How to reduce sugar in pie: taste and see

Sugar — we love it! Yet who among us hasn’t thought, “I should really cut back on my sugar…” But how do you reduce sugar and still enjoy what you’re baking? In previous posts we’ve addressed lower-sugar muffins, cookies and bars, cake, and yeast bread. Next up: How to reduce sugar in pie.

Many baked goods, particularly cookies and cake, rely on sugar in part for their structure. Reduce the sugar in a crunchy chocolate chip cookie, you get a soft, cake-like cookie. Lower the sugar too far in angel food cake, and you get a rubbery blob.

Thankfully, fruit pie doesn’t rely on sugar for its structure. So reducing sugar affects the pie’s flavor, but neither the texture of its crust nor the consistency of its filling.

Speaking of crust, some recipes will call for a small amount of sugar in the crust. Sugar helps crust brown, but it also reduces its crispness a bit; so add it or not, it’s up to you.

See how to successfully reduce sugar in pie: it's a piece of cake! Click To Tweet

As you experiment and learn about how to reduce sugar in pie, remember these key points:

• Most pie is already quite low in added sugar. The typical apple pie’s added sugar-to-fruit ratio (comparison by weight) is below 25%. Berry pies can be even lower. Compare that to cake, whose sugar-to-flour ratio is nearly always over 100%. Clearly, if you’re watching your added sugar intake, most types of pie (especially fruit pie) are good dessert options.

• Fruits vary widely in their sweetness. Think a super-tart apple vs. the sweetest raspberry. Even within the fruit variety itself, there can be a huge variance in sugar: there’s no comparison between the sweetness of a just-picked, perfectly ripe strawberry and that of a berry that’s traveled 3,000 miles from field to supermarket. So when deciding how to reduce sugar in pie, take into account the natural sweetness of your fruit, and adjust added sugar accordingly.

Sugar provides more than sweetness in pie: it’s also a flavor enhancer, much like salt. Pies at the lower end of the sugar spectrum begin to taste bland, as well as less sweet. Sugar can also add a bit of thickening power, since it attracts and holds “free” liquid. When baking low-sugar pies, err on the side of more thickener (cornstarch, flour, etc.) vs. less.

Let’s see what happens when you reduce sugar in three favorite fruit pies: apple, berry, and pumpkin.

How to Reduce Sugar in Pie via @kingarthurflour

How to reduce sugar in pie: apple

Using our Apple Pie recipe, I bake six variations:

• 100% of the sugar in the recipe
• 75% of the sugar
• 50% of the sugar
• 25% of the sugar
• 0% of the sugar (no sugar)
• 50% of the sugar, substituting Truvia® Baking Blend*

*Many people call our Baker’s Hotline asking about using sugar substitutes in baking, and usually we tell them it’s not a good idea. As noted earlier, granulated sugar plays a role in the structure of many baked goods. But the sugar in pie filling is there for flavor, not structure — which makes me think it would be a great place for an alternative sugar blend like Truvia® Baking Blend, a reduced-calorie mixture of granulated sugar and Truvia.

My apple of choice: Granny Smith, a tart, firm baking apple.

In the interest of time, I omit the crust, and simply use my handy hamburger bun pan to bake the six different fillings.

The result?

How to Reduce Sugar in Pie via @kingarthurflour

Apple pie — sans crust. As expected, the flavors range from pretty sweet to not sweet at all.

While warm, my preference is for the 50% sugar filling; the flavor of apple and sugar play equal and complementary roles.

Once cool, however, I prefer the 75% or 100% sugar versions. The sweetness of sugar tends to fade a bit at room temperature, and the 50% version tastes bland.

And the texture? The full-sugar filling, upper left, browned a bit more and was slightly more sticky than the other fillings. But I believe this was a result of simply the small portion baked; when I baked the full amount of filling, with crust, in a pie pan, there was no difference in consistency between the full-sugar and 50% sugar versions.

Now, for those of you who are OK with Truvia: score! The 50% sugar pie made with Truvia Baking Blend is just as sweet as the original, 100% granulated sugar pie. I imagine the same would be true with other alternative sugar blends, like Splenda® Sugar Blend.

How to Reduce Sugar in Pie via @kingarthurflour

Conclusion: If you’re serving pie warm, and especially if it’s à la mode, you can choose to reduce the sugar up to 50%. If served plain and/or at room temperature, opt for higher-sugar versions.

How to Reduce Sugar in Pie via @kingarthurflour

How to reduce sugar in pie: berry

I love a good mixed berry pie; the summery flavors, the slight bite of fresh berries, and the happy balance of sweet/tart — all wrapped up in a flaky, buttery crust — are pure heaven.

