The Best Natural Sweetener for Baking Is Already in Your Cupboard

The natural sweeteners one pastry chef swears by.

September 19, 2018
A naturally sweetened tart that wants you to know that it's very, very chocolate-y. Photo by Bobbi Lin

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?

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Joanne Chang: I like maple syrup the best for its flavor, which is rich and buttery and very comforting to me.

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Top Comment:
“I am curious about Agave, I generally use it in replacement of sugar but,there has been some controversy about its high fructose content. Any thoughts on this? I am looking for a low glycemic alternative to sugar.”
— Georgianne

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.

Maple, This Way

What are your favorite desserts to bake with natural sweeteners? Let us know in the comments!

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Ella Quittner

Written by: Ella Quittner

Ella Quittner is a contributing writer and the Absolute Best Tests columnist at Food52. She covers food, travel, wellness, lifestyle, home, novelty snacks, and internet-famous sandwiches. You can follow her on Instagram @equittner, or Twitter at @ellaquittner. She also develops recipes for Food52, and has a soft spot for all pasta, anything spicy, and salty chocolate things.


Georgianne December 30, 2018
I am curious about Agave, I generally use it in replacement of sugar but,there has been some controversy about its high fructose content. Any thoughts on this? I am looking for a low glycemic alternative to sugar.
Suz December 30, 2018
For all those who use xylitol, please note that although people can eat it, it’s TOXIC to dogs! Don’t give your dog ANY of the treats you make with xylitol. (I know most cooks like to share with their pets!)
Laura415 September 24, 2018
I am loving experimenting with different types of sweeteners in my baking and cooking. Currently, experimenting with a couple of things: One is date or raisin paste. I buy the date paste in a local middle eastern store and it is cheap and easy. If I find good deals on raisins I will simply rehydrate them in a bowl and use my hand blender to puree them. They keep in the fridge for quite a while. I'm surprised no one mentioned coconut sugar or Yacon. In San Francisco, where I live, I can grow Yacon and it is a cool crop. The Yacon themselves are a watery tuber that tastes lightly sweet a bit like a jicama. I knew that the pulp could be used as a gluten free flour and found out you can boil the juice down to make yacon syrup which tastes something like moslassas. I tried it and it was nice to use in muffins and other darker baked goods. It's supposed to be low glycemic too.
Babette's S. September 23, 2018
I became a major die-hard convert and user of Xylitol. Of all the sugar alcohols, it seems to be the one that doesn't cause any G.I. issues for most folks. It also seems to have numerous benefits. It tastes just like white sugar to my taste buds, but I sometimes find I need to use slightly more of than regular white sugar. I wish there would be more discussion of it a more usage. I always try to buy real birch xylitol.
Marcie September 23, 2018
Where's the recipe for the maple persimmon upside down cake? It's cruel and unusual punishment to only show the tinkling video-ette.
Ella Q. September 23, 2018
Here you go! Enjoy:
Monica B. September 23, 2018
Remember folks, white sugar is no more "bad for you" than "natural" sugars. As a chef and nutrition educator, I reduce all kinds of sugar in my cooking and my taste buds have adjusted. Like Chang, I use non-white sugar sweeteners is for flavor or texture. Otherwise, there is no significant difference in nutrients, really, certainly not in the amounts we should be using them in. Dates have a little extra fiber but it is probably easier to swap in some whole grain or nut flour if all you want is more fiber.
beth September 23, 2018
Would have appreciated some discussion of Stevia which seems to be, currently, the only answer to the comment (with which I agree) that “sugar is sugar is sugar” metabolically. And comments on coconut sugar which, I think, also belongs in the “sugar is sugar is sugar” camp - does it?
Monica B. September 23, 2018
Stevia and Xylitol may have a few nutritional advantages but unless you are very high risk for diabetes and metabolic syndrome, I think reducing your sugar in take is a better bet. Stevia tastes terrible too.
Monica B. September 23, 2018
Also, I would say that stevia and xylitol products are not under the category of "natural."
Laura415 September 24, 2018
I too have hated the licorice aftertaste in stevia but I have found that mixing good stevia powders (I like the taste of NOW brand stevia powder) with organic cane sugar is a way to wean off sugar in things like tea and coffee without an aftertaste. I also started adding dried stevia leaf into my tea when brewing, which gives a subtle sweet taste to my tea without the bad aftertaste most of the processed stevia brands have. I am also trying to grow it in my garden so I can get my own dried leaves instead of buying them. Don't give up on stevia just use it in things that make sense like tea and coffee and other drinks. It's good in those.
epicharis September 20, 2018
I have mixed feelings about the idea of natural sugars being better somehow. Sugar is sugar is sugar is sugar. Natural sugars do have better flavors, but 50 grams of date sugar are just as bad for you as 50 grams of the white stuff.
Ali September 20, 2018
Is it possible to get more details on baking with dates? I love the idea but this interview doesn’t really explain how it would work.
Ella Q. September 20, 2018
Hi Ali!

We love using dates to provide a touch of moisture and stickiness, as well as sweetness, in things like naturally sweetened crusts (as in this recipe:

More generally, if I'm going to use them in a batter or a bar (where the mixture doesn't get overly processed), I'll make sure they're chopped or finely processed in a blender before adding them. If you're using them in a paste-like situation (I love this recipe: then of course you can just add them whole—if they're not moist and chewy to the touch, I'll soak them and drain them first.

Here are some other date-centric sweets recipes I love: (Also has sugar) (Also has sugar)

Hope this helps!
Sherry September 19, 2018
I love this idea. Need to cut white sugar from our making chocolate chip cookies, how do we make the adjustments? Maple syrup or dates. How much. Thank you
Ella Q. September 20, 2018
Hi Sherry!

Are you using a specific recipe already that you'd like to make a substitution in, or just looking for one?