Baking with liquid sweeteners

Are you ready to think beyond white granulated sugar? We are. The truth is, sugar comes in many flavors and forms, including liquid. Certain less-processed liquid sweeteners are packed with complex, layered flavors that lend themselves perfectly to baking. But changing a favorite recipe from using dry to liquid sugar can feel daunting.

This is where we come in: we’re here to ease your baking fears with some tips that unlock the unique taste and moist texture that comes from baking with liquid sweeteners.

Honey, maple syrup, and molasses are three liquid sweeteners commonly used in baking. They’re easily accessible and also delicious, so we’re focusing on these ingredients. If your favorite liquid sweetener isn’t in this lineup, don’t fret — our findings can be applied to other sweeteners, too (although without testing, no guarantees).

Baking with liquid sweeteners via @kingarthurflour

Let’s take a closer look at these three ingredients so you know what to expect when baking with liquid sweeteners.

Baking with liquid sweeteners via @kingarthurflour

First up is honey. There are many varieties to choose from, each with its own slightly unique flavor.

Honey

  • Flavor: floral and sweeter than sugar
  • Browning: browns quickly because of the types of sugars it contains (glucose and fructose)
  • Water content/acidity: 17%relatively acidic
  • Best in: soft-textured baked goods like cake
Baking with liquid sweeteners via @kingarthurflour

Next on the table is what some of us Vermonters call liquid gold: maple syrup. It’s made from boiling down the sap of maple trees.

Maple syrup

  • Flavor: can range from mild to robust based on what grade you use. If you choose the dark, lower grade varietals, its flavor will be delightfully caramelly.
  • Browning: browns less quickly than honey but slightly faster than granulated sugar (the sugars are mostly sucrose)
  • Water content/acidity: 34%, mildly acidic (less acidic than honey)
  • Best in: any recipe that’s lightly sweetened; also good in cookies, candy, and glazes

Note: don’t be fooled by “fake” maple syrup, where the primary ingredient is corn syrup. Its sweetness dissipates in baking, so reach for real maple syrup.

Baking with liquid sweeteners via @kingarthurflour

Finally we examine molasses, a byproduct of refining sugarcane or sugar beets.

Molasses

  • Flavor: the intensity ranges based on what kind you’re using, but it can have bitter undertones and hints of malt. Not quite as sweet as honey or maple syrup.
  • Browning: the dark color turns baked goods a deep golden brown.
  • Water content /acidity: 20-22%, slightly acidic
  • Best in: recipes that use spices and/or fall fruits and vegetables (think apple crisp, cranberry bread, pumpkin pie)

Baking with liquid sweeteners via @kingarthurflour

How to substitute liquid sweeteners in baking

Each sweetener is unique and changes baked goods in a slightly different way. Here’s what you need to know when using them to replace the sugar in your recipe:

Honey for sugar

Honey is sweeter than sugar, so you can use about 3/4 the amount of honey when making your substitution (e.g., for 1 cup of sugar, use a generous 3/4 cup of honey). Decrease the liquid by 3 to 4 tablespoons per 1 cup substitution. No added liquid in your recipe? Add about 3 to 4 tablespoons of additional flour for every cup of honey used (about 1 tablespoon per 1/4 cup).

Tip: Don’t use honey in recipes that need to be baked at over 350°F; it scorches.

Maple syrup for sugar

Maple syrup is about as sweet as sugar, so you can replace it using an equal amount of syrup (e.g., for 1 cup of sugar, use 1 cup of maple syrup). Decrease the liquid by 3 to 4 tablespoons per 1 cup substitution. The same rule applies here if there’s no liquid called for in the recipe: add about 1 tablespoon of additional flour for every 1/4 cup of maple syrup used.

Tip: Make sure you use room temperature maple syrup, especially if baking with butter. Cold syrup can cause the other ingredients to clump.

Molasses for sugar

Use the same approach when substituting molasses: replace the sugar with an equal amount of molasses by volume (e.g., for 1 tablespoon of sugar, use 1 tablespoon of molasses). Adjust the liquids/flour in the same way, adding 1 tablespoon of flour for every 1/4 cup of molasses used if there’s no liquid added to the recipe; otherwise reduce it accordingly. Note that molasses does tend to be more robust in flavor than maple syrup, so it’s best used in small quantities or combined with other sweeteners.

Tip: Very dark molasses (blackstrap) can turn bitter when baked, so save it for savory applications.

Baking with liquid sweeteners via @kingarthurflour

Keep in mind you can adjust the amount of liquid sweetener to meet your taste preferences. Most recipes can handle at least a 10% to 25% reduction in sugar, which holds true when you’re baking with liquid sweeteners too. (For details on how to reduce sugar in baking, check out this series of articles.)

