How to reduce sugar in cake: sweet success

“Can I cut back the sugar in this cake recipe? Will the cake still be good?”

We’ve heard this question on our Baker’s Hotline so frequently that we decided we’d best come up with a well-researched answer. So, multiple tests and many cakes later, here’s the verdict:

Is it possible to reduce sugar in cake? Absolutely — learn how to get the very best results. Click To Tweet

How to reduce sugar in cake via @kingarthurflour

Unlike many other baked goods, the successful cake relies in equal parts on ingredients and technique. While just about any muffin batter can be stirred together, plopped into a pan, and baked to perfection, cakes are more finicky.

Four cake types: technique is the difference

In fact, professional bakers divide cakes into four distinct types, based on preparation technique: blended, creamed, sponge, and foam.

How to reduce sugar in cake via @kingarthurflour

Blended cake

Blended cake is the most basic: you simply put all of the ingredients into a bowl and stir them together. Old-Fashioned Apple Cake is one example.

Sugar doesn’t build volume in these cakes, but simply provides sweetness and moisture. Blended cakes are typically medium- to coarse-textured, and are often baked in a single layer: think sheet cake.

Once you get past this basic cake, though, the plot thickens (as does the batter).

How to reduce sugar in cake via @kingarthurflour

Creamed cake

This type of cake relies on “creaming” (beating together) butter and sugar until they’re lightened in color and fluffy. This builds volume and texture; these cakes may be high-rising, like our Classic Vanilla Bundt Cake — or denser, like the Brown Sugar Sour Cream Pound Cake pictured above. But they’re uniformly fine-textured.

How to reduce sugar in cake via @kingarthurflour

Sponge cake

Another path to the same destination is sponge cake — e.g., Hot Milk Cake — which starts with a well-beaten mixture of eggs and sugar, instead of butter and sugar. Sponge cake tends to be moister than creamed cake, but is otherwise quite similar.

How to reduce sugar in cake via @kingarthurflour

Foam cake

And then there are foam-style cakes — Angel Food Cake, for instance. Egg whites and sugar, beaten to a thick meringue, create cakes whose texture is super-light, but also somewhat dry and “springy:” these cakes won’t fall apart at the mere sight of your fork, and thus are great for filling and rolling (think Bûche de Noël).

Reduce sugar in cake: the test

I put my head together with Melanie Wanders, a talented baker who works in our King Arthur Flour Bakery and also teaches at our baking school. After we agreed on a plan, Mel tested three different recipes for each of these four cake genres (blended, creamed, sponge, foam). She used different amounts of sugar in each, as follows:

  • the original recipe;
  • the original with a 10% sugar reduction
  • the original with a 25% sugar reduction
  • the original with a 50% sugar reduction

Reduce sugar in cake: the takeaways

Mel’s results are surprising to both of us. After years of believing that using the full amount of sugar in a cake recipe is critical to the cake’s texture, we can now say — it ain’t necessarily so.

Says Mel, “This was a really surprising project for me. I had anticipated to see a lot of height and color difference across mixing methods, but that wasn’t the case.”

Let’s take our data and draw some conclusions that you can put to work with your own favorite cake recipes.

How to reduce sugar in cake via @kingarthurflour

Reduce sugar in any cake by 10% right now

After studying Mel’s test results, comprised of a dozen different recipes representing four types of cake, we believe you can reduce the sugar in any cake recipe by 10% without compromising its flavor or texture.

In fact, Mel reports the foam-type cakes are better with a 10% reduction: “I felt that the structure [with a 10% sugar reduction] was best in all three recipes I tested — there was no sinking.”

Now, is this successful 10% sugar reduction applicable to every cake recipe in the universe? I can’t guarantee that. But I feel confident that you can take your favorite cake recipe, cut the sugar by 10%, and be very happy with the result.

The easiest way to make this 10% reduction? Remove 5 teaspoons from each cup of sugar called for in the recipe.

How to reduce sugar in cake via @kingarthurflour

Reduce sugar in blended cakes by up to 50%

“I found no difference in any of the four sugar levels in blended cakes [original, and 10%, 25%, and 50% reductions] other than how sweet you like things,” said Mel. “And for cakes with fruit in them already, I think the baker can decide to use any of the reduction amounts.”

The only reservation we have with this blanket endorsement of wholesale sugar reduction is for chocolate cake (e.g., Cake Pan Cake). Cocoa’s bitterness demands a certain level of sweetness to keep it palatable. So if you’re reducing sugar in chocolate cake, start with 10%, and take it down from there.

