Whether you're actively trying to cut back on granulated sugar, you just love the flavor of other options (hi, honey!), or you're looking for a challenge, there's no shortage of natural sweeteners for bakers to choose from. Visits to the alt-sugar aisle at my local grocery store make me feel like, well, a kid in a candy shop. But because there are so many different factors to care about, or not—texture, flavor, price, adaptability within various recipes, place on the glycemic index—too often, I feel like that one kid in the candy shop who's sampled too many of the goods, and is about to have a meltdown if not taken home immediately.
Fortunately for us, we have former Food52 Baking Club cookbook author Joanne Chang on speed dial. (Or, whatever the Gmail equivalent of speed dial is.) Chang is a James Beard award-winning pastry chef, the author of Baking with Less Sugar: Recipes for Desserts Using Natural Sweeteners and Little-to-No White Sugar, and the owner of Boston's Flour Bakery + Cafe, which has a cult-like following for good reason (see: banana bread!). She kindly shared her thoughts on the best natural sweeteners for bakers, below.
Ella Quittner: I know that you include multiple types of sweeteners in your book Baking with Less Sugar—both refined and natural, from white sugar to dates to maple syrup. If you had to pick one natural sweetener to bake with, which would you say is the best one?
Joanne Chang: I like maple syrup the best for its flavor, which is rich and buttery and very comforting to me.
EQ: What are your second and third favorite natural sweeteners to bake with?
JC: Baking with dates is a close second. Dates are so sugary and sweet, and when you learn how to bake with them, the effect is very close to white sugar, with the added benefit of date flavor, fiber, and nutrients.
Honey is my third favorite—the flavor of honey is distinct and beloved, and some of the best desserts are made with honey.
EQ: When selecting a natural sweetener for baking (whether making a substitution, or improvising on a recipe), what should bakers keep in mind?
JC: If using maple or honey, remember that since they are liquid sweeteners you will need to reduce the liquid in other parts of the recipe. Both honey and maple desserts also darken faster in the oven than white sugar desserts. Regardless of using a liquid or solid natural sweetener, remember that these sweeteners have flavor themselves, and you want to highlight that flavor in your recipe with additional salt or spices or extracts.
EQ: In your view, is there a worst natural sweetener for baking?
JC: I don't think there is a worst—they are all different. For example, using fruit and fruit juices means that you are not going to get that big sugar hit that maple and honey give—but, that doesn't make it worse. It just means you should not expect that your dessert be sugary sweet.
EQ: Why would a baker want to use a natural sweetener over refined sugar?
JC: Using natural sweeteners allows you to add more than just sweetness to a recipe—you also add flavor! Whether honey or fruit or maple, all of these sweeteners are delicious to eat on their own.
Think about that when you are baking with white sugar next time—white sugar is not something we can eat spoonfuls of—it’s just not delicious by itself. When you bake, you want to maximize the enjoyment of your recipe and I find that using natural sweeteners gives you more room to play with because of the flavor nuances.
EQ: Consider me sold!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What are your favorite desserts to bake with natural sweeteners? Let us know in the comments!