A Practical Guide to Alternative Sugars
Everything you need to know about branching out beyond white sugar, and why you might want to.
As someone who loves to cook and bake, I am always excited about alternative ingredients. This is especially true for baking, where I am a fan of desserts that are not too sweet and have some complexity to them. Not wanting meal-enders that are just one-note sugary, I frequently experiment with different ways of sweetening the various components of my bakes. And, as someone who is also a Type 2 diabetic, I am extra excited about finding ingredients that add sweetness with less of a blood-sugar impact than regular granulated sugars.
So, my pantry is full of myriad types of sugars. While I do have your common natural sugar substitutes like honey, molasses, and agave syrup, they’re not always terrific for baking, because they’re liquids. I did a deep dive into some natural granulated products that I can swap into recipes for all or part of the granulated sugar and found that they often bring some extra flavor to the party. Note: If you are doing fine pastry work, you need to be careful. Not all of these sugars behave the way regular granulated sugar behaves. But generally, you can use them in most applications with excellent results.
Here are the alternative sugars in my larder today:
Granulated Organic Sugarcane Sap Extract
I know what you’re thinking, isn’t granulated sugar just sugarcane sap extract? And on the surface, you are correct. But regular granulated sugar is refined, and any trace nutrients are removed during the refining process. As a result, the glycemic index rises significantly, by nearly 65%. This product is more like brown sugar in flavor and color, with some caramel and molasses notes. You can swap it in anywhere you would use granulated sugar, brown sugar, or even turbinado sugar. I love it in chocolate or caramel desserts, like this recipe for Miso Blondies.
Granulated Honey Crystals
Just what it sounds like, this is the granulated form of honey and can be swapped out for granulated sugar. The honey flavor is much milder than in liquid honey, more of a backnote. I sprinkle it into plain yogurt to sweeten it, use it for granola, or add it as a final flourish on top of pie crusts for apples or pears. I also like to use it in citrus or ginger recipes, where the honey is a natural pairing. It would be terrific in this recipe for Glazed Ginger Lemon Scones.
Like the honey crystals, maple sugar is just evaporated maple syrup. It’s a good substitute for either granulated sugar or maple syrup. The flavor is definitely more pronounced than the honey crystals, so use it wherever maple would be a welcome flavor, like pancakes and waffles, or candied bacon. It is also my go-to for sweetening barbecue sauce or glazes for ham, where the maple flavor is a little extra. It would be a good swap-out in this recipe for Pumpkin Apple Pancakes.
Date sugar is literally made from ground up dates, which are naturally super-sweet and have some deep butterscotch flavors. I use as an add-in for my sticky toffee pudding to amp up the date flavor, an love to use it for half of the sugar in muffins and sweet breads. Since it is just ground up fruit, it doesn’t melt, so you can’t use it to sweeten beverages, or anywhere you want a sugar to dissolve. It would be terrific swapped out for half of the sugar in this Orange Date Nut Cake.
Coconut sugar is made by tapping the flower bud stem of the coconut palm and extracting the sap, then evaporating the sap into sugar. It has the most in common with brown sugar in terms of texture and flavor, and is a good swap out for brown sugar in baking applications. The coconut flavor is not intense, so you can get the low-glycemic benefits even if you don’t particularly love the flavor of coconut. It is a good sugar to use in candymaking, cookies, and frostings. Because it is softer in texture than granulated sugar, it doesn’t cream as well with butter, so I don’t like to use it in cakes or pastries where I’m looking for a fine crumb or texture. It would be terrific in this recipe for Oatmeal Pantry Cookies.
Made from either the coconut palm or date palm, this is a common ingredient in Asian and South American cooking. I like to use palm sugar to sweeten sauces, especially for stir-fries, satays, and the like. The complex depth to the sweetness works well as a balance to more umami forward flavors like soy and fish sauce, and with spicy flavors like sriracha and harissa. I use it in this recipe for Spicy Thai Basil Chicken all the time.