This article originally appeared in the Summer 2004 edition of Celiac.com's Journal of Gluten-Sensitivity.
“My friend made a chocolate cake,” she was saying, “and wanted to cut back on sugar in her diet, so she made a few adjustments to the recipe. Instead of semisweet chocolate, she used unsweetened chocolate. In place of the sugar, she used a few tablespoons of Splenda.” But, my guest continued with a look of puzzlement on her face, “the cake didn’t taste like cake at all and it was hard and chewy and kind of rough-looking. My friend had to throw it away.”
In these days of low-sugar diets, many of us—like my guest’s friend—are tempted to skip the sugar in baking, or at least reduce it somewhat. Much maligned and often relegated to the back of the pantry, most of us regard sugar as a source of calories and are unaware of its other roles.
Now, before I go any further let’s set the record straight. I think we eat far too much sugar. I look for ways to reduce it in my diet whenever I can. I avoid sugary soft drinks, only eat desserts on special occasions, and watch for hidden sugar in commercial foods.
Nonetheless, after over 10 years of developing gluten-free recipes, I have a healthy respect for the role of sugar in baking. It is particularly important for us gluten-free bakers, because we already have to alter the flavor of our foods by removing wheat flour. If you thinking about omitting sugar in your baking, here’s what you should know:
- First, the obvious. Sugar makes things taste sweet. You can replace sugar with a substitute sweetener but the cake may taste different because we associate “sweetness” with the distinct flavor of sugar (even though you may think of sugar as “neutral” because it’s white).
- Sugar accentuates the flavor of food. A chocolate cake tastes downright strange without sugar, but delicious with the right amount. Try this experiment: Drink unsweetened tea and then add a little sugar to it and notice how much stronger the flavor is.
- Sugar tenderizes the crumb and makes it finer and moister. In contrast, substitutes like Splenda tend to produce a crumb that is larger, tougher, and somewhat drier.
- Sugar encourages the browning process on the crust of baked goods. It’s this browning that we often use as an indicator that a cake is “done,” and, it’s that tendency to brown that relates to its next benefit.
- Sugar produces a slightly crispy, shiny exterior on baked goods that makes them more attractive. It’s the sucrose in sugar that does this and, since sucrose is missing in Splenda, it can’t promote the same level of browning.
Next time you’re tempted to reduce or omit the sugar in baked goods, follow these tips:
- Instead of using all Splenda, use half sugar and half Splenda. You will lower the calorie content, but your cake will be more tender, brown more attractively, and have a finer crumb than if you use all Splenda. A cake may bake a little faster, so check it about five minutes before the recommended cooking time. It may also have a little less volume and not rise as high.
- Add a couple tablespoons of honey to the batter. Honey is a natural humectant and encourages the cake to retain moisture so it won’t dry out as quickly. Of course, honey has its own flavor which you may detect if you use a lot of it.
- Increase the amount of fat in the recipe by 25%, but be sure to use healthier fats. Canola oil and (light) olive oil are good in baking and are good for you. Of course, this will increase the fat content and calorie content (a tablespoon of these oils is roughly 100 calories), but your baked goods will taste better and look better because fat is a flavor carrier and also tenderizes the crumb.
- Use a topping to conceal the rough crust found in low-sugar baked goods. For example, a streusel topping on muffins will partially conceal their rough tops.
- Rather than drastically reducing the amount of sugar at the beginning of your sugar-reduced diet, gradually cut back on the sugar a little more each time you bake. Your palate will adjust and eventually you won’t want “ultra-sweet” foods as much.
- Try an alternative sweetener such as agave nectar. Even though it has calories, it has a low glycemic level (the rate at which it raises your blood sugar levels).
- Finally, (and this is the tough one) just try eating less of those sugary baked foods to reduce your sugar intake. Maybe half a muffin, or a smaller slice of cake, or only one small cookie instead of a large one. Our portion sizes have crept up over the past couple of decades to the point where our muffins are anywhere from 3-5 times larger than a standard USDA serving.
Oh, you’re probably wondering about that dessert my guests were eating. It was a flourless chocolate cake from my book Gluten-Free 101 made with one-third sugar, one-third Splenda, and one-third agave nectar. It was topped with whipped cream (sweetened with agave nectar) lightly dusted with Dutch cocoa, and garnished with a bright red strawberry and a few chocolate-covered espresso beans. The slices were reasonably-sized—not the massive servings we often find in restaurants. My guests were relieved to learn that this dessert was a sweet, yet sensible ending to the meal…and, they ate every last crumb!