I do the sugar test using our Mixed Berry Pie recipe, including a crust. Again, a hamburger bun pan is the ideal vehicle for the test. I follow the same process as with apple pie: 100% (original amount of sugar), 75%, 50%, 25%, 0% sugar; and 50% Truvia Baking Blend.

The result?

How to Reduce Sugar in Pie via @kingarthurflour

Six yummy little pies! Well, let’s make that four; the two lowest-sugar versions don’t exactly qualify as “yummy.”

Conclusion: As with apple pie, the lower-sugar pies are more acceptable when warm; and/or when served with a sweet accompaniment. The 25% and no-sugar pies might be OK if you use ultra-sweet berries and top with ice cream or whipped cream, but they’re pretty bland on their own.

Any texture difference? Not that I could tell.

How to Reduce Sugar in Pie via @kingarthurflour

How to reduce sugar in pie: pumpkin

With pumpkin pie, we see an exception to the “pies are generally low in added sugar” rule. Because pumpkin doesn’t bring any sweetness of its own to the table, added sugar has to carry the entire load. The sugar-to-pumpkin ratio for pumpkin pie is higher than that of most fruit pies, ranging between 35% and 56% for recipes on our site.

Using my go-to Pumpkin Pie recipe, I execute the now-familiar test: five amounts of sugar, from 100% to 0%, plus 50% Truvia Baking Blend.

I wonder, since pumpkin pie includes egg and milk along with pumpkin, will reducing its sugar affect the pie’s texture?

How to Reduce Sugar in Pie via @kingarthurflour

All six pies are super creamy, but I do notice two differences, aside from flavor:

• The lower the sugar, the lighter the pie’s color. The 100% sugar pie sports the darkest color, a rich mahogany brown.

• The lower the sugar, the longer the pie needs to bake. Why? Some of us test bakers put our heads together and theorize that sugar attracts and holds water; less sugar means a greater amount of “free” water that needs to evaporate before the pie is fully baked.

Conclusion: I enjoy the 100% sugar, 75% sugar, and Truvia Baking Blend pies equally. And the pie made with 50% of its original amount of sugar is acceptable, especially if served with highly sweetened whipped cream.

As for the other two: My testing notes say, “25% sugar — not good at all. 0% sugar: YUCK.”

How’s that for concise data entry?

Now how does this information translate to other egg- and milk-based pies, like chocolate cream and custard (a.k.a. vanilla cream pie)?

With chocolate pie, keep in mind you need to use enough sugar to balance the bitterness of the chocolate.

And custard pie — well, remember the”rubbery blob” angel food cake I mentioned earlier? Sugar prevents the protein in egg whites from coagulating; and in an egg-rich pie like custard, lowering the sugar results in more coagulation, which translates to an unpleasantly rubbery texture. A typical custard pie’s sugar-to-milk ratio is only about 25%, anyway; for the sake of excellent texture, it’s best to leave its sugar as is.

“Sweeten to taste”

So, when you get right down to it, reducing the sugar in pie is all about taste.

Is there a way to sweeten pie to taste before baking? I mean, you can’t just pour sugar over sliced apples and get a real sense of what the resulting apple pie will taste like.

How to Reduce Sugar in Pie via @kingarthurflour

Try this: Place half of the recipe’s fruit into a saucepan, adding a couple of tablespoons of sugar and a touch of water if the fruit is dry (e.g., apples, blueberries). Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the fruit has softened and the sugar/juices have become syrupy.

Let cool just enough so you don’t burn your tongue, and taste.

Is it sweet enough? Remember, the sweetness will fade a bit as the baked pie cools. If you want a sweeter pie, add more sugar, being sure to measure how much you add.

Once the filling is as sweet as you like, note the total amount of sugar you used.

How to Reduce Sugar in Pie via @kingarthurflour

Combine the cooked filling with the remainder of the uncooked fruit. Add the same amount of sugar you added to the cooked fruit — the amount you just jotted down.

Stir everything together, pour into your pie crust, and bake as usual.

Sweeten a pie “to taste?” Yes you can!

How to Reduce Sugar in Pie via @kingarthurflour

One final thought

Because I know you’ll ask the question: What about pecan pie?

My favorite Pecan Pie recipe checks in with a sugar-to-nut ratio of 267%. Diet-wise, you might as well be eating a candy bar wrapped in crust.

Since sugar is such a key part of this particular pie, I suggest you simply cut yourself a smaller piece and enjoy every sweet bite!

