Let it be said here that there are WAY TOO MANY recipes out there that are excessively sweet for my palate. And because we constantly get asked on Instagram on tips to reduce sugar, I suspect I’m not alone.
Now, you might be thinking, if it’s too sweet, let’s reduce the sugar in the recipe, and voilà, less sweet cookies.
Not so simple, I’m afraid. In baking, sugar provides more than just sweetness. It’s because of this reason that many have tried, unsuccessfully, to reduce sugar in their own recipes, and ended up with a baked result that they didn’t like. And it’s not just flavour, too.
Sugar can play different roles in different baked treats, which is why the amount of sugar you can reduce differs for different recipes. In this article, we’ll dive deep into the roles of sugar in baking, and by understanding the chemistry behind it, you can apply it to different recipes when you’re looking to reduce the sugar content in them!
If you’d rather not get into the nitty-gritty of the roles sugar plays - here’s a rule of thumb to reducing sugar:
Sugar - Not Just A Sweetener
Other than providing sweetness, sugar plays other roles that can affect how your baked goods look, taste, and feel. While it might not make a significant difference in some recipes, knowing these roles can help you fine-tune your recipes better.
It draws flavours out
Sugar has the ability to draw flavours out of the other components in the recipe. In much the same way as salt or coffee bringing out the flavours of chocolate, sugar can do the same for chocolate, fruit, vanilla, and more. If reducing sugar by a significant amount, consider increasing the ingredients that are providing the recipe with flavour.
When you cream butter, tiny air pockets are being created as you constantly work the butter. These air pockets help to capture the gasses released by leavening agents (baking powder, baking soda), which then cause your cookies and cake to rise. The sugar helps to make this process more effective as their sharp granules cut through the butter to create the air pockets.
Sugar can affect browning
Browning in baked goods occur via caramelisation or/and the Maillard reaction. Without getting to the finer details, sugar is an important component in both processes. Reducing sugar can affect the browning of your baked goods (other than appearance, browning affects flavour too).
Tip: If reducing sugar significantly, use other methods to tell if food is done baking as opposed to the ol’ golden brown rule.
Drawing moisture out for hydration
Sugar is hygroscopic - what this means is that sugar draws out and holds water. With less sugar, there is less hydration within your dough, and this can cause a tougher, drier baked product. Hydration also affects the shelf-life of your baked products. In general, the more sugar in a baked item, the longer you can store it for.
Feeding yeast in bread recipes
While it isn’t entirely necessary to have sugar for yeast to activate and work, sugar increases yeast activity and helps bread rise faster. It can also be useful in activating older yeast. However, not a lot of sugar is required for yeast to feed on, so reducing sugar in bread recipes isn’t generally a difficult thing to achieve.
As mentioned above, it’s commonly acceptable to reduce up to one-third of the sugar stated in a recipe. Now that you know the roles sugar plays in baked goods, you can apply some of this knowledge when reducing more sugar in your favourite recipes.
When reducing sugar in a recipe, you might want to think about the aspects you are willing to compromise in return for less sugar (fluffiness, moisture, browning, flavour, etc.). While sugar affects all the aforementioned components in a recipe, it might not prove significant enough to ruin a recipe.
One Size Doesn’t Fit All
There are certain types of baked treats that deal better with reduced sugar than others, and you will likely have better luck reducing sugar in these recipes. These include:
- Loaf cakes - While it’s important to create a fluffy, moist texture in cakes, I personally find that good creaming and not overworking your batter can help replicate what the added sugar brings. I would suggest reducing sugar by up to 35%.
- Treats that do not require sugar to provide structure or texture - No-bake cheesecakes, this no-bake Tiramisu, pastry cream that’s used to fill cream puffs, for example.
- Pies, tarts and certain breads - If the sugar is mainly there for sweetening, it’s much easier to reduce it in a recipe. One concern might be the moisture loss so just keep that in mind.
Ultimately, so many things go into how a recipe turns out, from the way you mix ingredients to the actual ingredients itself and even the temperature of your kitchen. Sugar is just one component out of many others. Essentially, baking is about what you like, and if it’s less sugar you’re looking for, go ahead and test it out. Who knows, you might come up with your perfect version of a treat!