Baking with reduced sugar: 10 key takeaways

OK, how many of you out there say you want to cut back on the sugar in your baked goods? (But not, of course, on their flavor, texture, and overall yumminess.) Now, before you envision an endless battle between your conscience, willpower, and your passion for chocolate chip cookies, let me tell you: baking with reduced sugar can be… well, a piece of cake: so long as you know what you’re doing.

Here are 10 handy things to know as you explore baking with reduced sugar. Click To Tweet

Baking with reduced sugar via @kingarthurflour

1. Many recipes use less sugar to begin with

Most savory yeast breads include no sugar at all. Ditto some pancakes, biscuits, popovers, and other treats. Cutout cookies are generally lower in sugar than oatmeal cookies. Pie compared to cake? No contest; fruit pie is generally much lower in sugar than the typical cake. Read recipes carefully; compare their sugar levels using baker’s percentage (below). You’ll soon discover which recipes are naturally lower in sugar.

Baking with reduced sugar via @kingarthurflour

2. Reduce sugar in recipes the smart way: use baker’s percentage

Baker’s percentage is a simple process professional bakers use to adjust ingredient amounts in a recipe. Want to lower the sugar in your muffin recipe, but don’t know how to start? Learn baker’s percentage, and you’ll avoid much of the guesswork involved in tweaking your recipe to taste.

Baking with reduced sugar via @kingarthurflour

On top, our Sprouted Wheat Vanilla Chai Bars with the full amount of sugar. Below, with their sugar reduced by 75%.

3. Baking with reduced sugar can affect texture and shelf life

Sugar is hygroscopic; i.e., it attracts and holds water. Baked goods with sugar (and thus more retained water) tend to be softer, moister, and have better shelf life. The more you reduce sugar (without any other adjustments), the drier and more crumbly your baked goods will be — and the shorter their shelf life.

Baking with reduced sugar via @kingarthurflour

4. Baking with reduced sugar lessens browning

Caramelization and the Maillard reaction are two chemical processes that help baked goods brown; sugar is involved in both. Reduce the sugar in your baked goods, and you reduce their potential to brown. Remember that when assessing when to pull lower-sugar baked goods out of the oven: go by brownness alone, and you’ll probably risk overbaking.

Baking with reduced sugar via @kingarthurflour

5. Reducing sugar affects overall flavor as well as sweetness

Baking with reduced sugar produces less-sweet treats, of course, but lack of sugar also tends to increase blandness as well. Like salt, sugar is a flavor enhancer. Reduce the sugar in your chocolate chip cookies, and the flavors of butter, chocolate, and vanilla will all be less apparent.

Baking with reduced sugar via @kingarthurflour

6. Reducing sugar in cookies can produce drastic changes

Sugar attracts and holds water in cookie dough; but during baking, it releases that water, absorbing it once again as cookies cool. The result? Balls of cookie dough spread and flatten as they bake. The less sugar you use, the less cookies will spread.

In addition, think of sugar in its normal state: it’s crunchy, right? Sugar helps produce crunch in cookies; so lower-sugar cookies will be cakey and crumbly, not crisp. Of all the baked treats you enjoy, successfully reducing sugar in cookies is probably the toughest challenge.

Baking with reduced sugar via @kingarthurflour

7. Be careful when reducing sugar in chocolate treats

It’s not a good idea to reduce the sugar in brownies, chocolate cake, and other treats to the same degree you do in non-chocolate baked goods. A certain amount of sugar is necessary simply to balance cocoa’s bitter flavor; reduce the sugar too much, and that bitterness comes through in an unpleasant way.

Baking with reduced sugar via @kingarthurflour

8. Increase perceived sweetness by using sugar as a condiment

Sprinkle sparkling sugar atop muffins before baking; glaze scones with a confectioners’ sugar drizzle; brush vanilla-enhanced simple syrup atop a baked cake. That immediate, strong hit of sugar in each bite helps disguise the fact there’s less sugar in what’s underneath.

Baking with reduced sugar via @kingarthurflour

9. Take advantage of fruit’s natural sweetness

The sugar in fruit (fresh or dried) comes in a package with other nutritional attributes: beta-carotenes, perhaps, or fiber. The sugar you bake with — granulated, light brown, et. al. — is nutritionally empty. Adding fruit to baked goods, when appropriate, is a good way to balance the sweetness you lose by reducing added sugar.

Baking with reduced sugar via @kingarthurflour

10. Think. Test. Taste.

There’s no hard-and-fast formula for baking with reduced sugar that will cover every single thing you bake. Take what you know, apply it to your favorite recipe, and see what happens. The more you experiment, the more comfortable you’ll be tackling new reduced-sugar challenges.

Now, let’s get specific here. Cookies, cake, muffins… each type of baked good reacts a bit differently to reducing its sugar. For the details, see these posts:

How to reduce sugar in cookies and bars
How to reduce sugar in cake
How to reduce sugar in yeast breads
How to reduce sugar in pie
How to reduce sugar in muffins

Do you reduce the sugar in your favorite recipes? Please share your favorite tips in comments, below.