OK, let’s start baking with liquid sweeteners!

Baking with liquid sweeteners via @kingarthurflour

Testing liquid sweeteners in baking

We picked a few of our favorite recipes to see happens when we use liquid sweeteners to replace the sugar in some typical types of baking. We tested many variations of muffins, bread, pie, cookies, and cake — here we share some of our most successful substitutions.

Don’t feel limited by the pairings below. You can expect similar results from whatever liquid sweetener you use, with slight differences in flavor and color.

Baking with liquid sweeteners via @kingarthurflour

Basic Muffins made with molasses: the dark golden color of the muffins is stunning. They rise higher than expected and bake quicker than the original version. They receive a 10 for appearance and have a unique, malty flavor. They’re not very sweet, so next time I’d sprinkle some sparkling sugar on the top for extra sweetness and shine.

The verdict: Muffins made with liquid sweeteners will rise nicely and have a slightly more coarse crumb.

Baking with liquid sweeteners via @kingarthurflour

The loaf made with honey was just slightly darker than the original recipe.

Walter Sands’ Basic White Bread made with honey: yeast breads might just be the easiest recipes to adapt when baking with liquid sweeteners. With just a few tablespoons of sugar called for in the original recipe, there’s no real difference in flavor, crumb, or rise between the two loaves. 

The verdict: Yeast breads made with liquid sweeteners may brown faster than those made with sugar but will be quite similar to the original version.

Baking with liquid sweeteners via @kingarthurflour

We aren’t sure which liquid sweetener will fare best in fruit pie, so we test all three versions and compare it to the original made with sugar.

Mixed Berry Pie made with each of the three liquid sweeteners: honey, molasses, and maple syrup. The molasses-sweetened version is quickly out of the running; it has a strange, off-putting color and isn’t quite sweet enough. The flavor of honey pairs best with the berries, while the maple syrup version doesn’t seem all that different from the original.

The verdict: Liquid sweeteners thin the consistency of pie filling, so increase your thickener by 10% to 25%, depending on your preference.

Baking with liquid sweeteners via @kingarthurflour

Baking with liquid sweeteners in cookies

On to another serious subject: cookies! Since cookies can vary widely in texture, we decide to test two different kinds to see how baking with liquid sweeteners affects both a soft and a crispy cookie. You can expect other liquid sweeteners to produce similar results — we’re simply sharing our favorite combinations here.

Baking with liquid sweeteners via @kingarthurflour

Maple syrup replaced the sugar in the Soft Chocolate Chip Cookies on the left; the original version is on the right.

Soft Cookies made with maple syrup: they have a rich, almost brown sugar-like flavor and are super moist. They’re darker in color and have some small holes on the surface. Their unique, maple-y flavor make my taste buds sing. Bonus: the maple syrup-sweetened cookies stay pleasantly fresh longer than expected, about five days.

The verdict: Using liquid sweeteners in soft cookies will make them slightly crumbly and cakey; they may also spread more than the original version.

Baking with liquid sweeteners via @kingarthurflour

Molasses replaced the sugar in the Buttersnaps on the left; the original made with sugar on the right is surprisingly similar in height and spread.

Crispy cookies made with molasses: they spread quite a bit during baking, and so does the batch made with sugar. Both end up being very thin, but the cookies made with sugar become crispy once they cool. For people who don’t like overly sweet treats and enjoy a tender cookie, molasses for sugar might be the perfect swap to make.

The verdict: Crispy cookies made with liquid sweeteners will start soft and remain tender, even after one to two days.

Baking with liquid sweeteners via @kingarthurflourBaking with liquid sweeteners in cake

Like cookies, we decide to test two different kinds of cake: one that uses the creaming method and another that’s a simple stir-together, oil-based cake. We use honey for these two tests, but you can use whatever liquid sweetener you think will pair best with the flavors in your cake.

Baking with liquid sweeteners via @kingarthurflour

Honey replaced the sugar in the Classic Yellow Cake on the left; the original made with sugar is on the right.

Creamed cake made with honey: it’s surprisingly phenomenal! Our research tells us using honey (or any liquid sweetener) to make a creamed cake is going to be a flop. It’s commonly stated that liquid sweeteners aren’t reliable substitutes in recipes that call for creaming the butter and sugar together. Since liquid sweeteners don’t have a granular structure, they don’t create the tiny air pockets that make baked goods light and fluffy.

Regardless, the combination of honey, vanilla, and almond extract is magical. It bakes much darker than the original version, but still has an attractive look with a notably flat top — perfect for topping with fresh berries!

