Not too long ago, when you were baking something sweet you used either white table sugar or perhaps brown sugar. But in recent years a number of new natural sweetening options have become more popular, including agave, stevia and honey.
Why bother with anything other than good old sugar? It’s true that using honey or agave won’t cut many calories from your baked goods, but that’s only one part of the equation. Different sweeteners have different tastes, and some add a different level of richness and sweetness– some people describe the flavor of baked goods with one of these alternate sweeteners as having more of a caramel flavor, for example. In addition, these natural sweeteners don’t have quite the same effect on blood sugar levels as does table sugar, which can be beneficial.
Agave Nectar. Agave nectar is a liquid that’s made from the agave plant. Agave is a bit sweeter than traditional table sugar, so you’ll use less agave nectar in your recipes than sugar. But because agave nectar is also in liquid form and affects the moisture balance of the dough or batter, you’ll need to adjust some of the other ingredients in your recipe.
For example, to equal the sweetness of one cup of granulated sugar you’ll only need about 2/3 cup of agave nectar. You’ll also need to reduce the volume of your liquid ingredients in the recipe by approximately ¼ cup (or maybe a little more). Usually this means leaving out some water or milk. If the recipe you’re making only uses eggs or applesauce, but no liquid, you’ll need to add a little extra flour (again, approximately ¼ cup or a bit more for each cup of sugar you’re replacing). Finally, because the carbohydrates in agave nectar are somewhat different than those in table sugar, they’ll brown more quickly. A good rule of thumb is to reduce your baking temperature by 25 or so degrees when using agave instead of sugar.
Honey. Honey is even sweeter than agave, so when substituting for table sugar in your baking recipes, the reduction will be even greater. In general you can substitute approximately ½ cup of honey for each cup of table sugar. You’ll also want to reduce the volume of liquid in the recipe and/or increase the amount of flour – roughly in the same proportions as you would with agave. However, because honey has a slight natural acidity, in some recipes you may wish to include something to neutralize that acidity. Add up to ½ teaspoon baking soda for every cup of honey in your recipe.
Stevia. Although stevia is derived from a plant, and has long been consumed by some cultures, it’s only been on the scene as a baking ingredient for a relatively short time. Stevia is different from honey or agave in that it can come in a liquid or powder form, and is many times sweeter than standard sugar. It only takes one teaspoon of liquid or powdered Stevia to equal the sweetness of one cup of sugar. When using stevia instead of sugar you’ll also need to add something to maintain the right consistency of your batter or dough – popular additions include apple sauce, pumpkin puree or yogurt.
Regardless of which natural sweetener you’re starting to bake with, try using it first on a recipe you’re already very familiar with, so that you know what your batter or dough is supposed to look like and can make adjustments accordingly.