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. Erin in PA

    Thank you so much for this series, PJ and King Arthur. I have made drastic changes in my diet for my health, and although I am generally happy with those changes, there are times I miss bread and sweet treats. Reading recipes I made in the past I do really notice the amount of sugar and have been hesitant to make them, knowing how much harm sugar can have with my digestion and family’s health. These blog posts have been a life-saver! I now have a compass in which to try some of our treasured recipes with a bit less sugar, but still the flavor and memories! Happy Baking!

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Mary, if you have your own favorite recipes, try reducing the sugar in them sometime, by following the links at the bottom of this post. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the result! PJH

    2. Susan

      With quick breads, I have found it easy to slash the amount of sugar dramatically. I make whole-wheat zucchini muffins using about 1/2 c sugar for 36 muffins (the original recipe calls for 2 c), and I make whole-wheat banana muffins using ~1/4 c sugar for 24 muffins (the original recipe also calls for 2 c). Whenever I approach a new muffin recipe, I can’t even bring myself to use all the sugar called for–I almost always use about 25%, give or take. I recommend taking the plunge and adjusting for future recipes to taste. I find that when you become used to less sweetness, there’s no going back to full-on sugar.

    3. MaryJo

      I absentmindedly left out HALF the sugar in my favorite chocolate cake recipe:
      2 cups (400 grams) granulated white sugar
      3/4 cup (63 grams) unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted
      2 cups (240 grams) all-purpose flour
      1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
      1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
      1/2 teaspoon salt
      2 large eggs
      1 cup coffee
      1 cup whole milk
      1/2 cup canola oil
      1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
      Whisk together the dry ingredients, then add the remaining ingredients and whisk until smooth. Bake at 350°F for 350 to 40 minutes for 8″ layers.
      So instead of 2 cups of sugar, I only added 1 cup. I didn’t realize it until the layers were in the oven, but it was all the sugar, eggs, and milk that I had on hand, so I decided to let it go. Since this was going to be a birthday cake, I knew my cream cheese buttercream frosting would cover my goof. As it turned out, the cake was just fine and NOT ONE SINGLE PERSON noticed the difference!

    4. Debbie B

      I make oatmeal cookies using the recipe on the oatmeal box, but I leave out all of the white sugar, leaving only the brown sugar in the correct amount called for. I add walnuts (just because I like them) and sometimes I use dried cherries instead of raisins. The only other change I make is using butter that has added olive oil but I’m not sure if that affects the outcome – which is perfect every time!

    5. PJ Hamel , post author

      Thanks for sharing, Debbie – oatmeal cookies are a good candidate for reduced sugar, as oats have their own special mild sweetness. PJH

  2. Aimee Ryan

    Now that was good information that will seriously up my baking game! It also shows me that King Arthur is the best source for better baking! Thank you!

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Thanks, Aimee! Our mission is to make baking fun and successful for everyone, no matter what your tastes, proficiency level, or dietary concerns. Best wishes as you continue to improve your game — PJH

    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Helen, maple sugar is soooo tasty, too, isn’t it? It’s not as overpoweringly sweet as granulated sugar, and I feel it doesn’t mask the flavors of the other ingredients as strongly as granulated sugar. Thanks for sharing your thoughts here — PJH

  3. Rebecca Strite

    I appreciate this post on reducing sugar in baking. If one were to bake with sweet leaf a product like stevia, how does one calculate the proportions to sugar.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      The answer to your question depends on what form of stevia you’re using, as this is the natural sweetener that’s used in multiple sugar alternatives. If you’re using Sweet Leaf Stevia, there is a conversion chart on their website that will help you make the swap. Stevia is also a primary sweetener in Truvia Baking Blend, and in that case it’s about twice as sweet as sugar so you can use half as much. They also have conversion charts on their website that you can print out to use while baking. Bottom line: check the resources that are provided based on the sweetener you’re using. Kye@KAF

  4. Jan

    Thank you for the sugar information. My husband is diabetic so sugar is a big no but he can have small amounts. Also, additives in every day mixes and foods contain sugars with different names. We have turned more and more to King Arthur mixes and recipes for their wholesome goodness (as a matter of fact my husband told me to get rid of all of the non-King Arthur mixes in our cupboard). When we want bread or a special treat King Arthur is THE best source.

    Reply
  5. Lucia

    I read that brown sugar tastes sweeter than white, so I tried substituting it in an apple cake recipe (3/4 cup brown instead of 1 1/2 cups white). The cake tasted great! Your thoughts?

