Same Cake Recipe, Different Sugars

Bakers, beware: If you're leery of white sugar, check out the dramatic differences that resulted when we subbed other sugars into the same recipe.

Sugar Showdown

Photo: Randy Mayor

Sugar Showdown

The reason sugar alternatives make for tricky baking has to do with the sugar-facilitated chemical reactions that happen during beating and cooking. Those reactions determine volume, texture, moisture, and browning. Bakers may swap in other sweets for health reasons (raw sugar and honey are assumed healthier than white, though there's really little difference). But the price can run high, as the following examples—in which we subbed alternatives into a classic pound cake recipe—show. That's why we usually use white sugar in our recipes, adjusting portion sizes and other ingredients to cut calories.

NOTE: Calories in cake come from all ingredients, not just the sweeteners. The difference from slice to slice reflects the relative calorie contribution of each sweetener.

White Sugar

Photo: Randy Mayor

White Sugar

CLASSIC FULL-FAT POUND CAKE

Calories per teaspoon: 16
Calories per slice: 497

The sugar that modern baking was built on. Sugarcane or sugar beet juices are boiled, and molasses extracted. The remaining sugar is bleached and tumbled into crystals of uniform size.

How It Baked: The pound cake made with table sugar was perfectly fluffy, voluminous, and tender. The crust was crisp, flaky, and exquisitely golden.

 

Raw Sugar

Photo: Randy Mayor

Raw Sugar

Calories per teaspoon: 15
Calories per slice: 486

Raw sugar is what sugar makers get before they further break it down and whiten it to make table sugar. The amber-colored crystals are larger than those of table sugar, are irregularly shaped, and still contain molasses.

How It Baked: This cake didn't rise as well because the larger crystals don't break down easily to help lift the cake. It was dense and less tender, but altogether decent.

 

 

Coconut Sugar

Photo: Randy Mayor

Coconut Sugar

Calories per teaspoon: 16
Calories per slice: 497

Coconut sugar, also known as coconut palm sugar, is made from the flower buds of the coconut palm tree. Like other coconut products, it's hot right now, and, like coconut oil, has a health-food halo.

How It Baked: Coconut sugar turned the ivory cake dark brown. Its slight moisture content made for a lumpy texture, and the cake was done 30 minutes early. It was significantly less sweet than others.

 

 

Stevia

Photo: Randy Mayor

Stevia

Calories per teaspoon: 0
Calories per slice: 351

This popular zero-calorie sweetener is derived from a South American plant of the same name. Pure, it can be 300 times sweeter than sugar, but most varieties are made to be about twice as sweet. It's not meant to be used as a 1-for-1 sugar substitution in baking, as this slice shows.

How It Baked: Roughly the same size as the white- sugar version, but the texture was like dry, compacted sand—no air, no tenderness. No browning happened. Intense sweetness finished bitter.

 

 

Stevia for Baking

Photo: Randy Mayor

Stevia for Baking

Calories per teaspoon: 0
Calories per slice: 351

A starchy bulking agent called maltodextrin is sometimes added to zero-calorie sweeteners to make them more closely match table sugar's sweetness level in cup-for-cup use.

How It Baked: Though it sank in the pan, this moist cake was actually much better than the one made with non-baking stevia. The powdery sub instantly dissolved into the batter, so it didn't incorporate air when mixed with butter like sugar does. The sweetness level was fine.

 

 

Honey

Photo: Randy Mayor

Honey

Calories per teaspoon: 21
Calories per slice: 542

Golden liquid sweetener made from flower nectar by honeybees

How It Baked: Most honey contains roughly 18% water, so the cake was spongy and too moist. Honey also has a lower smoke point, so it browns quickly—our cake was done 25 minutes ahead of the recipe.

 

 

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