left to no sugar on the right. Photo by Sophie - Wholehearted Eats

Using Half the Sugar

These cookies weren’t nearly as sweet tasting as the cookies with three-quarters the sugar and were slightly crumblier and dry. They lacked a crisp exterior and had much less of that fudgy doughy middle you’d want from the cookie, but they were still good cookies. I would happily eat them with a cup of tea.

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Top Comment:
“Any and all sugar does this so honey, granulated, dried fruit all will perform the action of attracting water in the baked good and making it moist and tender. It doesn't matter much what kind of sugar as long as it is well dispersed in the baked good. Sugar like salt also brings out the flavor in cooking. Less sugar less taste. Too much sugar and only one taste. Sugar is about balance. ”
— Laura415
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The cake, on the other hand, didn’t turn out quite as well. While it still had the shiny top, the texture was dry and spongy. It really needed fresh fruit and cream to be enjoyable.

Three-quarters sugar on the left to no sugar on the right. Photo by Sophie - Wholehearted Eats

Using a Quarter of the Sugar

Because of the molasses in the brown sugar, the cookies got lighter in color and drier as sugar was reduced. So using one-quarter the sugar made for a crumbly dough that tasted of the acrid leaveners. Luckily, once baked, the taste of the baking powder and soda disappeared. The cookie was edible but lacked the soft chewy middle, a brown top, and an evenly spread out shape.

Unlike the cookies, which lost their baking powder taste, the cake with a quarter the sugar did not. More so, the texture was affected to the point of being rubbery and bouncy. While the three-quarter-sugar cake would compress and give under pressure, the one-quarter-sugar cake would spring back with dryness.

Chocolate cupcake made with three-quarters the amount of sugar. Photo by Sophie - Wholehearted Eats

Using No Sugar

Whereas cookies with a half and a quarter the sugar were crumbly, the no-sugar dough was straight bready and hard to mix. While the dough didn’t taste very appetizing, the baked cookies tasted fine but didn’t spread or brown. While they were the last cookies to go, they still got eaten nonetheless. Not great, but definitely not awful. This was a surprise to me!

Removing the sugar from the cake batter was less successful and created a light colored mix with a higher rise and a tunnel interior. The cake was rubbery and dry and acrid in flavor. Left at room temperature for a couple of hours, it dried out completely and became incredibly hard. Not a success.

Three-quarters the sugar on the left to no sugar on the right. Photo by Sophie - Wholehearted Eats

Overall

Sure, the reduction of sugar in the cookies made for a drier, crumbly, and less fudgy cookie, but they were still enjoyable. For the cake, reducing sugar had a much greater effect on the final product, to the point where it was unpalatable. I would conclude that you can safely reduce the amount of sugar called for in a baking recipe to three-quarters without noticeably affecting taste and texture.

If you want to take it even further, sugar can be reduced by half, but the texture and taste will start to become affected—but not to a point where the dish is no longer enjoyable. This might work best in a recipe that contains a lot of natural sweetness from other sources—like a fruit muffin or a cookie with chocolate chips. Reducing the sugar beyond half starts to get a little scary.

That said, my survey only involved two recipes—one cookie and one cake—so there’s a lot more investigating to do. If you have experience cutting sugar in baking recipes, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Photo by Sophie - Wholehearted Eats

63 Comments

Jenny March 7, 2018
I like to "ice" my cakes and cupcakes with whipped cream stabilized with a bit of gelatin. It only requires a tablespoon of sugar per cup of cream! The only downside is your baking needs to stay refrigerated because you don't want the cream to spoil.
 
karin.anderson.52 March 7, 2018
I find most recipes too sweet, and usually reduce the amount of sugar by 1/4 to 1/3, depending on the recipe. If it's a pastry from the South, it can be even 50%, because the sugar content is so high. (As a European, I, also, use less salt in sweet recipes, finding it strange how much salt Americans put in there.)
 
