When it comes to cutting sugar in baking recipes, Amanda Hesser is “not scientific!”
I simply pour out some of the sugar from my measuring cup before adding it to the recipe.
She might be a risk-taker, but us by-the-book bakers wanted to know just how far we could tinker with the sugar in a baking recipe without approaching disaster.
The conclusion: Sugar can be safely reduced by about a third without seeing many negative consequences. But things got dicier when sugar was reduced by half (or avoided entirely, as you can imagine), which sparked even more questions from us (and you):
- When is it safe to reduce sugar?
- By how much?
- How can we prevent disasters in our “experiments”?
- Can we swap out sugar for other ingredients?
- What’s sugar doing there anyways? (For the nitty gritty on this science, there's a longish read at the end of the post.)
As a general rule, Alice Medrich has found that you can reduce sugar as much as 25 or 33% without starting a science project (and having to add applesauce and change lots of other stuff to make it work), but it’s best to start with a less drastic change and work your way to your own sweet spot: the point where you still like the results! Do this by first cutting 10 or 15% of the sugar, then continue until you start not liking your results.
For fruit desserts, Yossy Arefi goes in the opposite direction—adding instead of subtracting. "I add sugar to the pie or galette filling about a tablespoon at a time, tasting as I go until the fruit tastes like the best version of itself. And if the resulting pies are too tart, just add a scoop of vanilla ice cream to balance it out!”
Anywhere where sugar is JUST for sweetness and not for any chemical reason, such as pies, custards, compotes. (Joanne Chang)
Quick bread recipes are good choices for reducing sugar because they stay in the oven long enough that browning isn't an issue; they're contained in a loaf pan so you don’t have to worry about spread; sugar isn't really needed for aeration; and the loaves freeze well so shelf life/moisture isn’t a consideration. (Erin McDowell)
I tend to have the most success by reducing sugar in cakes, quick breads, no-bake bars, and in some cookies, namely cake-y ones. (Shauna Sever)
You can make a really delicious cake with less sugar and not a huge loss in quality. The cake won't last as long (sugar keeps cakes moist), but if you are eating a cake that day, you can reduce sugar sometimes as much as two-thirds and still have a wonderful cake. (Joanne Chang)
Pies and galettes are the easiest to tackle with less sugar, as long as the fruit is sweet. The filling after baking may be a bit drier than usual because sugar melts, it turns into a kind of moisture, and it helps coax the natural juices out of the fruit. Those juices mix with the starch to make the silky saucy stuff that the fruit cooks in. (Yossy Aref)
Don’t mess with the sugar in a cookie with buttery, caramelized, snappy edges or centers so chewy they're fudge-like because a lot of that texture likely relies on the ratio of fat to sugar. (Shauna Sever)
If you’re baking cookies that are meant to be dry and crunchy, try making them extra thin when you cut the sugar so they’ll be crispy instead of hard and tough! (Alice Medrich)
It’s good to keep in mind that the flavors of fruit with tart skins or bitter seeds, like plums or blackberries, tend to read a little more sour after they're cooked, so adjust sugar before cooking accordingly. (Yossy Arefi)
No-bake bars and confections can be a good candidate for cutting back sugar, unless the recipe relies on the stability of starch provided by confectioners' sugar. In that case, you can try to make up the volume lost by swapping in something like graham crackers ground very, very fine. I had success trying this trick recently with Buckeyes; it was awesome. (Shauna Sever)
Don’t reduce sugar in candy because sugar is the primary ingredient. Also, it's candy. Just go with it. (Shauna Sever)
Things to Keep in Mind When You’re Cutting Back Sugar:
Sugar keeps baked goods moist, so watch out for over-baking—check for doneness earlier than usual. (Alice Medrich)
And don’t expect your baked good to last as long as they might ordinarily. (Alice Medrich)
Don't play with the sugar in ice cream or frozen desserts: Sugar keeps frozen desserts from freezing solid, so you need something else like alcohol in the mix to keep your ice cream from becoming as hard as ice. (Joanne Chang)
Add in honey or agave, but don’t cut more than a third of the sugar. (Agatha Kulaga and Erin Patinkin)
If a recipe runs on brown sugar [more so than white sugar], you have to keep moisture in mind, and sometimes I might add a bit of milk or so to make up for that. (Shauna Sever)
Add in naturally sweet spices like cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, and allspice to make up for some loss of sweetness. (Agatha Kulaga and Erin Patinkin)
The only recipe that we successfully cut out the sugar completely was our sugarless cherry vanilla scone recipe. The theory behind it is that our sweet scones don't have much sugar to begin with (and of course, plenty of fat from butter and cream), so we cut the sugar and substituted natural vanilla extract, dried cherries, and cinnamon—all natural sweeteners. The results are great, although the scones are slightly more dense and stay fresh a little less longer. But they are super delicious!
While I understand the generalization that reducing by a third is okay, I have to admit I don't fully agree. There are definitely recipes out there that are TOO sweet and need sugar reduction, but commonly the amount of sugar in the recipe is providing a specific function:
Tenderizer: Flour and the sugar are competing for the moisture in a cake batter or cookie dough: Sugar is drawing the moisture out and flour is absorbing it. As a result, there’s less moisture to hydrate flour, which prevents excess gluten formation and some gelatinization of starch and ultimately yields a tender product. Therefore, reducing sugar can make a product tougher. Sometimes—like in a cookie—this could go unnoticed, but other times, like a sweetened bread dough, reducing the sugar could yield something hard and unpleasant.
Spreading: The amount of sugar directly relates to how much a given item will "spread" when baked. More sugar, more spread. But this isn't exclusive. The ratio of sugar to other ingredients makes a difference, so a recipe with 2 cups sugar and 1 cup flour will spread more than a recipe with 2 cups sugar and 2 cups flour. Again, in some cases, less spread wouldn't matter much: In a bar cookie recipe, the resulting bar would be more dense, but that's not necessarily undesirable (hey, blondies), while in a whoopie pie recipe, reducing sugar could mean tall, dense cakes—not ideal for sandwiching.
Moisture and Shelf Life: The more sugar in the recipe, the softer and more moist the baked item is. This is even true for items that are "crisp" like gingersnaps—the sugar helps maintain the just-baked state as long as possible. So if you're planning on eating that cake all in one day, no problem. If you're baking a batch of cookies to keep all week long, you're going to be disappointed.
Browning: Sugar contributes to browning via caramelization. In many cases, it may not matter if the baked item is a little pale. In others (bread, for example), it could mean your loaf will never brown properly.
Fermentation Aid: Yeast feeds on sugar, allowing it to ferment. While not every yeast-risen recipe relies on the addition of sugar (sugars can be found naturally by the starches in the flour), reducing added sugar in a yeast-risen recipe can seriously affect fermentation, inhibiting proper rise before or during baking.
Aeration: Granulated sugars can combine with eggs, egg whites, egg yolks, or fats to aerate a mixture evenly. This is the base structure for so many baked goods, and reducing the sugar can mean that the batter or dough will not have that solid foundation. Leaveners provide the main source of rise in the oven, but aeration can also be responsible for producing volume and/or ensuring an even crumb structure in the finished product.
Sweetness is the least of your challenges when reducing sugar—our palates adjust surprisingly well to less sugar. It's the other issues that arise that you need to be aware of: moistness, keeping quality, color, lack of crispness. But if you prime your palate for these adjustments, you can enjoy pastries with less sugar and not miss it at all. —Joanne Chang