The verdict: Baking creamed cakes with liquid sweeteners can be risky but rewarding; expect your cake to be slightly more dense, but also lusciously moist and delicate, too.

Baking with liquid sweeteners via @kingarthurflour

Honey replaced the sugar in the Cake Pan Cake on the left giving it a slightly red hue; the original made with sugar is on the right.

Oil-based cake made with honey: it turns a pleasant chestnut brown because of the reaction between the acidic honey and the Dutch-process cocoa powder. The fragrance of honey and chocolate together is novel and intriguing to say the least. This cake, like some of the other baked goods made with liquid sweeteners, has small pin holes along the surface.

Why the holes? The slightly acidic nature of liquid sweeteners like honey creates a more elastic gluten network. The air bubbles in the batter expand as the cake bakes and eventually burst through the top of the cake, creating lots of teeny, tiny holes. (Don’t worry, it doesn’t take away from the presentation or intriguing flavor of the baked goods.)

The verdict: Baking with liquid sweeteners makes oil-based cakes more crumbly and delicate, as well as super moist.

Baking with liquid sweeteners via @kingarthurflour

Baking with liquid sweeteners: key takeaways

To make the most of liquid sweeteners in baking, here’s what you need to remember:

  • For every cup of liquid sweetener used, reduce the added liquid in the recipe by about 3 to 4 tablespoons.
  • If the recipe contains no added liquid, increase the flour by about 3 to 4 tablespoons for every cup of liquid sweetener used (about 1 tablespoon per 1/4 cup).
  • Adjust the liquid sweetener to taste, noting that honey is the sweetest of commonly used liquid sweeteners.
  • When you use a liquid sweetener, you’ll have a moister, softer final product.
  • Approach recipes that call for creaming butter and sugar together with caution. Expect a slightly more moist, dense final product.

Finally, remember that these tests are examples of the many possibilities that await — mix and match your favorite liquid sweeteners and recipes, expecting similar general results but unexplored nuances in flavor and texture.

Baking with liquid sweeteners brings new flavors and textures to your favorite baked goods. Click To Tweet

We hope you feel encouraged to experiment with recipes and your sweetener of choice. If you stumble across any fantastic combinations when baking with liquid sweeteners, let us know in the comments, below.

Thanks to Anne Mientka for taking the photographs for this post.

Kye Ameden
About

Kye Ameden grew up in Fairlee, Vermont and has always had a love of food, farms, and family. After graduating from St. Lawrence University, she became an employee-owner at King Arthur Flour and is a proud member of the Digital Engagement Team.

comments

    1. Kye Ameden , post author

      Hi Marty, we did a few tests using our Measure for Measure Flour alongside liquid sweeteners and found they behaved quite similarly to the gluten-full versions highlighted here. In some cases, the liquid sweeteners even made a better final result, as it added moistness which is sometimes lacking in gluten-free baked goods. It’s certainly worth trying the next time you have a gluten-free recipe you’d like to make. Kye@KAF

  1. Alisa R.

    Excellent! Very helpful article, we’ve been using honey and maple syrup for over a year now in our baked goods for health reasons, this recipe this article really helped with the problems we’ve been having- spreading, crumbling, even though we eat everything we try!

    Reply
  2. Stacy Krogh

    This is so interesting and really helpful. Thank you! So one question: we were given a gift of some very distinctive honey from the Middle East. What recipe would best showcase its flavor?

    Reply
    1. Kye Ameden , post author

      What an interesting gift! If you use your special honey in our Honey Cake recipe, we think you’ll be pleased with all the flavors that come through. There’s a whole cup of honey that’s called for in the cake, so there’s no missing it! Or if you’re looking for something super simple, you could always make a loaf of basic white bread and serve it drizzled with some of your honey or a pat of honey butter. Happy baking! Kye@KAF

  3. Stephanie

    Thank you so much for helping us improve the health value of KAF’s otherwise so excellent recipes! I have enjoyed “converting” many of your traditional recipes; understanding the science will speed things along!

    Reply
  4. Becky Kuehn

    Thank you so much for this wonderful article. I have been searching for ways to reduce granulated sugar in my baking and cooking. This is perfect. Honey, pure maple syrup and molasses are much more healthy than granulated sugar!

    Reply
  5. Nancy Vogel

    Great article! I make a lot of yeast bread, and often wanted to try honey or maple syrup to sweeten the breads.( I already have used the molasses in oatmeal or wheat breads. I don’t think that the liquid sweetners will make a difference in soft chocolate chip cookies lasting longer as we seldom have those cookies around for that long.