Bascula March 7, 2018
I agree on trying to reduce the sugar. BUT you have to be careful to know if you're dealing with a recipe where the sugar has already been reduced, before you reduce it further. I know that if I'm using an older cookbook I can safely reduce the sugar (and probably the fat). But a recipe on the internet may have already been messed with, and my sugar reduction takes it to the inedible.<br />What ratio of flour to sugar represents the reduction the author mentioned for cookies in the article? So I don't go below that?
 
catalinalacruz October 13, 2017
Years ago I worked as a cook at a nursing home. I routinely reduced sugar in dessert recipes, and the other cooks asked me why the desserts I made -- the same recipes they used -- tasted better than when they made them. I deduced that the higher amount of sugar masked the flavors in desserts. Less sugar, more flavor. <br />American cakes, and all desserts, are much too sweet. I follow Rose Levy Beranbaum's general rule of proportions: I cup of sugar for every 2 cups of flour. This reduction also works for high altitude baking where sugar has to be reduced to prevent overflowing pans in the oven. <br />Given the interest in these comments, why don't we see more low sugar recipes?
 
jeff September 8, 2017
my name jeff
 
Also J. November 17, 2017
私の名前jeff
 
Kt4 February 26, 2017
So what can it be replaced with to prevent dryness and rubbery? An equal amount of applesauce perhaps?
 
Liz October 8, 2016
Leaving out part of the is fine at higher altitudes. I have cooking instructions from a university laboratory that work well for me, my home is at 6000' and my mountain cabin at 10,000'. Sugar affects the moisture content of foods differently above sea level. The university instructions say to decrease sugar by 1 Tbsp. for every 1000' elevation above sea level. At my cabin I routinely remove 2/3 C. sugar from every baking recipe that is published at sea level, or 1/3 C. from a recipe written locally.
 
Laura April 13, 2016
I enjoyed reading this and routinely use less sugar in recipes. One thing I wonder is if the samples were given in reverse (starting with no sugar, last would be full sugar) would the cookies with all the sugar taste too sweet? I like to develop recipes with less sugar and am quite thrilled with this one for Lemon Ricotta Cupcakes which uses 1/2 cup sugar for 12 large cupcakes. In this recipe the olive oil, ricotta cheese and buttermilk seem to work well to produce a rich, tender, cake like texture. https://makinghealthychoices.ca/2016/02/14/lemon-ricotta-cupcakes/
 
George H. March 16, 2016
If you turn on any TV show, or follow any star chefs, the overwhelming drive is "taste". So sugar is never a concern. In this regard, have to give Chang some credit for making a case.<br /><br />American recipes are not just sweet. They are unbearably sweet, so much so I often find all is lost in a sea of sugar, chocolate chip cookies in particular. Not to mention countless types of cakes.<br /><br />For example, I try the widely praised "Ovenly's Secretly Vegan Salted Chocolate Chip Cookies", cut sugar by half, still find it more than enough. My sense is it not you can "routinely cut sugar by a third", rather it is you MUST cut sugar by a third in any recipe. Start by taking only one half. I bet most of the time you will think even a little less will still be fine.<br /><br />It is not just about health. It is about not letting sweetness overwhelms other flavors. It will make you dish far more tasteful when all the flavors come out and give a complete and complex sense of tastes. So too much sugar is entirely misguided.
 
LE B. March 17, 2016
YAYYYYYYYY George!! Your comment is just EXACTLY my feelings! I'm going to keep it on file and quote you in the future! Thank you for doing such a good job representing many of us in the 52 community!
 
Luna March 7, 2016
Does anyone know how to reduce the amount of sugar in frosting? I hate how overly sweet frosting is (generally butter+powdered sugar frosting), but when I've tried cutting the amount of sugar, the texture gets all wonky. I've added yogurt to the regular amount of sugar in the frosting, and that does help the flavor, but it doesn't then reduce the amount of sugar one consumes. I'd love to have a low sugar/less sweet frosting recipe... that is also as simple as whipping butter and powdered sugar together.
 
Winifred R. March 7, 2016
Luna - What are you looking for the frosting to do? Help keep out air to keep the cake from drying too quickly before you eat it? Enhance the beauty of the cake? Add a different and enticing flavor?<br /><br />One option might be to roll marzipan to put over a cake - almond flavor and would do all but maybe enhance the beauty although that could be in the eye of the beholder. There would be added calories, but more nutrition from almonds.<br /><br />This is a first order suggestion, and I'm sure others will have more. Good luck.
 
Luna March 8, 2016
Hmm... good question. I guess meet expectations. People expect cake or cupcakes to have frosting. Most recently, I made Smitten Kitchen's Chocolate, Whiskey and Beer Cupcakes. The Irish cream frosting had great flavor with reduced sugar, but the texture got really weird.
 
Laura April 13, 2016
Hi Luna, have you experimented with cream cheese frostings? I came up with this Maple Cream Cheese Frosting and I am working on a Lemon one too. The maple uses Maple Sugar and also a particular brand of Light Cream Cheese. It just doesn't work as well with other cream cheese products. I am also working on a chocolate frosting using mashed sweet potato!
 
