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. Dana

    Apple sauce is a great substitute for a portion of the sugar (or the butter!) in some cakes and even cookies. It’ll make cookies softer which can be nice. Look for all natural apple sauce with no added sugar or sweeteners. Great article! Thanks for the info. I love experimenting with cake and cookie recipes to make them healthier for my kids (usually aiming for less sugar and more fiber). Love King Arthur Flour. Mom says it’s the best, and she taught me how to bake 🙂

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Sure, Marilyn – we’ve recently made the blog much easier to print. Go for it! PJH

  2. Jennie Durren

    I love these tips. I find many cakes to be too sweet for me and am trying to cut sugar for health reasons, but I love to bake. Thanks for testing and sharing!

    Reply
  3. Gaye Gates

    Lets face it I use sugar substitue ie:- Stevia or Canderel for us living in the UK. I am diabetic.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      While we did do some experimenting with sugar alternatives a while back, we don’t have any definitive answers about using these ingredients in your baking. If you’d like to try replacing the sugar with them, we encourage you to give it a try, following the instructions on the package. Let your taste buds be the guide here–we hope you can find a product that pleases your palate! Kye@KAF

  4. Katharine O'Connell

    For the past 10 years, I have been reducing sugar in all my baked goods by 30% with little to no sacrifice in texture. Works well for cookies, quick breads, muffins too. Sometimes brownies need the full amount but otherwise everything rises well and has a nice texture. Thanks for the scientific testing!

    Reply
  5. Susan M

    The post about sugar reduction in cookies was so well received by your readers, I’m glad that KAF has continued to pursue this interest by exploring the same topic in cakes. Might this impact how you develop future recipes going forward?

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Susan, we won’t automatically lower the sugar in all of our new recipes; but I do hope going forward we can suggest lower sugar options on a regular basis. Thanks for the support — PJH

  6. Jane

    I am an 80 year old that loves baking for my extended family. I loved reading everyone’s posts. I never use the full amount of sugar called for. Many in my family have celiac so I do most of my baking gluten free. I love your gluten free recipes. They are the best. My great grand children love your gluten free pizza recipe. Thanks so much.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      And Jane, thank YOU for continuing to provide your family with home-baked goodies well into your “senior citizenship!” I hope you continue to enjoy good times in the kitchen for years to come. PJH

  7. Carol

    Finally glad to have the data to support what I’ve been doing for years with my cakes. Most cakes taste too sweet for me so I always cut the sugar by 25% to start with and then adjust the amount based on how the initial cake came out.

    I also use this reduction technique for homemade brownies.

    Thanks King Arthur

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Carol, thanks for the feedback from someone who’s already gone this route — very reassuring for those about to give it a try. PJH

  8. RobL

    Come on.
    Seriously?
    You are eating cake after all.
    You want less sugar? Eat less cake. Eat an apple, preferably Granny Smith.
    You’re going to take 5 tsp out of a cup of sugar, and say to yourself, “Wow, THAT
    will make a difference in my consumption of sugar.” WHAAAAAT????
    You are still consuming 43 tsp of sugar, instead of 48. Eat one less cake out of
    two or three in a month, and you’ve cut your cake-sugar calories by a third, or in half. I love cake. I MAKE A TON OF CAKES. People clamor for my cakes.
    HOWEVER, if you want to cut sugar, cut sugar by eating less of a product which requires sugar. Don’t destroy the good things in life, eat them, make them with
    their full complement of sugar. Make them the best damn cakes you can.
    Just use common sense, and moderation.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Rob, I agree, up to a point – but why not cut the sugar if you can get the exact same texture, and better taste? Many cakes are so overwhelmingly sweet, you can’t taste anything BUT the sugar. I’m a big proponent of eating less of a great dessert, rather than more of a so-so one; but believe me, you can still make great cakes with less sugar — even if it’s only a little bit less. PJH

    2. Sue

      I actually prefer the taste of baked goods with less sugar, most are way too sweet for me! To each their own.

  9. Joan Solders

    My sister-in-law, used honey when baking and also in cooking. This method was used in the great depression. People do say honey is better than sugar. This might be another way for baking.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Joan, nutritionally speaking, honey and sugar are identical. But some do prefer the flavor of honey, and it’s certainly more naturally produced than manufactured cane sugar. PJH

Post a comment

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