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Lucia, brown sugar is 97% sugar while granulated is 100% sugar, so it’s actually a bit less sweet; but it has more flavor than white sugar, so probably that’s what your taste buds are experiencing. Your cake would probably taste just as sweet with 3/4 cup white sugar, but it wouldn’t taste as yummy, I suspect, simply due to the added flavor nuance of molasses that brown sugar offers. PJH

  6. Marie Looby

    So many in my age group, +65, have diabetes ll when I bring food it is usually desert. Are there sugar substitutes and equivalent amounts that you can educate about? No doing well investigating on my own.
    Go KAF.
    Marie in MA

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Hi Marie – I’ve only tested Truvia for Baking, and only in pie, so I can’t really help you beyond that. Have you tried Truvia for Baking in your investigations so far? If not, give it a try — I suspect it would work in other types of baked goods, especially those (like stir-together muffins) that don’t rely on granulated sugar for their structure. Good luck — PJH

  7. Marie Mac Donald

    what is your recipe for pie crust using sour cream and baking powder thank you ,I love your site… Marie

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Marie, it sounds like you might be looking for the crust recipe that’s used in our Blueberry Hand Pies recipe, which uses sour cream to tenderize and baking powder to add a slight lift. You can also use the crust part of this recipe to make a full 9″ pie if you like. Enjoy! Kye@KAF

  8. Kathy

    I reduced the sugar in the filling of the Raspberry Puff Turnovers by about 40% without adverse effect. I shared them with my neighbors. My nextdoor neighbor keeps hinting for more, more, more!

    Reply
  9. Alison Taylor

    Mary asked for our own reduced sugar recipes… I have tinkered with the traditional pumpkin bread recipe for 20+ years, and found that the best modifications that maintain all the characteristics of this quick bread are to reduce the sugar by a third, the oil from 1 c to 1/4 c, and add 1 c unsweetened applesauce (this is a recipe that makes two 9×5 loaf pans). I’ve been able to replicate this with other quick breads with reasonable success. I haven’t tried to reduce sugar in anything else, however. Good luck!

    Reply
    1. Denise

      Do you have the whole pumpkin bread recipe with your modifications? It sounds yummy and much healthier.

    2. Susan Burke

      I have used applesauce in quick breads, muffins and fruity cakes for years to reduce the oil… with great success. I have never reduced the sugar along with it. Great idea!

  10. Helen

    Thank you PJ for an excellent article. My husband & I do not like overly sweet treats and I do reduce the sugar in our morning muffins including the King Arthur’s wonderful Morning Glory muffins. And interesting I reduce it about 50% and it seems to work very well. I found if I reduced it any lower it did affect the color, taste and texture. Now that I have the formula and will be able to reduce sugar with confidence that my recipe will be successful.

    Reply
  11. Zelda

    I make my own applesauce & never put sugar in it. I try to blend sweeter apples with tart to get a balanced flavor. I then use the applesauce for half of the sugar in recipes. I often use honey where I can. I love to use overripe bananas because they are sweeter & the sugar can be reduced without noticing. I’ve been making no-churn nice cream with the bananas, frozen, cocoa powder, no sugar, and organic natural peanut butter. Blend in a food processor quickly so as not to soften it too much and you have healthy, naturally sweet, protein packed soft serve. It’s really good.
    Nice cream recipe:
    3 overripe bananas, cut and lay flat on baking sheet, freeze solid.
    1/3 cup cocoa powder, like Hershey”s Dutch processed.
    3 heaping tablespoons of peanut butter, divided 2T goes into food processor. 1T to swirl through after nice cream is out of mixer.
    Enjoy
    I’ve been experimenting with bananas, protein powder, Greek yogurt & vanilla extract. OR
    bananas, coconut milk, coconut extract & honey.

    Reply
  12. Laurie

    Thanks—are there any low sugar recipes that turn out. I am a cookie monster but, I try to stay away fr[m sugar and fats.

    Reply
  13. muriel jamison

    that picture doesn’t look very appetizing. won’t want any cookies that look that flat and colorless………………

    Reply
  14. LMD

    I’ve been reducing sugar in breakfast muffins. It works by reducing the sugar. Now I don’t like buying muffins because they are too sweet

    Reply
  15. Tura

    I want to try MaryJo’s reduced-sugar chocolate cake, but I would love to have that Cream Cheese Buttercream Frosting recipe.
    Anyone have that?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Tura, we don’t have that exact recipe, but we do have a recipe for Cream Cheese Frosting that also includes some butter to ensure a velvety texture and flavor. It would go perfectly with a not-too-sweet chocolate cake. Kye@KAF

  16. Elizabeth Kilmarx

    I made King Arthur Flour’s chocolate chocolate-chip muffins the other day. Because they are supposed to be a muffin, the recipe doesn’t have too much sugar. I reduced the sugar just a bit more as well. With buttercream frosting they made delicious (sweet but not over-sweet) cupcakes.

    Reply
  17. Margaret Sutter

    Please, why can not u just add additional cinnamon which adds sweetness and more vanilla to the mixture. Why cannot u reduce the sugar-like I love your Buttermilk lemon cake. I added yogurt this time-1 table spoon vanilla, 2 teaspoons of cinnamon to my blueberries. Just to try to reduce the sugar. I thin next time I am going to use the kodyak cake muffin mix, add black berries & lemon juice & try that with yogurt. Blessings. I have a reaction to too much sugar & not enough protein. Thanks anyway.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Margaret, you’re welcome to use less sugar and instead increase other flavorful ingredients like cinnamon or vanilla to make sure the final baked good still tastes good. If you need any baking tips beyond this article or advice about how to do reduce the sugar successfully, you’re welcome to give our Baker’s Hotline a call at 855-371-BAKE(2253). We’d happy to help. Kye@KAF

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