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 yeast bread

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. Linda Mahaffey

    I love all the less sugar recipes! Do you have these in a cookbook? I would love to have it if you do!! King Arthur Flour is the best and until recently it was hard to find! Now I see it in almost all grocery stores!! Thanks!!!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Thanks for asking, Linda, and for being such an avid proponent of our flour! While these low-sugar recipes aren’t in a cookbook of our own, we do often turn to the Baker’s Companion when looking for guaranteed classic recipes. You’re welcome to apply the sugar reduction guidelines discovered in this post to any pie recipes in that book. You might also like the book Baking with Less Sugar by Joanne Chang if low-sugar baking is something you’re interested in exploring further. Happy baking! Kye@KAF

  2. SCrawford, Nashville TN

    I have always heard that sugar substitutes are up to 600% sweeter than natural cane sugar — which is why 1 pack of Stevia is only 1/4-teaspoon but equal to 2 full teaspoons of cane sugar. My question, if the “50% of Truvia” that you mention is 50% of the cane sugar in the recipe, isn’t the result still DOUBLE the sweetness of the original cane sugar recipe? How can this be healthier?

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Sugar substitutes can be 600% sweeter, but Truvia for Baking is actually a mixture of granulated sugar, stevia, and erythritol, so it’s not 600% sweeter (if I’m understanding you). Truvia for Baking sweetens to the same level as granulated sugar, but by using half as much, and with 75% fewer calories — and that would be the reason to use it, if you’re counting calories for weight control. PJH

  3. Kathy

    When cooking juicy berry pies, I often cook the filling on the stove partially, cool and then bake in the crust for about 20 minutes less time.
    This way I can better control both the thickness and the sweetness.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      That’s a great idea, Kathy — it’s so important to nail the thickener as well as the sugar. Thanks, I need to try that. PJH

  4. Gaylan

    Interesting article. Thanks! My Mother has always reduced the sugar in her pumpkin pie by 1/3. It’s delicious! Now I can’t eat anyone else’s pumpkin pie because they are too sweet.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      I agree, Gaylan; when you get used to lower-sugar baked goods, the full-sugar ones start to taste ultra-sweet. Thanks for sharing — PJH

  5. Monica

    I have always found most fruit pie recipes to be too sweet as written, but then I have always been a fan of tart over sweet. Generally, I only use about 75% of the sugar called for in most fruit pie recipes. I think this makes the taste of the fruit come through more clearly, rather than the sugar.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Good advice, Monica – 75% sounds just right to me, too, esp. when serving pie warm. Thanks for sharing — PJH

  6. Eb

    Thanks so much for this series! I have been trying to reduce sugar in recipes for about two years now, and it’s always a gamble trying to decide how far to go to get a great end result. I am not afraid of alternative sweeteners, so it’s nice to see King Arthur cooking with some of them. I like Truvia and Whey Low for baking , and they’re much easier and dependable to use rather than mixing your own sweeteners and trying to gauge the strength and sweetness of pure Stevia or sucralose.

    Reply
  7. Norina Bourget

    I’m a 75% less sugar baker from way back… however this summer I’ve been experimenting with the “Truvia” baking blend one fruit at a time and having great results. currently enjoying strawberry shortcakes daily while the strawberries are at their finest in Massachusetts! BLueberries next…

    Reply
  8. Deb Droste

    Have you tried a mixture of apples? I use Granny Smith and a sweet apple like Gala. The last apple pie I made, I forgot the sugar until I had it in the crust. I poured about a 1/4 cup of sugar over it and coveted it with granola mixed with a little butter and brown sugar. It was served cold and not too sweet at all.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Deb, yes, I often mix apples; but my favorite is actually just 100% Northern Spy apples, when they’re available. I’m glad you were able to rescue your pie by pouring some sugar on top – the granola’s a great idea, too. Thanks for sharing — PJH

  9. Maria

    My husband is diabetic so I have tried to sub various sugar substitutes in baked goods for years, with pies being my main success. We have always found an unpleasant aftertaste with Splenda and Stevia, but lately I have had much better luck with Swerve.

    Reply
  10. john la b erge

    as usual ms. hamel hits the nail on the head however using splenda or anything near it real creeps me out.
    up here we can get that what i call crystalized embalming fluid so: i have after being told to really drop the gut size started using is what we up here in ontario call xylitol.
    if you go back to precolumbian huron; cree,and mohawk uses for the birch tree a derivative instead of the maple were the birch;s they tapped for sugar substitutes.
    of the two things wrong with using it a a granulated sugar substitute are:- when i make my peanut butter and white bean cookies is they take about 2 minutes longer to brown; and because they take a bit of time to cool down come out a not crispy or soft but melt in my mouth nice peanuty rich flavour, the 2 dozen or so seem to magically disappear from the tupperware.
    anyone else have that problem?

