As a long-time dessert fanatic, I never dreamed I'd see the day when I fell in love with alt-sweeteners. Granulated sugar has long been the backbone of my many baking projects, and classics are classics for a reason, I thought. I can't pinpoint exactly when I started dabbling with the other stuff—like maple syrup, honey, dates, agave nectar, coconut sugar, and fruit juice—but I think it happened across a series of incidents where I found myself temporarily out of white sugar (blame my crazed macaron phase), and just had to have dessert right that very minute.
And I didn't hate it. In fact, with some of these experimental combinations, I actually preferred the flavors natural sweeteners lent the final product. When I spoke with James Beard award-winning pastry chef Joanne Chang for a piece about the best natural sweetener for baking, she gave me the lowdown:
"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," she said. "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."
These days, I'm more likely to seek out a naturally sweetened recipe than a refined-sugar-version, when I have a choice. Want to try some for yourself? Here are a handful (or two) of my current favorites:
Do you have a favorite natural sweetener? How do you like to use it? Let us know in the comments.