By Christopher Wiesman, Deli Manager, Co-op Owner
Ok, I’ll admit it: I adore sugar. I know it’s very gauche during this ever-increasingly health-conscious time to make such a declaration, but I can’t hide my chocolate-coated love anymore. There was, of course, a time when we all ate sugar with reckless abandon, indulging our sweet-teeth without the slightest worry about the ill-effects a surfeit of the sweet stuff could do to our bodies. Those were simpler times. Though I lament the loss of our ignorance (and thus the carte blanche to gorge), even I have to admit that despite the fact that I may want to stuff my face with sugary sweets, the detrimental health effects far outweigh any fleeting taste euphoria I may experience. And it is for that reason that I have begun experimenting with how to make my favorite treats with less sugar. Because, at the end of the day, I both want to indulge and live a (mostly) healthy lifestyle.
Let me be clear, though—this is no way an indictment of anyone else’s personal food choices. I don’t believe in “guilty pleasures”: My theory is that if you feel guilty about the things that give you pleasure, you’re probably doing it wrong. We are all free to balance our diets in a way that we see fit. That being said, the American Heart Association recommends that we eat a no more than five to nine grams of sugar each day. An excess consumption of sugar has been linked to heart disease, type II diabetes, gastrointestinal problems, fatty liver disease—even cancer! I’m not a doctor myself, but those claims are frightening enough to make me rethink my relationship with what is starting to sound like white poison. But who am I kidding? I’m never going to give up sugar. Oh well.
But I can cut back. First, to define terms. For my purposes, low-sugar meant reducing the typical sugar content by 30% to 50%, which is standard. But the question was, can “low-sugar” desserts taste good? Sure, you can just reduce the sugar in a recipe, but as I discovered, what you end up with is something that, to be frank, is simply not worth eating. Not without some tinkering anyway. My first recipe test with chocolate chip cookies bore that reality out: they were greasy, squat, and flavorless. I tried again, this time with chocolate cake, a quintessentially decadent dessert. No dice. It tasted like a wet sponge over which someone had waved a chocolate bar. As you can imagine, I was disappointed. What was going wrong? Clearly the sugar was performing essential functions that were lost when the quantity was reduced. It was time to do some research.
I decided to begin with the worst offenders of all: greasiness and dryness. When I looked at the roles played in baking, one thing occurred to me right away: Sugar is hygroscopic, which means it attracts and holds onto water. With less sugar, essentially the water was being driven off in the form of steam. This definitely accounted for the dryness, but how would that affect the fat in the dough? There seemed to be some basic chemistry at play. Water and fat repel each other, and if the dough was losing moisture through steam, then the steam was probably pushing the fat out of the cookie as it baked.
For my next batch, I swapped liquid for solid fat, reduced the fat content by 15%, and added an egg yolk. The solid fat was less likely to leach out, which was helped by reducing its total quantity as well. And the egg yolk added moisture and “bound” fat. (I made vegan versions of this cookie, too, but that is an odyssey best left for another article.) It turned out that for all my recipes, I had to adjust the moisture and fat levels to account for the loss of sugar.
The next hurdles to overcome were dullness of flavor and rise. Happily, both of these turned out to be much simpler problems to solve. Sugar is a natural flavor potentiator, which means it allows flavors to be more easily perceived on the tongue. Losing sugar meant I was also losing flavor potential. In order to combat blandness, I boosted other flavors: vanilla and other extracts, spices, and even salt here and there. I also employed flavor-enhancing techniques, like blooming spice in hot oil or cocoa powder in hot water. Browning butter and roasting nuts proved especially useful, as did toasting the sugar and flour before baking with them. And, of course, I used fruit, both fresh and dried wherever I could.
I learned pretty early on that the spread and rise of baked goods is intimately affected by sugar content. Sugar is considered a liquid ingredient because it melts when it’s heated. More sugar means more liquid and more spread. When sugar cools, it recrystallizes, helping to set the structure of taller baked goods like cakes and quick bread. To achieve the classic spread and rise of my most beloved bakery staples, all I needed to do was adjust the proportion of baking soda and baking powder. Baking soda alkalinizes batter, which contributes to spread. Increasing it just a little bit helped tremendously with cookies and scones (and aided in browning). Baking powder inhibits spread, but, as you can guess, helps rise. For my low-sugar chocolate cake, which was a dense imitation of the real thing, adding an extra dose of baking powder produced something far taller and more sturdy.
I’d like to say that there is a one-size- fits-all solution for creating low-sugar baked goods that taste like their full-sugar cousins, but the reality is that an expedient solution just doesn’t exist. Every recipe has to be looked at individually, and recalibrated based on what it is missing. Baking low-sugar desserts gave me an opportunity not only to eat a little bit more healthfully, but also discover new things about cooking, which is what I impart to you. What is so wonderful about cooking is that you’ll always have an opportunity to learn something new. (That is my smarmy appeal to get more people to cook.) Explore. Experiment. Enjoy yourself. Happy baking, everyone!
Ed. Note: Check here for a few extra tips and tricks to help you get started.