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. AP

    I reduce sugar by 50% in everything, and yes, my cookies are little mounds of goodness, not flat. I sometimes remove sugar completely. (Pancakes) I have tried applesauce etc. For me the choice was either to eat less goodies or find a way to make them healthier. Looking forward to reading the rest of the article.
    Now, let’s talk about salt…

    Reply
  2. Susan

    My way of reducing sugar in chocolate cakes is to NOT reduce the sugar but to increase the cocoa. Of course, if you are reducing sugar as in I want to reduce my sugar intake, then this isn’t helpful. But if you’re like me, I like my baked goods less sweet. Also a good way to reduce sugar in cake or cookie frostings is to replace part of the powdered sugar with powdered milk.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Kathy, we have a few different posts that might help you bake with sugar substitutes or other kinds of sugar. This post about alternative sweeteners explores Splenda for Baking as well as another sugar replacer. We also have a post about baking with liquid sweeteners like honey and maple syrup, if you’re simply looking to avoid baking with refined sugar. Lastly, we included a different sugar alternative called Truvia Baking Blend in our post about using less sugar to make fruit pies. Check out the tips about using that specific ingredient here. We hope this gives you a place to start, and we’re always happy to answer questions as best we can on the Baker’s Hotline: 855-371-BAKE(2253). Kye@KAF

  3. Rae

    What ingredient can I add to achieve the same crunchy exterior to a traditional amaretto cookie while reducing sugar?

    I’ve found that I can reduce the sugar to a third and it will still taste sweet enough (to me) and chewy enough in the interior as traditional amaretti. But I lose that lovely crisp/crunchy outer shell.

    Reply
  4. Nicole

    You should do a series like this for creamy bakes – cheesecakes, cream pies, custards, frostings and such. It would be much appreciated. Great series, very educational – this is how cooking should be taught. 🙂

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Thanks for the suggestion, Nicole. We agree that reducing the sugar in custard-based desserts can be particularly tricky. We’ve shared this idea with our blog team to consider for future posts. Kye@KAF

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