What does sugar do in baking, really? A lot more than simply sweeten. So if you're curious about baking with less sugar in cakes, cookies, and more, this guide to low-sugar baking will come in handy. Discover how to reduce sugar in baking recipes and still score delicious results.
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Whether you have diabetes, are cutting carbs, or counting calories, baking with less sugar might be a goal—or a necessity. The most straight-forward approach is to start with a low-sugar dessert recipe, of course. But what if you’re hoping to modify one of your family heirloom recipes for a holiday pie, a beloved birthday cake, or a cookie recipe that won a blue ribbon at the state fair? This guide for how to reduce sugar in baking recipes will coach you along to master the balancing act of flavor and texture with healthfulness. So what does sugar do in baking? More than lend sweetness, calories, and grams of carbohydrates. Learn the basics of baking with less sugar in cookies, pies, quick breads, and beyond. It can actually be a piece of cake once you know a few secrets about low-sugar baking.

What Does Sugar Do in Baking, Exactly?

You might remember from chemistry class that sugar is a disaccharide, a molecule made with two monosaccharides: glucose and fructose. The chemical format makes sugar supremely hygroscopic, meaning sugar absorbs water readily. One of the key reasons low-sugar baking can be challenging is that more sugar in a recipe yields a softer, less crumbly, and more moist finished product. If you reduce the sugar you may get a drier texture.

A few more important answers to “what does sugar do in baking?”

  • Triggers spreading: The more sugar, the more an item will spread once baked.
  • Aids in browning: Caramelized sugars help the finished baked good look, well, baked. This golden hue might not be that big of a deal in something that you’re icing or a chocolate dessert that’s already dark, but if you’re seeking a perfectly-golden loaf of bread, you need some sugar.
  • Provokes fermentation: Speaking of bread, yeast feeds on sugar, which allows it to ferment. Not all yeast bread recipes call for sugar, true, but if it does, chances are it’s there for a reason: sugar will help bread rise.
  • Plays a role in aeration: Baking soda, baking powder, cream of tartar, and yeast (the most common leaveners) are responsible for the majority of the aeration in baking recipes. But any recipe that calls for creaming the sugar with eggs or butter likely asks you to do so to build a foundation that will lead to a voluminous, nice texture.
  • Boosts flavor: Much like salt, sugar acts as a flavor enhancer, too. 
sugar measuring cup
Credit: Blaine Moats

How to Reduce Sugar in Baking Recipes

We know that the many roles sugar plays can sound a bit overwhelming. So if you prefer to start with low-sugar baking recipes rather than tinkering with full-sugar recipes, consider these pro tips.

  • Yeast breads, pancakes, scones, biscuits, and popovers tend to fall lower on the sugar spectrum.
  • Cutout cookies are often lower in sugar than ball-shaped cookies. (See that spreading note above.)
  • Dried fruit and fresh fruit desserts might call for less sugar than, say, dark chocolate desserts, since the fruit offers some natural sweetness.
  • It can be helpful to compare two recipes for the same item you’re craving, such as brownie recipes, to start with one that calls for less sugar.

Otherwise, the baking aces at King Arthur ran ample tests about how to reduce sugar in cake recipes and learned that you can often safely cut about 10% of sugar—5 teaspoons per cup of sugar—without impacting the flavor or texture in a noticeable way. The same should hold true for any dessert recipe except for the ones noted below on our not-great-for-low-sugar baking list. You might be able to reduce sugar up to 25% to 33%, depending on the recipe you start with and your personal preference for flavor and consistency.

As you play around with baking with less sugar, keep in mind that the best results will come in dessert recipes that call for sugar only for sweetness, not for a chemical reaction. (This might include a pie filling, compote, or pudding recipe.) In addition to fruit desserts, quick breads, loaf cakes, no-bake desserts, and cakier cookies often work best when you’re trimming more than 10% of sugar.

Bonus Tips for Low-Sugar Baking

Remember these low-sugar baking no-nos.

  • Not all recipes should be adjusted. Don’t try to reduce sugar in frozen desserts, candy, or cookies with caramelized, crisp edges. The ratio of sugar is dialed in to ensure success.
  • Top things off. If you reduce the sugar inside the dough, batter, or other dessert mixture, consider dusting the top with a pinch of sanding sugar or coconut sugar. A small amount of coarse sugar on the exterior—the part that might contact your taste buds first—can go a long way if the sugar’s main role is flavor and sweetness.
  • Check early. Since low-sugar baking recipes won’t brown as much and have a different moisture level than classic desserts, check doneness 5 to 10 minutes earlier than usual.
  • Spice things up. A dash of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cardamom, or allspice might help perk up the flavors enough to counteract the loss of sweetness and flavor accentuation that sugar otherwise would have offered.

As you see, baking with less sugar is more of an art than a science. That means there’s not exactly one rule we can give you to master low-sugar baking. Take a trial run of your favorite recipes using these tips and tricks as your foundation for reducing sugar in baking recipes. Chances are, the dessert recipe will still be delicious even if it isn’t perfect on your first attempt—and you’ll have a result to build a new hypothesis around for next time.

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