How to reduce sugar in yeast bread: a simple fix

You’ve decided to cut back on the sugar in your diet. But you love to bake. It’s the baker’s conundrum! Thankfully, if you’re a bread baker, it’s easier to reduce sugar in yeast bread than in almost any other type of treat.

Cookies with a lower amount of sugar won’t spread properly. Reduced-sugar cakes may not rise as high. But sugar doesn’t affect the structure of yeast bread, except in a positive way: the lower the amount of sugar, the stronger a loaf’s rise.

And as for texture, reduced-sugar cakes or muffins may be tough and rubbery; and cookies tend to crumble. But when you reduce sugar in yeast bread, the only textural difference you might see is a tendency towards dryness.

Why is this? Sugar is hygroscopic; that means it attracts and holds moisture. Without sugar, moisture evaporates from bread during baking, creating a drier loaf. The more sugar you cut from a sweet yeast bread recipe, the more you’ll notice this effect. But omit the 2 tablespoons of sugar in your sandwich bread recipe, and the change in moisture level is subtle at most.

How about keeping qualities: does bread with sugar stay fresh longer? Yes, to a degree. A typical sandwich loaf with 1 to 2 tablespoons sugar starts out slightly softer than bread without sugar and remains that way as the days pass. But at this level of sweetening, the difference isn’t dramatic.*

*The best way to keep sandwich bread fresh? Decide how much you’ll use up within a couple of days, and store it at room temperature. Slice the remainder of the loaf, wrap individual packets of slices (I wrap five at a time), place in a bread bag, and freeze.

Bottom line: When you reduce sugar in yeast bread, the result is nearly all about flavor. The amount of sugar you use in yeast bread is strictly up to you and your taste buds.

Attention, bakers: cutting the sugar in your yeast bread may be simpler than you think. Click To TweetHow to reduce sugar in yeast bread via @kingarthurflour

Now, consider the sugar in breads and rolls whose flavor hallmark is sweetness. Will you be happy removing 100% of the sugar from a frosted cinnamon roll recipe, for instance?

No, probably not (though you can certainly reduce the sugar to a degree). You need to use common sense when looking at your recipe. Is sugar a major part of the experience (as in that beloved cinnamon roll)? Or is it secondary? (Think whole wheat bread.) How can you tell ahead of time?

Baker’s percentage can guide how you reduce sugar in yeast bread

Sweetness is subjective; people perceive sugar levels in very different ways. That said, you can use baker’s percentage (the weight of any ingredient in a recipe compared to the weight of the recipe’s flour) to gauge ahead of time just how sweet your bread might taste — and therefore how much sugar you’re willing to cut.

How to reduce sugar in yeast bread via @kingarthurflour

After some experimentation, I’ve decided a baker’s percentage of 10% sugar is the cutoff for sugar being a bit player instead of a star. Our Classic Sandwich Bread recipe, for example, calls for 2 tablespoons (25g) sugar and 3 cups (361g) flour. Let’s do the math: 25 ÷ 361 = 7%. When I sample this sandwich bread, my overall perception is simply “This tastes good;” not “This tastes sweet.”

How to reduce sugar in yeast bread via @kingarthurflour

Jump over to Portuguese Sweet Bread, however, and the story changes. With 1/3 cup (67g) sugar and 3 1/4 cups (390g) flour, the baker’s percentage of sugar is 17%. And when I sample a slice, my first impression is “This is sweet bread.”

How do you know how much sugar you can take out of that sweet bread recipe, and still perceive it as sweet? Don’t go below 10% baker’s percentage.

Interested in finding out more about adjusting ingredient amounts in your favorite recipes? Read our post on baker’s percentage.

OK, enough with the math and science. Want to hear the 10 things I learned while testing how to reduce sugar in yeast bread? Thought so!

How to reduce sugar in yeast bread via @kingarthurflour

1. The best way to reduce sugar in yeast bread? Start with a recipe that doesn’t use any.

Some bread recipes use no sugar at all: think baguettes. If you’re determined to bake bread using no sugar at all, choose a sugar-free recipe: it’s as simple as that.

2. Many breads use barely any sugar.

Let’s go back to that sandwich loaf, with 2 tablespoons of sugar. Once you slice it up, you’ll be getting about 1/3 teaspoon sugar in each serving. Worth cutting? Up to you.

How to reduce sugar in yeast bread via @kingarthurflour

3. Yeast doesn’t need sugar to grow.

Actually, it does; but it doesn’t need you to spoon-feed it from your sugar bowl. Yeast readily makes its own food supply by transforming flour’s starch into sugar. Yes, sugar jump-starts yeast right at the beginning, but yeast dough without sugar will soon catch up.

