Why (and How) to Make Your Desserts Less Sweet

January 10, 2018

This article is part of Change The Way You Cook, a new series to help anyone (yes, you!) become smarter, faster, and more freewheeling in the kitchen.

Too sweet is a compliment for a present but an insult for, say, a sundae. Imagine a couple scoops of caramel ice cream with butterscotch sauce, toffee crumbles, chantilly cream, and a maraschino cherry on top.

Too sweet! Cloying! Saccharine! To fix this, maybe we scoop salted caramel ice cream instead. Or replace the butterscotch with bittersweet hot fudge. The toffee crumbles with cayenne-spiced nuts. The chantilly with unsweetened whipped cream. The cherry with puckery blackberries.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

Savory recipes often encourage us to “season to taste”—a sprinkle of salt, pinch of pepper, squeeze of lemon—for balance, but desserts rarely do the same. Which is a shame, because desserts want to be balanced, too.

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To offset sweetness, just ask your tongue what else it wants: salty, bitter, sour, umami, even spicy. Of course, not every dessert needs to hit all these marks. But drawing from at least one will not only sidestep sugar overload—it’ll help you appreciate the sweetness all the more.

Here’s how to help any dessert become its very best self:

Break up with cinnamon

There are plenty of spices in the sea. If we can learn anything from popular baking spices, like cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and allspice, it’s that spices make sweets feel warm and cozy. Let’s turn up the heat:

  • Black pepper: floral and punchy, perfect for fruit. Add to macerating strawberries for shortcakes. Or any fruit pie, crisp, or cobbler.
  • Cayenne: hot and bothered, gets along with chocolate. Add to puddings, cakes, cookies, ice cream.
  • Chili flakes: pretty but proceed with caution. Add a pinch to fruit salads. Or sprinkle on top of chocolate bark.

Take a cue from salted caramel

Find someone who looks at you the way salt looks at sugar. Salted caramel was crowned trendy a decade ago but it’s timeless for good reason: The main ingredients adore—and empower—each other. You can dress up any dessert to be saltier and sassier in a few different ways. Consider chocolate chip cookies. You could:

  • Increase the amount of salt called for by ⅛ to ¼ teaspoon at a time.
  • Incorporate a salty ingredient, like roasted peanuts, crushed pretzels, or potato chips.
  • Garnish with flaky salt just before baking.

Bring home the bacon

Umami is a fine line to tread with desserts. Some folks will wait in line for a maple bacon donut; others will run for their lives. A little savory subtlety goes a long way. Start small by giving unsalted butter or flavorless oil a much-needed break:

  • Cultured—or brown—butter offers new depth to buttery recipes like shortbread or pound cake.
  • Take it a step further with fruity olive oil for the moistest cake, the dreamiest gelato.
  • Or, go all in with lard a la old-school pie pastry.

Brûlée, baby, brûlée

Long before charred and burnt were cool, there was brûlée—introduced to you, no doubt, by crème. A creamy, sweet custard sealed with a crispy, bitter lid, crème brûlée was at one point the darling of dessert menus. Luckily, you don’t need a restaurant-caliber blowtorch to pull off bittersweet:

  • Use a broiler or grill instead. Just remember, we’re looking less for golden-brown, more for mahogany-charcoal. Beyond custard, try grilling sturdy fruits, like pineapple or peach, or thick slices of cake.
  • Befriend bitter ingredients. Mix cacao nibs with chocolate chips. Blend cocoa powder into banana “ice cream.” Swap out natural peanut butter for tahini. Add coffee grinds to creaming butter and sugar for cookies. Or a spoonful of matcha into a vanilla milkshake.

Get cultured

Most people add powdered sugar to their whipped cream. Nancy Silverton adds crème fraîche. This brings a sour tang to wherever the dessert is headed—from cake slabs to pie wedges—making them livelier and brighter. Genius, right? Let’s steal that idea and run with it:

  • Spike your whipped cream—or frostings—with sour cream, Greek yogurt, mascarpone, or labne.
  • Flip the formula on its head. Slightly sweeten any of the above with a few pinches of powdered sugar. Dollop away—no whisking necessary.
  • Add balsamic vinegar to butterscotch. Bourbon to crème anglaise. Red wine to hot fudge.

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Emma is a writer and recipe developer at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing articles about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's cooking column, Big Little Recipes, all about big flavor and little ingredient lists. And see what she's up to on Instagram and Twitter at @emmalaperruque.


AntoniaJames January 10, 2018
Nancy's suggestion is spot on. Another trick is to use dried sour cherries or cranberries instead of raisins in, for example, cookies, quick breads or muffins, or add them, regardless of whether the recipe calls for them, to balance the natural sweetness of cooked fruit in pies, crisps, etc.. I invariably do this in fruitcakes and plum puddings, as well.
Also, substituting whole wheat flour for some of the A-P in baked goods like cookies, muffins and quick breads tends to tame the sweetness a bit. ;o)
Author Comment
Emma L. January 11, 2018
Love dried sour cherries!
Nancy January 10, 2018
Emma - All good ideas here. I already do about half of them, and welcome the other half as new ideas. But/and there's a basic technique to reduce sweetness that works on most baked goods except where the sugar fulfills a structural need. Just halve the amount called for in the recipe and proceed normally.
Nancy January 11, 2018
See also this article here by Ali Slagle from 2016, where various experts say cut no more than 1/3 of original recipe sugar amount. And/or experiment to your taste.
Author Comment
Emma L. January 11, 2018
Hi Nancy, thanks! Ali's article is an awesome resource here. When it comes to altering sugar in dessert recipes, my rule is to start with small adjustments, then build from there.
Rebecca January 28, 2018
Yes! I find most American dessert recipes way to sweet and always cut the sugar! Most times it works out.