    Reply
  11. Charles Carney

    I’ve been making sugar free ‘pumpkin’ pies for many years. However, I always use butternut squash in place of the pumpkin, increase the spice content a bit, and put a layer of pecans on top prior to baking. I usually bake this as a custard without the crust also to save on the calories and carbs. These bake a little quicker than a pie, usually 45 minutes rather than 55 probably because of the smaller container and no crust. This approach makes a nutritious and delicious treat for those who are trying to decrease their sugar and carbs intake.

    Reply
    1. Jackie McHugh

      Sounds great. What kind of pie plate is use? Glass or metal. Can it be made in a square pan?
      How about the whole recipe?
      Jackie

    2. Linda

      We are kindred spirits, Charles. I’ve been making my grandmother’s squash pie for years. I prefer it ever so much more than pumpkin. In the last couple of years I have also topped each slice with a dollop of sweetened whipped cream. I don’t know why I didn’t do that before, maybe it’s just that she didn’t serve it that way and it never occurred to me to use it! And I also do like you, baking just the filling in Pyrex custard cups without the crust- to save time and calories (but I DO add the dollop of whipped cream!!). Great idea we both had!

  12. Judith

    Thanks for this post. As a 60-something baker who has spent more than half of her life counting calories, I gave up crust many years ago. On sugar, I never use more than 50% of the amount called for. Your article confirms my experience. The peach crumble I made last week, at 25%, needed more. I simply made a note on the recipe card and will try 30% next time.

    Reply
  13. Jackie Reynolds

    Where I live in Washington state, we have so many different varieties of apples from which to choose. I love earligolds. They have a flavor akin to transparents and they stay firm longer. My least favorite Apple in the whole world is granny Smith. In my opinion, they have little apple flavor and they stay crunchy-not a nice texture for pie. After many years of experimenting, I like to use a variety of apples in my pies. My favorite are earligolds, Ginger golds, pink lady and sometimes golden delicious.
    About the sugar content, it’s a non-issue in my house because it’s not like we are eating pie every day. In fact, it is more of a special treat, maybe once a month. Not enough to worry about the sugar.
    I do love King Arthur flour recipes and I always look forward to your special articles.

    Reply
  14. Jackie McHugh

    I loved the whole article on reducing sugar in pies. I have reduced the sugar in my Irish 🍀 soda bread over 20 years ago with no problem.
    Jackie

    Reply
  15. Evan W

    I am big fan of KAF Boiled Apple Cider. Have you developed recipes that incorporate it as a sugar substitute? I doesn’t satisfy that sweetness of sugar but does the fructose help with the chemical reactions that sugar would provide? I might try to soften a bowl of berries with it without heat and see if the berries start to exude juice.

    Another thought. I like to add ginger mini chips because I adore ginger in anything. It adds zing to a muffin that has reduced sugar content.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Evan, great question! While we do have a whole selection of delicious recipes that use our Boiled Cider, many of them also call for sugar. You’re welcome to experiment with reducing the sugar in these recipes since the Boiled Cider will still provide both flavor and sweetness. We’re in the process of testing liquid sweeteners like honey, molasses, and maple syrup to see how they affect baked goods (and other things, like berries) when they’re used to replace sugar. We’ll have a more detailed answer for you about how these sugars play out once that article is finished; look for it in August 2017! Kye@KAF

  16. M

    Hello! I am a truly novice (and very embarrassed) baker. This article was super helpful. I would like to reduce the sugar in the Lemon Tart with Fresh Berries recipe for the filling by at least 50%, as I dislike very sweet flavors. (I eat gooseberries by the handful without puckering). I noted that this article cautions against lowering sugar that is combined with egg. Any thoughts on how I can reduce sugar without coming away with a rubbery tart? Thanks!!!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      No reason to be embarrassed, M! Reducing sugar can be quite tricky, even for the most experienced bakers. While we haven’t experimented with reducing sugar in this particular recipe, we suspect you’re right to be cautious, as the sugar in an egg-based filling like this plays an essential role. Our recommendation would be to attempt just a small reduction in sugar – say 10% – and see how that works before going any higher. We suspect it won’t work well to reduce by any more than 25%, but you’re certainly welcome to experiment as far as you’re comfortable. Do let us know what you find if you do! Mollie@KAF

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