How to reduce sugar in cake via @kingarthurflour

Reduce sugar in creamed cakes by up to 25%

Mel prefers a 10% sugar reduction to the original in creamed cakes. However, “To move to a 25% reduction or more would be too much for most bakers, in my opinion,” she said, adding that at 25% she had trouble with creaming, and with the batter separating.

Still, if you want to reduce the sugar in your favorite creamed cake recipe by 25%, I urge you to do your own test. I tried a 25% reduction in Brown Sugar Pound Cake (above), and certainly found the cake less sweet. But lowering the original level of sweetness allowed the butter flavor to shine through. And the cake’s texture, though a tad drier, was perfectly acceptable.

How to reduce sugar in cake via @kingarthurflour

Don’t read the shape of these slices as indicative of how high the cakes rose: they’re sliced off the bottom.

Reduce sugar in sponge cakes by up to 25%

We both find that a 25% sugar reduction in sponge cake recipes is perfectly acceptable. As with the creamed cakes, the reduced sweetness allows other flavors to emerge. And their texture is excellent: moist, fine-grained, and high-rising.

Speaking of texture, though, we find sponge cakes tend to suffer when you cut their sugar by 50%. While they’re still fine-grained, they don’t rise as high, and become unpleasantly rubbery.

How to reduce sugar in cake via @kingarthurflour

At left, angel food cake with 100% of its sugar; at right, sugar reduced by 50%. See how the reduced-sugar cake shrank in the pan? It’s considerably heavier and shorter than the full-sugar cake.

Reduce sugar in foam cakes by 10%

Baking an angel food cake? Go ahead, reduce the sugar by 10%. Beyond that, though, you risk compromising texture. Says Mel, “Reducing sugar by more than 10% in foam cakes results in texture changes and an egg flavor that’s too pronounced for me.”

How to reduce sugar in cake via @kingarthurflour

What about baker’s percentage?

Savvy bakers understand how to manipulate the ingredients in their favorite recipes using baker’s percentage: comparing the weight of each ingredient in a recipe to the weight of the flour.

Example: Your favorite yellow cake recipe calls for 1 1/2 cups (298g) sugar and 2 cups (241g) flour. 298 ÷ 241 = 1.24. The baker’s percentage of sugar in this recipe is 124%: not atypical for a cake.

After figuring the baker’s percentage of sugar for each of the recipes tested, in all their iterations, I’d suggest that a baker’s percentage of sugar between 80% and 125% will yield reliably good results in all types of cake. An exception is foam cake: you should stick with reducing the sugar in these by no more than 10%. For high-rising angel food cakes, that translates to a baker’s percentage somewhere north of 200%. For flat foam cakes that’ll be rolled up like a jelly roll, keep the baker’s percentage around 110%.

How to reduce sugar in cake via @kingarthurflour

Bottom line: Lots of tests; lots of data; lots of cake!

Honestly, don’t be afraid to cut back the sugar in your favorite cake recipes. Start with a simple 10% reduction: 5 teaspoons scooped out of each cup of sugar. If you like the results (and you’re not baking an angel food-type cake), remove more sugar the next time. You’ll soon discover what works best for you — and your family.

Want more tips for 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 yeast breads
How to reduce sugar in pie

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. Rosemary

    Thank you so much for very informative articles on sugar reduction. In general, my understanding is that at some level the reduction in sugar does not affect, for the most part, the texture. I always thought that reducing the amount of sugar would result in an inedible cake, muffin, or cookie. If you want the sweetness in a cake,
    can you add some other sweetener – stevia, Splenda etc. without affecting the results you got? Does this same result occur is you reduced other sweeteners – honey, agave, etc.?

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Rosemary, sugar reduction tends to affect both texture and taste in most baked goods, including when the sugar you reduce is liquid (e.g., honey). But “affect” doesn’t mean “make inedible.” I propose that lower-sugar cakes can taste even better than their full-sugar counterparts, simply because you can taste more of the ingredients (like butter, or vanilla). That’s a good question, can you add stevia or another sweetener to increase sweetness without affecting texture; it sounds like it would work, though I haven’t tested it. We hope to test baking with alternative sugars sometime in the future. PJH

  2. Carole Bojan Miller

    Thanks for article and research you’ve done. I’ve had to cut back on white sugar in my diet due to cancer and this will be a big help. Will any of your packaged cake mixes or scones be considered for less sugar in the future?