4. If you’re unsure if your yeast is good, test it with sugar.

Most older recipes call for “proofing” active dry yeast by mixing it with sugar and water. Bubbles, foam, and expansion after 10 minutes or so mean the yeast is good. If you question whether the yeast in that old packet you found is alive, “prove” it by mixing it with 1/4 teaspoon sugar and 1/4 cup warm water.

How to reduce sugar in yeast bread via @kingarthurflour

5. The more sugar in yeast dough, the more slowly it will rise.

Remember, sugar is hygroscopic. And in yeast dough, this means it can deprive yeast of the moisture it needs to grow. Ever waited impatiently for your sweet bread to rise? Blame the “arid” atmosphere; and change your yeast (see #6, below).

How to reduce sugar in yeast bread via @kingarthurflour

6. Special yeast helps high-sugar breads rise more quickly.

SAF Gold yeast is osmotolerant. Translation? It’s like a camel in the desert: it functions just fine with a limited amount of moisture. Use SAF Gold yeast in any recipe with more than 10% sugar (baker’s percentage), and you’ll see a faster rise.

7. A touch of sugar enhances flavor.

A small amount of sugar (like salt) enhances bread’s flavor. I’ve found anything up to 10% sugar (baker’s percentage) adds a certain richness to bread’s flavor without adding noticeable sweetness.

How to reduce sugar in yeast bread via @kingarthurflour

8. Sugar enhances browning — for better or worse.

Some of the sugar in yeast dough rises to the surface and caramelizes as bread bakes, yielding rich brown color. This may or may not be a good thing, though. The small amount of sugar in a sandwich loaf yields a nicely browned loaf. But the larger amount of sugar in panettone means you’ll need to tent it with foil as it bakes, to protect it from over-browning.

How to reduce sugar in yeast bread via @kingarthurflour

9. Bread with added sweet ingredients doesn’t require super-sweet dough.

If you’re making yeast bread with a good amount of dried fruit, chopped chocolate, or other sweet ingredients, cutting the amount of sugar in the dough is a no-brainer, taste-wise. Your tongue will focus on the sweet raisins and cherries, not the sugar-free bread surrounding them.

10. Think of sugar as a condiment, not the main dish.

Pure sugar on the tongue in the form of frosting or filling is perceived as much sweeter than any sugar in the bread itself. Lower the sugar in cinnamon rolls and sticky buns by first omitting some of the sugar from the dough.

Then, look at the filling and frosting. Again, look at your specific recipe: is there so much frosting that it’s mounded atop the rolls? So much brown sugar filling that it’s spilling out? Maybe a bit less of each will still provide the decadent rolls you want.

How to reduce sugar in yeast bread via @kingarthurflour

Here’s a tip: if you reduce the amount of frosting, stir in more liquid than you’d usually use. The more fluid your frosting, the easier it is to spread, the less you’ll use. Ditto the filling: if you use just plain brown sugar and cinnamon, add a bit of water to mix them into a slurry and paint it onto the dough before rolling and cutting.

Are you baking at altitude?

Remember, your yeast bread dough will rise more quickly anyway, so you may not need special yeast to help high-sugar breads rise.

Are you baking gluten-free?

These tips on reducing sugar in yeast bread apply equally well to those of you baking without gluten.

Do you have favorite tips for cutting back on the sugar in your yeast bread recipes? Please share in comments, below.

Want more information on reducing the sugar in your baking? Read these posts:

How to reduce sugar in muffins 
How to reduce sugar in cookies and bars
How to reduce sugar in cake

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. Tony

    Another factor: how about subbing, say, agave nectar for granulated sugar – if you’re looking for a sugar that metabolizes a bit differently in the body? Or does sucrose=sucrose=sucrose? Thanks HEAPS for the great advice – keep up the good work!

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Tony, you should be able to sub agave nectar, with possibly just a small tweak to the recipe. I’m not sure how liquid the nectar is; but you may find you have to cut back on the liquid in your recipe a bit in order to achieve the proper dough consistency. Good luck — PJH

    2. Reya

      Agave nectar is mostly fructose, which is metabolized in the liver, I believe. That’s some of the concern about consuming too much of it. Fructose tastes sweeter for a given amount than granulated sugar, which is sucrose. My mom used to bake with granulated fructose, and always used less than the recipe called for granulated sucrose.