Laura April 13, 2016
Here is the recipe if you want to try it https://makinghealthychoices.ca/2015/10/12/pumpkin-spice-cake-with-maple-cream-cheese-frosting/
 
Luna April 13, 2016
I've tried butter+cream cheese+powdered sugar recipes with less sugar, and the consistency still isn't right. I'll have to try the maple cream cheese version. That's definitely intriguing. I love real maple flavor.
 
Ruth R. September 3, 2017
I have subbed in powdered milk for up to a third of the sugar in frostings without adverse effect. More than that and you can taste it (which might not be a problem if you like that taste or add strongly flavored ingredients like ginger or citrus zest).
 
Laura415 February 19, 2016
Sugar is hygroscopic. It attracts moisture. That's why the baked goods get drier, crumbly, rubbery etc. Any and all sugar does this so honey, granulated, dried fruit all will perform the action of attracting water in the baked good and making it moist and tender. It doesn't matter much what kind of sugar as long as it is well dispersed in the baked good. Sugar like salt also brings out the flavor in cooking. Less sugar less taste. Too much sugar and only one taste. Sugar is about balance.
 
Windischgirl February 14, 2016
I routinely cut sugar by 1/3....don't recall where I read this suggestion, but I've been doing so since my kids were little, so we're talking around 20 years. My baked goods work just fine, and we now all prefer "less sweet" things. I typically don't substitute, but will sometimes use brown sugar in place of white if the flavor seems to suit the final product, and that too adds a bit if moisture. And I never pack the brown sugar!
 
Mary February 14, 2016
This is a great topic and thank you for raising it. Recently made oatmeal cookies and reduced the sugar by 1/4. They tasted good and I brought them to a meeting where many people commented positively on the taste. The reason they could taste the oatmeal and the vanilla was that those flavors weren't overwhelmed by sweet. Also I don't bother with brown sugar and used regular sugar with the addition of 1 Tbsp of blackstrap molasses. Brown sugar is often white sugar with some molasses added back so . . . I'm happy to not try to keep brown sugar from turning into a brick! It disturbs me that sugar is turning up in virtually every food product on the grocery store shelf including savory items. Small wonder our country is in the midst of a Type 2 diabetes epidemic.
 
LE B. February 15, 2016
YES! I feel so relieved to read your being upset about sugar being in Everything. I have been ranting about this for some time and need as many 52ers vocal about it- as possible.
 
Roberta S. February 14, 2016
Using aluminium free baking powder improves the flavors. I always short the sugars. I think the amount of sugars in a recipe are gaggy sweet and seems like an attempt to mask flavor.
 
Miriam February 14, 2016
We all know how to reduce sugar from desserts and the results. What we need to know is what various ingredients can be used and in what quantity, to replace the sugar when you want to reduce sugar by more than a quarter and you don't want to sacrifice flavor and consistency. Such as fruits and other natural ingredients, not other typical "sugars" sweeteners such as maple syrup, grain syrups, stevia, etc.
 
Kathryn B. February 14, 2016
It is possible to make very successful savoury cakes. See this article http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2011/apr/09/savoury-cake-recipes . Other ingredients such as cheese bring moisture to the mix. The only thing I have noticed is that they don't keep for very long.
 
Idalu February 14, 2016
I always always reduce the sugar content from most recipes. I don't understand how American recipes are so sweet. My rule of thumb for dessert is 1/2 of the flour quantity and it does taste great. Maybe it would taste fantastic with more sugar but I will not try it, I prefer not to get diabetes or some other ghastly diseases.
 
E February 14, 2016
Great article. I've always wondered how the taste, texture and hold would turn out in baked good but never had the time to do multi batches. Thanks for the investigative reporting!
 
Irenehope February 14, 2016
I make low sugar strawberry jam - 1 cup sugar to 4 cups fruit - that keeps the taste and color of the fruit fresh and light.
 
karin.anderson.52 February 14, 2016
I don't like it too sweet, and routinely reduce the sugar in pastries, usually by 1/4 to 1/3, without problem. <br />But if the sugar content in a cake is very high to begin with (like in one of my favorite baking books: "Back in the Day Bakery Cookbook") and the recipe contains fruits like bananas, pine apple or carrots (Carrot Cake, Hummingbird Cake), I was even able to cut back on the sugar by half, without compromising taste, performance or consistency.