Baking with natural sweeteners


Baking with natural sweeteners

The holiday season is traditionally the sweetest time of the year, and one when many cooks are looking for alternatives to refined white sugar.

When it comes to added sugars, “it doesn’t take much digging to learn that sugar basically is sugar, no matter what it’s called,” Nancy Schatz Alton wrote in the Sound Consumer years back. Still, some less-processed alternates (such as honey and molasses) do contain traces of essential nutrients, and others (such as coconut sugar and agave) have a lower glycemic index, meaning they’re absorbed more slowly into the bloodstream than white table sugar and are less likely to cause sugar “highs” or “lows.” Fruit substitutes such as mashed bananas and pureed dates carry the positive aspects of whole foods, containing vitamins, minerals, and often some valuable fiber along with other benefits. (Note that questions persist about arsenic levels in brown rice syrup and fruit juice concentrates.)

Most notably for seasonal baking purposes is that different sugars have different qualities and cause different effects in recipes. We’ve provided advice on choices and substitutions below, adapted from PCC’s online guides.

What you won’t find on the list: PCC does not sell artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, Saccharin, Equal or Splenda.View PCC’s quality standards.

Choices in natural sweeteners

In recipes calling for white sugar, try substituting some applesauce or mashed ripe banana, pureed dates, raisins or prunes—adjusting the amount of liquid. They’ll add fiber and create a delicious, moist texture. Or, try some of these other great options for sweeteners.

Agave is a liquid sweetener produced from the sap of the agave cactus plant. The sap is treated with enzymes and heat to become a palatable syrup higher in fructose (80%) than any other sweetener.

Barley malt syrup comes from sprouted barley that’s roasted and cooked down to a syrup. Its malt-like flavor is good for baking in bagels or with squash, or making barbecue and sweet and sour sauces.

Brown rice syrup is made with brown rice and a culture that’s cooked to a syrup. Half as sweet as white sugar, its mild flavor is similar to butterscotch. It’s very good for cooking, baking and in drinks or marinades. Be sure to read labels because some brands include barley malt and corn syrup.

Cane sugar is made from sugar cane that’s crushed mechanically to extract its juice. Several unrefined or unbleached forms are available and excellent in any recipe.

Muscovado sugar is made from unrefined, evaporated cane juice. Unlike processing for white sugar, the molasses is not separated from the sugar stream when the cane is crushed. The juice is not spun but rather dried slowly to retain more plant material in the crystals and results in a pronounced flavor with a slightly sticky texture. It is unbleached and crystalline, retaining its natural molasses and trace vitamins and minerals.

Turbinado sugar is made by heating sugar cane juice, then spinning it in a centrifuge or turbine to extract moisture and molasses for large, golden crystals. It’s closer to refined sugar than raw sugar.

Demerara sugar is similar to turbinado. The cane juice is heated, filtered and spun in a centrifuge to separate the molasses from the large, crunchy crystals.

Coconut sugar is available in both liquid and crystal (granulated) forms, often labeled as coconut palm sugar. It is produced from the sap of coconut flower buds and cooked down to reduce the water content to produce a liquid or crystalized sweetener. Can be used cup for cup in place of other granulated sugars.

Date sugar is made from dried, pulverized dates. Some brands add oat flour to make it free-flowing, others add oil for softness. Date sugar does not dissolve but is delicious in baking and crumb toppings.

Fruit juice concentrates are fruit juices cooked down and sold as either a syrup or frozen juice concentrate. Their fruit flavors are a plus or minus depending on your preference. Although juice concentrates come from fruit, they still are a sugar, no healthier than other sweeteners.

Honey is made by honeybees from the nectar of flowers. Unheated and unfiltered raw honey is cloudy, very thick and contains healthful antioxidants, pollen and bee propolis, a compound produced by bees with antibacterial properties. Honey contains less sugar per teaspoon than highly refined sweeteners, is versatile and very good in baking. Honey should not be given to infants to protect against botulism.

Maple syrup is the boiled sap of sugar maple trees. Grade A is light and from early sap runs. Grade B is from later runs and has a stronger flavor. Buy organic to avoid residues of formaldehyde and other chemicals used to keep tap holes open longer. Refrigerate to inhibit mold. Crystallized maple syrup granules are available as a sprinkle.

Molasses is a byproduct of refining sugar cane. Blackstrap is slightly sweet, comes from the final press of sugar cane and is a source of potassium and iron. “Unsulphured molasses” indicates no sulphur dioxide was used in extraction or as a preservative. Sweet Barbados molasses is from the first boiling of the cane, lending a more subtle, sweeter flavor than blackstrap, and also contains some iron and calcium. Refrigerate to inhibit mold.

Monk fruit extract (lo han guo) is from a fruit native to China and used there for food and medicine. This zero-calorie sweetener contains compounds from the fruit that produce a sweet taste but no calories.

Stevia is derived from a perennial shrub with leaves 30 times sweeter than sugar. It has no calories and may be useful for people with diabetes, candida, or anyone trying to give up sugar. Available in powdered or liquid form. Best in beverages.

Xylitol is extracted from fruits and vegetables (commonly corn cobs). It tastes similar to cane sugar, is low in calories and reportedly does not cause cavities. It has a low glycemic index. *A warning that xylitol is extremely toxic to dogs.


Sweetener Amount to replace 1 cup sugar Adjustments to recipe

* If you use barley malt or brown rice syrups in baked goods, be aware that a natural enzyme in these sweeteners may liquefy the consistency of the batter. This is more likely when eggs are not used. To prevent liquefying eggless recipes, first boil the barley malt or brown rice syrup for 2 to 3 minutes, cool, then measure and use.

** For each ¼ teaspoon baking soda, reduce salt by ¼ teaspoon.

*** Do not substitute more than half the sugar in a recipe with molasses; blackstrap molasses is not sweet.

Tip: If the recipe doesn’t call for any liquid, add 4 to 6 tablespoons of flour for each cup of liquid sweetener substituted for sugar.

Agave ¾ cup Reduce liquid in recipe by one-third to one-half. Reduce baking temperature 25 degrees.
Barley malt syrup* 1 ⅓ cups Reduce liquids by one-fourth. Add ¼ teaspoon baking soda for each cup syrup to help baked goods rise.**
Brown rice syrup* 1 ¼ cups Reduce liquid by one-fourth and add ¼ teaspoon baking soda for each cup syrup to help baked goods rise.**
Coconut sugar 1 cup None
Date sugar 1 cup Burns easily, so bake with care.
Frozen juice concentrate ⅔ cup Reduce liquids by one-third and add ¼ teaspoon baking soda per cup of concentrate.**
Honey ½ cup Reduce liquids by one-eighth. Reduce oven temperature by 25 degrees and cook a bit longer.
Maple syrup ½ to ⅔ cup Reduce liquid by one-fourth and add 1 teaspoon baking soda per cup of syrup.**
Molasses 1 ⅓ cup sweet molasses Reduce liquid by 6 tablespoons and add ½ teaspoon baking soda per cup of molasses.***
Sugar cane juice
(Rapadura, Sucanat, muscovado, turbinado, demerara)
1 cup None
Xylitol or Zero, granulated 1 cup None

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