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
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. Emmanuelle

    My French grain of salt on baking : did you know that sugar is forbidden in breads in France ? If there is sugar it is not allowed to call it bread.
    There is “pain de mie” (more or less sandwich bread), but it is not considered as bread in France, and we do not use as much of it as you do (You are not allowed to bring your lunch at school, as there is a public meal service in France in all schools).

    Reply
  2. Elaine G. King

    I am diabetic, so prefer to not use sugar at all if possible. Therefore, when baking I use Splenda instead of sugar. It works beautifully as a substitute with no problems.

    Reply
  3. Helen

    Thanks for the informative article!
    I have tried subbing sugar with honey and banana. But i am unsure on how much water i should decrease.
    Each time i tried, even though it’s sufficiently fluffy, it’s still wetter and chewier than when i made it with sugar even though i have decreased the water
    The doughs were fragrant and very soft. The correct consistency but i couldnt get the interior of the bread to dry properly
    Let’s say to add 20g of sugar and 100g of banana. How much water should subtract?
    Thanks!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Helen, we’ve done a bit of test baking with liquid sweeteners. Our general findings were that for every 1/4 cup of honey used, you should decrease the liquid by 1 tablespoon or add an additional tablespoon of flour. You could try using a similar approach for the honey and banana combined. (You can find the full results of our liquid sweeteners testing in the article here.) It also sounds like your bread simply needs more time in the oven to bake all the way through. You may want to try tenting it with foil and baking until the internal temperature reaches 195-200°F. Good luck! Kye@KAF

  4. Mary-Louise Essaian

    I so enjoy this website. I’ve been baking for years but am always learning. Thank you for the good lessons!

    Reply
  5. 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

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