    Reply
  6. Lois E Kujawa

    Any tips on using maple syrup or honey to make flavored butters? Trying to stay away from using commercially prepared items for health reasons. Thanks

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid

      Hi, Lois.
      Flavored butters are pretty easy to do. Simply put cool room temperature butter into a mixer and beat and low to medium speed until smooth. If you’re using unsalted butter, add a quarter teaspoon of salt for each 4-ounce stick. Then add a tablespoon of honey or maple syrup per stick to the mixing bowl and mix until smooth. Be sure to scrape the bowl to ensure the flavor is incorporated. A bit of vanilla or almond extract would be great with the honey; for maple butter we recommend a dash of maple flavor as well.

      Hope this is useful to you. Susan

  7. Maria

    If I measure by weight (much easier with sticky stuff like honey), do I keep the weight of 1 cup sugar or the heavier weight of 1 cup maple syrup, for example?

    Reply
    1. Kye Ameden , post author

      We hear you, Maria. We like baking by weights too, especially when it comes to using ingredients like honey and maple syrup. Since 1 cup of sugar doesn’t weigh the same as 1 cup of honey or syrup (or other liquid sweeteners), it tends to be easiest to make the initial substitution using volume, and then calculate the weight of the amount you should use. For example, if your recipe calls for 2 cups of sugar, you can use 1 1/2 cups of honey (or less if you prefer a slightly less sweet baked good). You can then calculate the weight of this amount of honey using our Ingredient Weight Chart. 1 cup of honey weighs 12 ounces, so in total you’d want to use about 18 ounces of honey in this example. Happy baking! Kye@KAF

  8. Connie Donovan

    I love your article. I find it very helpful. However I have been told when substituting honey or maple syrup for sugar to cut it by one third—2/3 cup honey for 1 cup sugar. Who’s right?

    Reply
    1. Kye Ameden , post author

      Both are right, Connie! Honey is notably sweeter than sugar, so you can definitely use less of it in your baking. Some bakers prefer a slightly sweeter baked goods, in which case you can use 3/4 as much honey. Or if your taste buds tend to prefer less sweet treats, you can use 2/3 as much honey. Let your taste buds be your guide — there’s no right or wrong answer here. Kye@KAF

    1. Kye Ameden , post author

      We have tested out a few recipes, Pamela. Agave works very well in almost any recipe that calls for honey. You can also use it to replace the sugar in recipes in a similar way that you’d use honey. (Use about 2/3 to 3/4 of the amount, reducing the liquid or adding additional flour by 1 tablespoon for each quarter cup.) Baked goods made with agave also tend to brown faster than when other sweeteners are used, so keep your eyes closely on the baked goods to prevent them from burning. (Tenting with foil or turning down the oven temperature can be helpful here.) Kye@KAF

  9. Je

    Are honey and agave syrup pretty much interchangeable? Sometimes I feel like a lot of health food bloggers don’t understand all of the properties of ingredients and it’s frustrating when I try new, ‘healthier’ recipes.

    Reply
    1. Kye Ameden , post author

      Hi Je, we hear you. Agave and honey are easily interchangeable in most recipes, noting a few differences. Agave can contain up to 90% fructose, which means your baked goods will brown faster than if they were made with sugar (or even honey). You’ll want to check for doneness early and often, and perhaps even consider turning the oven temperature down by 25°F to prevent scorching. Like honey, it has a low level of acidity. If you’re going to use agave to replace the sugar in a recipe, you can use about 3/4 to 2/3 of the amount of sugar that’s called for (adjusting to taste), which is similar to the recommendation for honey. Like some of the other liquid sweeteners, you can expect baked goods made with agave to be moist and soft. Happy baking! Kye@KAF

  10. Tao

    Great article Kye! The bread and cake look especially intriguing! Would it make a difference if I used both dry and liquid sweeteners in a recipe; used half of the sugar it called for and the other half liquid? Would I still see noticeable changes?

    Reply
    1. Kye Ameden , post author

      Using a combination of sugar and another liquid sweeteners would be a great way to experiment with subtle flavor and textural differences, while still ensuring your final result is similar to what you know and love. (This might work especially way in recipes like creamed cakes, where a bit of granular sugar helps create the fluffy foundation.) You’ll likely notice similar differences in appearance as what’s shown here — greater browning, more spread in cookies, tiny pin holes, and a softer texture — but to a lesser degree than if you made a 100% swap. Still follow the same general rules presented here; reduce the liquid by about 1 tablespoon per 1/4 cup or add 1 tablespoon of extra flour. Happy baking, Tao! Kye@KAF

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