The Healthy Cook's Guide to Natural Sweeteners
Cut Back on Sugar in Baked Goods
Sugar is needed for structure and flavor in baked goods, so it’s best to cut back rather than cut out (if you remember the too spongy applesauce cakes from the 90’s, heed our warning here). You can usually remove 1/4 to 1/3 of the sugar in a standard recipe without changing the final product. Cut back on sugar just a little and you’ll taste other elements—nutty whole-grain flours, warm spices, and sweet vanilla extract—more.
Replace Sugar in Baked Goods with Fruit
You can cut added sugar in half by stirring in overripe banana or chopped dates into batters and doughs for quick breads, cookies, muffins, and pancakes. The banana will add moisture so you don’t lose that tender crumb. Dates have an intense honey-sweetness that’s fantastic in muffins and scones. Chop for a bit of texture, or soak in hot water until softened and mash into a paste.
Balance Sauces and Smoothies with Fruits and Vegetables
Add grated carrots, butternut squash, beets, or sweet potatoes to acidic tomato sauces or full-bodied stews to balance bolder flavors instead of adding sugar. The fine shreds will melt into the sauce and won’t be noticeable in the finished dish. Smoothies can be sugar bombs when frozen fruit, low-fat yogurt, milk, and honey combine. Replace the sweetener with little grated apple, beet, or carrot for more vitamins, fantastic color, and just the right amount of sweetness.
Try Unsweetened Non-Dairy Milks
Alternative milks are more mainstream than ever and are a worthy sub for dairy milk. Skip the original or vanilla flavors—these can often be too sweet—and opt for unsweetened. Try unsweetened almond milk in smoothies or sauces and unsweetened soymilk over granola or in baked goods. These milks would all be delicious blended with a great hot chocolate or chai mix (where there’s already plenty of sweetness).
Choose Full-Fat Yogurt as a Treat
Full fat yogurts are rich, luscious, and less tangy. They don’t need as much sugar to compensate for tang and texture. Enjoy dolloped over dessert or baked potatoes, or use in combination with low fat yogurt and canola mayonnaise for an irresistible dip. Because full-fat yogurts are richer and more satisfying, you won’t need as much, and you won’t need to disguise them with a syrupy fruit stir in or sugary granola.
Go Coo Coo for Coconut
Use unsweetened flaked or shredded coconut or coconut milk in cookies, oatmeal, or granola. Like vanilla, coconut simply smells and tastes sweet on its own. For the perfect toasted flakes, spread in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake at 350° for 7 minutes, stirring once after 3 minutes. Remember to keep amounts of coconut and coconut milk in check—coconut is a source of saturated fat.
Enjoy Fruits that Get Sweeter with Time
Take advantage of fruits that grow sweeter as they ripen, such as apples, apricots, bananas, cantaloupes, mangoes, nectarines, papayas, peaches, pears, and plums. Perfectly ripe fruits are delicious out of hand or sliced over cakes or frozen yogurt for a fantastic dessert. Overripe, even slightly bruised fruits (we’re looking at you, banana) are also delightfully sweet and won’t need as much sugar when stewed, baked, or pureed.
Draw out the natural sugars in onions by cooking low and slow until they turn a deep golden brown. Cut 2 medium yellow onions vertically into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Heat 11/2 tablespoons canola oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add onions and 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt and cook, stirring occasionally, for 8 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook 30 to 35 minutes, stirring occasionally. Use on a burger in place of relish or sprinkle over pizzas or pastas.