In the U.S., at least, corn syrup is ubiquitous. We mix it into our marshmallows and pour it over our pancakes; we sip it in our sodas and cook it into our caramels. In its high-fructose form, the average American has consumed more than 40 pounds a year over the past decade. Light and dark corn syrups, the versions typically used by home cooks, can be found in nearly every supermarket and bodega in the country.
And yet, here you are, in search of a substitute. Maybe it’s for health reasons. Maybe you don’t feel like walking to the store. Maybe you’ve slipped into an alternate reality where Gottlieb Kirchhoff seriously miscalculated the sulfuric acid concentration before taking a sip of his new syrup, and didn’t survive to share his results. If you’ve never heard of Gottlieb Kirchhoff, then that must be it.
Corn syrup, you may imagine, comes from corn, much the same way that maple syrup comes from maples. Squeezed from the kernels, maybe, strained, and boiled down to a sticky-sweet thickness. Light corn syrup, your thinking goes, is just a more processed version of dark corn syrup. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
The year was 1811, and a haggard German-born scientist by the name of Kirchhoff was hunched over a bubbling cauldron in his lab in Saint Petersburg, trying not to get sulfuric acid in his beard. In the cauldron, along with the acid and water, was cornstarch. Over the next hour, Kirchhoff would achieve culinary alchemy: With the application of heat, pressure, and acid, the flavorless, chalky cornstarch was hydrolyzed into golden-sweet glucose.
Nowadays, corn syrup suppliers skip the acid and instead use a series of enzymes (the process is much friendlier on the beard). Alpha-amylase, extracted from bacteria, is added to a cornstarch solution, breaking the starch into oligosaccharides. Then, glucoamylase, a second enzyme excreted by molds of the genus Aspergillus (which includes koji) is introduced to break the oligosaccharides into glucose. To make light corn syrup, the glucose syrup is mixed with vanilla and salt, while dark corn syrup includes molasses, salt, and caramel color. High-fructose corn syrup is made via application of another bacterial enzyme, D-xylose isomerase.
If you have sulfuric acid on hand, or are cultivating an array of molds and bacteria in your basement, then this is your moment. Otherwise, here are a few substitutes that will help you make sweets even Gottlieb would love.
Most candy recipes rely on cane sugar for their sweetness, but you’ll often notice a teaspoon or two of corn syrup are included. As candy cools, the solution becomes supersaturated and can start forming crystals. If just a few crystals form on the sides of the pan, their pattern will spread through the solution like cat content on your auntie’s Instagram, and spoil your sweets with a sandy texture. But disrupt the crystal formation with molecules of a different shape, and you’re much less likely to have problems. The glucose in corn syrup does an excellent job of keeping hard candy, caramel, and chocolate glaze smooth, and this is the property we’ll have to replicate when we’re making substitutions.
Corn syrup is glucose syrup, but there are plenty of other starches that break down into glucose. Glucose syrup from sources like wheat and potatoes are more common outside the U.S.
Like modern corn syrup, honey involves the enzymatic digestion of complex sugars into simple sugars. But whereas corn syrup makes use of extracted fungal and bacterial enzymes, nectar is converted into honey by way of bees repeatedly regurgitating it. Unlike regular corn syrup, honey contains both glucose and fructose, another simple sugar. It also works well to disrupt sucrose crystallization, but of course its taste is distinctive.
Golden syrup/light treacle/inverted sugar syrup
Golden syrup and light treacle are made from “inverted” sugar, which is to say sucrose that’s been broken down into its components, glucose and fructose. They don’t have honey’s complexity of flavor, but that’s often a good thing when the goal is an unobtrusive substitution.
Similar to maple syrup, but composed primarily of glucose and fructose instead of more complex sucrose, birch syrup is another able corn syrup substitute where crystal disruption is the goal. It’s pricey, requiring more than twice as much sap to produce as maple syrup, but it’s delicious.
Extracted from the fruit of the date palm (with no bee regurgitation involved), date honey is rich, dark, and much sweeter than corn syrup. But, you guessed it, it’s full of the monosaccharides glucose and fructose. Use it in caramels or candies of Middle Eastern origin or inflection, or add it in place of dark corn syrup. Try substituting in a smaller quantity than the recipe calls for to avoid an over-sweet result.
I know what you’re thinking: This guy is a butter fanatic who will stop at nothing to foist his radical ideology on anyone who’ll listen. You’re not wrong. But just like glucose and fructose molecules, fats do an excellent job of interrupting crystallization in candy. Use this to your advantage in Alice Medrich’s unctuous butter glaze or this chocolate caramel nut tart.
As with butter, the fat in cream can effectively disrupt the formation of sugar crystals. The two are deployed together in the caramel tart above.
Here’s another useful trick. If cane sugar’s the only sweetener you can get your hands on, your best bet is to channel Gottlieb Kirchhoff and do some hydrolysis of your own. Whereas hydrolyzing starches requires a lot of time, pressure, and dangerously powerful acids, hydrolyzing (or inverting) sucrose is much easier. Just heat sugar and water with a little lemon juice until it turns a light golden color, and you’ll be good to go.
Cream of tartar
A by-product of wine production, cream of tartar is another acidic ingredient that can be used to invert cane sugar into fructose and glucose. Often, cream of tartar and lemon juice are used together to this effect.
For everything else
Drizzled on waffles or mixed into cake batters, plenty of other sweeteners serve just as well as corn syrup. Something to keep in mind, though, is that corn syrup is hygroscopic, meaning it retains and attracts moisture, helping to preserve baked goods and forestall staling. If replacing it with white sugar, for example, you might find your finished product has a shorter shelf life. But no one ever complained about having to eat more cake.
It’s seriously pricey, which is why your local diner probably serves its pancakes with corn syrup. But there’s really no comparison. Maple syrup (particularly the darker variety) is rich, smooth, and sexy. Corn-based imitations are usually gloopy, garishly flavored, and sickly sweet. Avoid replacing corn syrup with maple for candy-making purposes, as it’s composed mostly of sucrose. Make maple candy instead.
As mentioned above, refined cane sugar is at a hygroscopic disadvantage as compared to corn syrup. But otherwise, I tend to prefer it for its cleaner sweetness. Keep in mind that corn syrup is about a quarter water, so adjust the liquids in your recipes accordingly, or dissolve the sugar in water before adding it in.
With all these alternatives at your disposal, you may never reach for the corn syrup again.