  2. Chelsea

    Unrelated, but I would love a detailed post on how to make a layer cake if you guys are looking for topics!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Chelsea, thanks for your suggestion. We might already have what you’re looking for! If you’re interested in the mechanics of how to properly make a layer cake, this blog might be what you’re looking for. If you’re interested in finding a fantastic layer cake recipe and want to know how to make it, our articles about Milk Chocolate Layer Cake or Chocolate Mint Torte could be right up your alley. We hope that helps! Kye@KAF

  3. Annette

    I use only a pinch of sugar in my starter. My starter can be a volcano if I’m not careful lol. I have similar results with less sugar giving more rise. I don’t frost my cinnamon rolls if I’m keeping them for myself. If I am gifting them, I bring the frosting separate and let my friends frost if they want. I don’t care for overly sweet things. But I love the taste of my sourdough culture in the cinnamon or blueberry rolls. Life’s simple pleasures. Then I head to the gym to work it all off. 😬

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Annette, sounds like you’ve got the whole process down pat, from baking to sharing to working off those calories afterwards! Kudos — PJH

  4. eleveninadozen

    I love this series about reducing sugar and have been using some of the tips with good results. Thank you so much for publishing these guides!

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Our pleasure. The testing has been quite revelatory to me, and I love sharing what I’ve learned. 🙂 PJH

  5. alan

    PJ–I”ve been baking bread for close to 10 years now and am amazed at how I continually learn and how little I actually know, but yet still able to give advice to even more newbies. Thank you for your wonderful blog posts and shared info.

    One question I have about the retained moisture–is there a magic number for that? And does sugar act as a mold resister or promoter? I have done plenty of breads w/o sugar (i.e. sourdough, funny looking baguettes) that mold fairly quickly and others with sugar added that have a slightly longer shelf life. I generally just leave my breads at room temperature in your bread store bags.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Alan, congratulations on a near-decade of bread baking! Bet you’ve produced lots of yummy loaves over that timeframe – and learned a lot. Not sure what you’re referring to, with a magic number for retained moisture — like, how much moisture, exactly, does each gram of sugar retain? I know sugar is osmotic, but can’t tell you exactly how much – I suspect it depends somewhat on temperature. Sugar does act as a retarder for the growth of microbes, due to the fact, again, that it’s osmotic; it robs the pathogens of the water they need to thrive and survive. Bread will mold most quickly under hot, humid conditions; so if your weather’s reaching that, it’s best to store breads in the freezer. Hope this helps — PJH

  6. Mary C

    Thanks so much PJ for all of your very helpful tips! As a pre-diabetic that loves baking especially for the grandkids; I am concerned about excess suagr in all recipes. I have tried reducing sugar in my recipes, but by just a little never really having a standard to do so. I appreciate all of your posts! thanks

    Reply
  7. shirley

    A great post! I wonder how does substituting honey for sugar affect the rise and the browning of yeast or natural levain bread? Would you advise keeping a small amount of sugar in the dough and at what percentage? Keep up the good work. Thanks.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Shirley, you can go ahead and substitute honey for sugar. Depending on the amount, you might need to adjust the amount of liquid in the dough. And your bread will definitely brown more quickly and become deeper-colored if you use honey. But no need to keep granulated sugar in the recipe; yeast is very happy with honey. 🙂 PJH

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We haven’t, Gilbert, but we have done several others on the topic of sugar reduction. You can find links to each of those articles at the bottom of this one. Like sugar, salt serves a number of purposes in bread baking other than simply flavoring, including slowing down yeast activity and tightening the gluten structure. For a deep dive into the role of salt in bread, please visit the “Baker’s Reference” section of our site for professionals (but accessible to all). Mollie@KAF

  8. Marcia

    What a great information you provide. I love your blog “King Arthur”. Thank you.
    I don’t cook too much now because we’re just the two of us with my husband, and being older, we need to focus in eating without nothing in excess.

    Reply
  9. Jeff Poulsen

    Some bread recipes utilize molasses, honey, or maple syrup for the sugar. Do these ingredients behave the same as plain white sugar? Their tastes are nicer than white sugar.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Jeff, sugar is sugar as far as yeast is concerned. So go ahead and try substituting your favorite liquid sweeteners (I like maple syrup). You may have to adjust the amount of liquid in the recipe; and honey does make bread brown more quickly. But other than that, you shouldn’t see any significant difference. PJH

  10. Suzan

    Thank you for the great tips on reducing sugar!

    I was wondering how sugar substitutes or the Splenda blends that are partially sugar plus substitute would work in breads, sweet rolls, cakes, cookies or muffins?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Suzan, we don’t do much experimenting with sugar substitutes like Splenda, so we recommend checking the manufacturer’s recommendations for substitutions. You might also consider doing some experimentation of your own to see how different sweeteners affect the final product. Mollie@KAF

  11. AlanBD

    I was intrigued enough by the headline to read the article and (I’m from the UK) am amased that anyone would consider adding sugar to a bread dough.

