Corn syrup in recipes: How invert sugars affect baking

We answer bakers’ questions in every issue of Sift magazine. In our Fall 2018 issue, reader Nancy Wheelwright asked, “Somewhere I got the idea that corn syrup is something to be avoided. What is the purpose of corn syrup in a recipe? Can something else be used as a substitute? What was used before we had corn syrup?”

Corn syrup is not quite the evil ingredient people think it is. They confuse the corn syrup we use for baking with a very specific commercial variant: high fructose corn syrup, which is found lurking in all kinds of processed foods.

Corn syrup from the baking aisle is an invert sugar, meaning it’s liquid at room temperature. It does a couple of specific things in baking. In a cookie recipe, it creates a texture that’s both bendy and chewy, as opposed to crisp. If you bake your cookies just until the edges start to brown, this is the texture you’ll get:

Corn syrup via @kingarthurflourInvert sugars prevent grains of sugar from recrystallizing when the cookie cools, making it less brittle. Keep in mind, though, that if you bake the batch a bit too long, you’ll get a cookie that’s crisp throughout, despite the invert sugar in the formula.

Corn syrup via @kingarthurflourCorn syrup is often added to fudge recipes to keep them from getting grainy, again by inhibiting the formation of large sugar crystals. That’s also the reason it’s sometimes added to cookie glazes: smaller crystals mean the frosting is shinier when it dries.

Alternatives to corn syrup

The advantage corn syrup has is its neutral flavor, but it’s not the only invert sugar you can use.

Corn syrup via @kingarthurflourHoney, maple syrup, and molasses can stand in for corn syrup, with slight adjustments up or down for their sweetness levels. For instance, honey is sweeter than corn syrup, so using about a third less helps you balance out the flavor.

Golden syrup is similar to corn syrup in its sweetness level. Molasses is not as sweet, but brings a robust flavor package of its own, making it good for a spice cookie (but kind of bossy for a snickerdoodle).

If you adore a crisp edge and a bendy center, try adding a tablespoon of invert sugar to your cookie recipe; choose whichever one best suits your desired taste. If corn syrup is what you use, you can rest easy.

A little experimentation can deliver the exact texture you’re looking for — just keep an eye on the baking time (remember cookies will bake a bit more after coming out of the oven).

If you want to better understand the yummy science behind chocolate chip cookies, learn how a little extra milk or brown sugar can deliver extra-crunchy, extra-chewy, or extra-cakey cookies.

Many thanks to Anne Mientka for the photographs in this post.

Susan Reid
About

Chef Susan Reid grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Bates College and the Culinary Institute of America, and is presently the Food Editor of Sift magazine. She does demos, appearances, and answers food (and baking) questions from all quarters.

comments

  1. Heather

    The chocolate chip cookies look delicious. Perhaps you can help me with this question. It is about corn syrup. In ontario canada they make delicious butter tarts. It is a specialty there. Some recipes call for corn syrup and some do not. I was always afraid to use corn syrup as up to this time I thought it was a no no. The tarts I have made in the past are too runny without any body in the filling and my recipe does not use corn syrup. The Ontario filling is soft but firm so you can eat them without the filling running all over. Does the corn syrup have an affect on this type of product or do you think I have not yet found a good recipe.

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid, post author

      Hi, Heather. Butter tart filling is usually eggs, sugar, and an invert sugar, either corn syrup or (my favorite) maple syrup. If your recipe has no liquid sugar in it, you can get very close to corn syrup consistency by adding a little bit of acid to the filling mixture; 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of cider vinegar would do the trick. The acid will help the sugar in the recipe invert and reproduce the consistency of cornstarch in the filling. One filling that sets up and slices nicely without corn syrup is this pecan pie. As you can see, without the pecans, the filling is basically the same as for butter tarts. You might want to give it a go; let us know how it works! Susan

  2. Judy Reneau

    My cookies, and I mean ALL, turn our thin. I make classic chocolate chip cookies, old-fashioned snickerdoodles (from a very old recipe), molasses cookies and various other cookies, and they all come out of the oven very thin. I always use Land O Lakes butter, if the recipe calls for butter. I see other baker’s cookies, and they turn out thicker. I will say my cookies taste great, and my husband, children and co-workers love them, but I just wish they looked prettier! Do you know what causes this?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Judy, it sounds to us like you’re using a soft flour, one with a low protein content. If your flour doesn’t have very much strength to set the structure of the cookies, then they’ll simply spread in the oven as they bake. We recommend using King Arthur All-Purpose Flour for best results if you’re not already doing so. Its 11.7% protein content is just right for baking cookies that have a beautiful dome. If you are in fact, already using this flour, try adding about 1/4 cup of additional flour to your recipes and chill the cookie dough before baking to give the cookies some height and thickness. Happy cookie baking! Kye@KAF

    2. Tzipor

      Try using baking powder instead of baking soda, or some sort of mix. Last time I made snickerdoodles that is what I did, and they didn’t flatten much at all. Also for chocolate chip cookies, using half shortening and half butter will keep them thicker, which can be enhanced with the baking powder, depending on how thick you want them.

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Christine. Corn syrup is about as sweet as sugar, so you can replace it using an equal amount of syrup (e.g., for 1 cup of sugar, use 1 cup of corn syrup). Decrease the liquid by 3 to 4 tablespoons per 1 cup substitution. If there’s no liquid called for in the recipe, add about 1 tablespoon of additional flour for every 1/4 cup of corn syrup used.
      You can expect that the flavors will be pretty much the same, though you may find the texture to be a bit heavier. Happy experimenting! Annabelle@KAF

    1. Viv

      Do you mean Lyle’s Golden Syrup? I think it is interchangeable with corn syrup. The only recipe I’ve used it for is pecan pie.

    2. The Baker's Hotline

      If Lyle’s Golden Syrup is what you’re asking about, Lovely, then yes! It’s interchangeable with corn syrup in many recipes and has a slightly buttery flavor. We hope this helps! Kye@KAF

  3. Chris Casey

    Have you tried Agave syrp in this test? I is supposed to have a lower glycemic index, nice for those of us who don’t tolerate sugar well.

    Reply
    1. Patty

      I used agave syrup recently in homemade chocolate syrup. It turned out fine. I can’t say if it prevented crystallization like corn syrup because it was gone in less than a week!

  4. Katie Goodwin

    What recipe was used for the cookies in the first and last images in this post? They remind me of my grandmother’s that I’ve been trying to recreate for years. I would love to know what it is. Thanks!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Those would be our Chocolate Chip Cookies, Katie. You can add 2 tablespoons of corn syrup in place of 2 tablespoons of the granulated sugar if you’d like to make them extra-bendy and delicious. Happy baking! Kye@KAF

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