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Carole, I’m not sure what mixes are currently in the development pipeline, but who knows, some day we may offer lower-sugar mixes — I’ll bet they’d be pretty popular. PJH

  3. Lori

    Wow! What a great article! I have wondered about the necessity of the full amount of sugar in recipes many times, and I wish all companies would take our nation’s sugar addiction seriously as King Arthur has. Could you all possibly try this experiment with cookies as well so that we know how to reduce the amount in those types of recipes?

    Reply
  4. Janet

    Thank you so much for this post. Now if there were just a way to modify the butter content or better yet use oil as in your Cake Pan Cake. Which is absolutely delicious by the way!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Some other cake recipes do call for oil, Janet! You might like our Choco-nilla Cake, Lemon Chiffon Cake, Spicy Cake Pan Cake, and others like it that use vegetable oil as the primary fat in the formula. Check them all out here. Happy baking! Kye@KAF

    2. RLM

      Janet – The term ‘vegetable oil’ is really a marketing label, as most oils sold under that name are highly processed substances that just did not exist before food was ‘manufactured’. They are really seed oils, and if you do some research into how they are made (using synthetic chemical solvents, and chemical deodorizers to cover the rancid odor – which does not alter the fact that the rancidity is still there… etc) you may not be so comfortable consuming them.

      Exceptions would be things like olive oil IF you can get the real thing. Most olive oil from Italy is not pure olive oil. They dilute or substitute cheap industrial seed oils (like corn and soy oil) for olive oil, and sometimes use chemicals, including toxic ones, to help cover the off flavors this creates.

      Just a few decades ago, it was common to cook and bake with lard and tallow, in addition to butter. If you have never had homemade doughnuts made with fresh lard (not partially hydrogenated – and ideally from pigs raised outdoors and on a natural forage-based diet) you have never had a doughnut. This article was about cakes… but the stuff sold as doughnuts taste like ground cardboard and sugar.

      Most cakes don’t taste much better, though reducing the sugar is a great first step! We also prefer cakes made with ground nuts instead of grain flours, which we always knew as tortes. Yes, with lots of creamy butter lightly flavored and sweetened. Of course, fresh butter from traditional dairy breeds raised on pasture is as different as those cupcakes sold in stores that never go bad are from what a good baker makes at home!

  5. Pat

    How does using a ‘sugar blend’ (half sugar/half stevia) compare to cutting the amount of pure sugar in a recipe?

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Pat, don’t know – haven’t tested that yet. We hope to test alternative sugars sometime in the future. If you try a blend, let us all know how it comes out, OK? PJH

  6. Rita

    Really informative and useful! Thanks so much for this kind of info.
    I’m fighting weight gain and pre-diabetes and this is going to be really
    helpful.

    Reply
    1. Barbara Coyle

      Rita, So am I. I am taking a class through work for pre-diabetics, sponsored by the CDC and a local hospital. In the class, we are supposed to take our carbohydrates down to a low amount.
      I make a banana bread for the week, and have a small slice every morning with my yogurt and blueberries. I am looking forward to trying the 10 percent reduction in sugar.
      Every little bit helps.

  7. Rachel England

    Thanks for the research! So timely. I have been searching the internet for reduced sugar recipes! I am having an internal struggle with wanting to be healthier and reduce the added sugar in my diet, but my baker heart just can’t let go of baking! Love this article.

    Reply
  8. Gayle Hyden

    What about using xylitol? I met an owner of a ‘sugar-free’ bakery awhile back that said the answer to making cakes was to use it – our time was cut short so no more information. Haven’t been able to find any information on this subject. I use xylitol for many recipes but have not tried it in cakes. It is interchangeable with strawberries for strawberry shortcake – I think it is amazing. Thanks–

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We haven’t done much testing with xylitol in the test kitchen, Gayle, but we appreciate your inquiry. There are some bakers who swear by using this ingredient and have great success using it as a sugar replacer. Perhaps it’s something we can explore in the future–thanks for suggesting! Kye@KAF

    2. Beth

      Just a warning​- xylitol can be fatal to dogs. Extra effort must be made to avoid them getting anything​with xylitol.

  9. Francesca

    I have never used the amount of sugar called for in baking recipes. The most I’ve ever used is half, and that’s rare; it’s usually 1/3. I never noticed a difference in the rising because I haven’t compared them to things made with all the sugar. They’re plenty sweet for me, and people often ask me for my recipes.

    Reply
    1. jessy

      I agree! I always cut sugar in half for everything i bake, it seems so odd to put the full sugar in things. They often become too sweet for me to eat regularly. One thing i have trouble with though is brownies, to get that signature crispy crust, I think you have to add the full sugar, which im reluctant to think.. Have you had them turn out that way?

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