    Reply
  12. Pam

    When freezing any kind of bread or rolls, wrap it in paper towel before putting it in the freezer bag. We usually portion out 4 slices of bread or 2 or 4 rolls, wrap in paper towel and put it in a freezer bag. When the bag is defrosted, the product is just as fresh as when baked (or purchased), This is especially helpful (and economical) for 2 persons or 1 person households.

    Reply
  13. Irene Raftopoulos

    I did not know the amount of sugars in bread reading your article i learn the rule of thump since i have a family with diabetic

    Thank you

    Reply
  14. Chuck Heger

    Hi PJ,
    I bake simple white bread every week for toast to help the morning pills. But having a rather busy schedule, I use a bread machine. I’m intrigued to try it without the sugar (typically 2T). But before trying this and then having to start over from a disastrous result I thought I would ask you about this. I have always been under the assumption that the yeast needed ‘food’. But maybe not! So, should I give it a go deleting the sugar? BTW, I also bake traditional bread (and other goodies) when I have the time. I find it a very therapeutic exercise.
    Cheers,

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Chuck, you can absolutely leave out the sugar; yeast doesn’t need it. That said, without any sugar your bread won’t brown quite as well, and probably won’t taste quite as good; sugar is a flavor enhancer, just like salt. Good to try it and see how you like it, though. More therapy, right? 🙂 PJH

  15. DavidJames

    I have noticed Truvia packaged for baking in the grocery store. I have not had the guts to try baking with this stuff yet. Have you used the Truvia in your baking?
    If yes, your opinion As to it’s taste and texture.
    Thank you

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We don’t typically test with sugar substitutes ourselves, David, so we can’t offer much in the way of an opinion here. Maybe some of our other readers have experimented with this product and would be willing to share their thoughts? Mollie@KAF

    2. CAROL LESLEY SIMMONS

      Try xylitol it’s natural and can be use like sugar…good for teeth…Google it, it sounds chemical but it’s not

  16. CAROL LESLEY SIMMONS

    Very interesting read, thanks, my biggest concern as a diabetic is that eating bread at all is a hefty dose of carbs which by any other name is sugar so debating the use of a couple of tablespoons of sugar in any recipe with carbs in is a bit redundant…got any recipes for low carb bread?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We appreciate the challenge of baking for a diabetic diet, Carol, and we’re happy to play what role we can in helping you bake treats that are both delicious and right for you. We aren’t able to make specific dietary recommendations ourselves, so we recommend starting with a conversation with your doctor or nutritionist about which KAF recipes or products might be a good fit for your dietary needs. To help in this, we make full nutritional information available for all KAF brand products and many of our recipes online. When viewing a product on our website, click on the link that says “Nutrition + ingredients” under the orange “Add to Cart” button. When viewing a recipe, click on the link that says “nutrition information” in the “At a Glance” section. Here you’ll be able to see total sugars, carbohydrates, calories, and more. Additionally, you may find useful recipes provided by the American Diabetic Association on their website: http://bakewith.us/k9 as well from other sources we’ve come across in our travels, like http://bakewith.us/k5 and http://bakewith.us/k0 Hope this helps and happy baking! Mollie@KAF

  17. Sumner Sternstein

    Wow what a great article. There are may things that bakers do that we don’t know why we do them. We find out by trial and error.The information that you provide fills in the they how and why. I love these articles. Not only do these type of articles encourage me to try new things, give me confidence and produce great food, but make it great fun.

    I am diabetic on an insulin pump. When it comes to bread and other baked goods the only way I know to help you control your blood glucose is portion control. I eat bread 2 times a day. I have learned to slice very thin slices. I also agree that the best advise is consult with your doctor, diabetic educator and dietitian.

    Reply
  18. Aaron

    Hi PJ,

    What does the reduced-sugar, rapid rise do to flavor? You explained it will make it less sweet but we’ve been taught rise time equals flavor.

    Thanks

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Aaron, a longer rise doesn’t promote sweetness in yeast bread; rather, it enriches flavor with the addition of a slight tang from acetic acid, and the enhancing qualities of alcohol and organic acids (which I like to think of as promoting a kind of umami flavor). But if you’re talking about a sweet yeast bread, a shorter rise is generally fine, as you want toe main flavor to be sweet, not savory. Hope this helps — PJH

  19. Astrid Grant

    Thank you for so much info. I have been baking bread for years and never dared to cut down on sugar . thanks again.

    Reply

Post a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *