Baking with reduced sugar: 10 key takeaways

OK, how many of you out there say you want to cut back on the sugar in your baked goods? (But not, of course, on their flavor, texture, and overall yumminess.) Now, before you envision an endless battle between your conscience, willpower, and your passion for chocolate chip cookies, let me tell you: baking with reduced sugar can be… well, a piece of cake: so long as you know what you’re doing.

Here are 10 handy things to know as you explore baking with reduced sugar. Click To Tweet

Baking with reduced sugar via @kingarthurflour

1. Many recipes use less sugar to begin with

Most savory yeast breads include no sugar at all. Ditto some pancakes, biscuits, popovers, and other treats. Cutout cookies are generally lower in sugar than oatmeal cookies. Pie compared to cake? No contest; fruit pie is generally much lower in sugar than the typical cake. Read recipes carefully; compare their sugar levels using baker’s percentage (below). You’ll soon discover which recipes are naturally lower in sugar.

Baking with reduced sugar via @kingarthurflour

2. Reduce sugar in recipes the smart way: use baker’s percentage

Baker’s percentage is a simple process professional bakers use to adjust ingredient amounts in a recipe. Want to lower the sugar in your muffin recipe, but don’t know how to start? Learn baker’s percentage, and you’ll avoid much of the guesswork involved in tweaking your recipe to taste.

Baking with reduced sugar via @kingarthurflour

On top, our Sprouted Wheat Vanilla Chai Bars with the full amount of sugar. Below, with their sugar reduced by 75%.

3. Baking with reduced sugar can affect texture and shelf life

Sugar is hygroscopic; i.e., it attracts and holds water. Baked goods with sugar (and thus more retained water) tend to be softer, moister, and have better shelf life. The more you reduce sugar (without any other adjustments), the drier and more crumbly your baked goods will be — and the shorter their shelf life.

Baking with reduced sugar via @kingarthurflour

4. Baking with reduced sugar lessens browning

Caramelization and the Maillard reaction are two chemical processes that help baked goods brown; sugar is involved in both. Reduce the sugar in your baked goods, and you reduce their potential to brown. Remember that when assessing when to pull lower-sugar baked goods out of the oven: go by brownness alone, and you’ll probably risk overbaking.

Baking with reduced sugar via @kingarthurflour

5. Reducing sugar affects overall flavor as well as sweetness

Baking with reduced sugar produces less-sweet treats, of course, but lack of sugar also tends to increase blandness as well. Like salt, sugar is a flavor enhancer. Reduce the sugar in your chocolate chip cookies, and the flavors of butter, chocolate, and vanilla will all be less apparent.

Baking with reduced sugar via @kingarthurflour

6. Reducing sugar in cookies can produce drastic changes

Sugar attracts and holds water in cookie dough; but during baking, it releases that water, absorbing it once again as cookies cool. The result? Balls of cookie dough spread and flatten as they bake. The less sugar you use, the less cookies will spread.

In addition, think of sugar in its normal state: it’s crunchy, right? Sugar helps produce crunch in cookies; so lower-sugar cookies will be cakey and crumbly, not crisp. Of all the baked treats you enjoy, successfully reducing sugar in cookies is probably the toughest challenge.

Baking with reduced sugar via @kingarthurflour

7. Be careful when reducing sugar in chocolate treats

It’s not a good idea to reduce the sugar in brownies, chocolate cake, and other treats to the same degree you do in non-chocolate baked goods. A certain amount of sugar is necessary simply to balance cocoa’s bitter flavor; reduce the sugar too much, and that bitterness comes through in an unpleasant way.

Baking with reduced sugar via @kingarthurflour

8. Increase perceived sweetness by using sugar as a condiment

Sprinkle sparkling sugar atop muffins before baking; glaze scones with a confectioners’ sugar drizzle; brush vanilla-enhanced simple syrup atop a baked cake. That immediate, strong hit of sugar in each bite helps disguise the fact there’s less sugar in what’s underneath.

Baking with reduced sugar via @kingarthurflour

9. Take advantage of fruit’s natural sweetness

The sugar in fruit (fresh or dried) comes in a package with other nutritional attributes: beta-carotenes, perhaps, or fiber. The sugar you bake with — granulated, light brown, et. al. — is nutritionally empty. Adding fruit to baked goods, when appropriate, is a good way to balance the sweetness you lose by reducing added sugar.

Baking with reduced sugar via @kingarthurflour

10. Think. Test. Taste.

There’s no hard-and-fast formula for baking with reduced sugar that will cover every single thing you bake. Take what you know, apply it to your favorite recipe, and see what happens. The more you experiment, the more comfortable you’ll be tackling new reduced-sugar challenges.

Now, let’s get specific here. Cookies, cake, muffins… each type of baked good reacts a bit differently to reducing its sugar. For the details, see these posts:

How to reduce sugar in cookies and bars
How to reduce sugar in cake
How to reduce sugar in yeast breads
How to reduce sugar in pie
How to reduce sugar in muffins

Do you reduce the sugar in your favorite recipes? Please share your favorite tips in comments, below.

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. Donna

    I have decreased the amount of sugar in the yeast bread recipe for years. I don’t like a sweet dinner roll or slice of bread . Always have had lots of compliments .

    Reply
  2. Kathryn Johnson

    Last night I made a banana bread for my family. My husband and I worked on it together. I have diabetes so I bake but don’t partake much anyway. So when we finished I got a slice for my husband and cut off a small bite. When I tasted it, I realized we had forgotten to add sugar. Everyone in the house loved it just the way it was. I was impressed that it tasted good, looked beautiful and really didn’t need more. Using wheat flour means it is still pretty high in carbs for me, but nothing like the sugar version. Thanks for the added information. That will help me to make adjustments.

    Reply
  3. Michael

    Great article, but it mostly addresses sugar as a proxy for sweetness. As a diabetic sugar is only part, albeit a significant part, of a larger concern.

    The same as many recipes address vegan/vegetarian or gluten-free concerns a similar set of notes for those watching our blood sugar would be appreciated.

    Perhaps a follow-up article after some internal discussion at KAF?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi there, Micheal. We appreciate your suggestion, and thank you for thinking of us as a trusted baking resource! Because we’re bakers, not nutritionists, we’re simply unable to give advice on diabetic diets. Kindly, Morgan@KAF

  4. Julie

    I use 50/50 sugar/ stevia. I don’t quite understand the first suggestion, bakers percentage, if I cut back an equal % on all ingredients I just end up with less food, not less sugar. What am I missing here.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Julie! Rather than decreases all of the ingredients, you’re only decreasing the sugar. The percentage just gives you a more exact amount to decrease by. Annabelle@KAF

  5. MomKat

    I’ve reduced sugar by half in many recipes (more so in pies) but found that some old family recipes just can’t be reduced. For example, I tried not rolling the almond crescent cookies in sugar this year; instead drizzling them with a bit of melted white chocolate. They went from a cookie that will remain moist and buttery for a month, to being quite dry the next day. I don’t know the properties of erythritol but I’m going to try mixing it 50/50 with the dipping sugar, to see if they will remain moist.

    Reply
  6. Roberta Jacobs

    So if a recipe calls for 1cup of sugar, you use 3/4 cup?
    Or reduce by more?
    Any recipe?
    The same with brown sugar?
    Thanks

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Roberta. The amount will vary depending on the type and style of baked good, so we’d recommend checking out the individual posts for details on specific baked goods. We covered pies, cookies and bars, cakes, yeast bread, and muffins. Happy baking! Annabelle@KAF

  7. Susan

    I do find that too many recipes are too sweet. So many pies have icky-sweet fillings. I reduce sugar by: none in any whipped cream (usually the things one serves with cream are sweet enough); using “scant” measures of sugar – i.e., not a level measure but one that is concave or “almost”; if it’s a recipe I’ve baked often and know, I can reduce the sugar a lot more “to taste; I rarely add it to yeast breads, finding that it’s not needed. But, as others have said, pies, cakes, cookies – these are meant to be sweet treats, and if you’re worried about too much sugar, bake them less often!

    Reply
  8. Sherry

    I reduce sugar in everything I bake. I don’t notice any difference in quality at 25%, in fact we enjoy the other flavors better. Depending on the item I reduce by more – like 75% reduction in whipped cream and cream cheese frosting. This works well when over pumpkin or carrot cake.

    Reply
    1. Carol

      I have cut sugar by 50% in everything for last twenty years, no difference in browning, shape….nothing.

  9. Carole

    I use erythritol instead of sugar and I get similar results. It measures like sugar and tastes like sugar, but it’s not sugar.

    Reply

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