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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!