As you know, this year I started a new series called “Favorite Veg on the Web,” where each month I feature one of my favorite food bloggers. This month, there’s two small catches. First, I’ll be featuring two food bloggers, one this Saturday and one next Saturday, as opposed to the usual one. And second, neither food blogger is vegetarian or vegan… BUT they each have a unique perspective that I thought would be great to share on Como Water. Today, I’d like to introduce you to Carolyn of the wonderful food blog, All Day I Dream About Food. On her blog, Carolyn candidly discusses the challenges and triumphs of low-carb cooking and baking. I’ll let you read about how and why she transitioned to a low carb diet here, and without further delay, pass it over to her to discuss the ins-and-outs of baking without sugar! (P.S. All of the photos in this post are Carolyn’s lovely baked creations!)
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Baking Without Sugar
I am so flattered that Tiff has asked me to talk to you today about baking without sugar. I am by no means an expert, but as a diabetic, I have done my fair share and I’ve certainly learned a thing or two along the way. I’ve used a number of different sugar substitutes and like any baker, I have my favourites and preferred methods. But I will try to be as objective as I can!
The first thing you should know is that nothing, and I mean NOTHING, behaves quite the way sugar does. No matter how much the manufacturers attempt to make their product measure like sugar and be as sweet as sugar, I know of nothing that bakes up the same way sugar does. This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. It’s just something you have to get used to. If you expect your alternative sweeteners to behave exactly like sugar, you will be sorely disappointed. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get great results, you just have to be ready to accommodate the differences.
I break sugar substitutes into two major categories: artificial (man-made) and naturally-occurring. Notice I don’t say “all-natural” here. The “all-natural” label can be incredibly misleading, since there are no formal guidelines to what products can call themselves natural. So I am referring to products that actually occur in nature, as opposed to being chemically-derived. But like sugar, they need to be processed out of their naturally-occurring state for us to use them as sweeteners.
Artificial Sweeteners: This includes sucralose (Splenda®), aspartame and saccharine, among others. I tend not to use these much, because I don’t like how they are made and I don’t like how they taste. But they have the advantage of being relatively inexpensive and widely available in most grocery stores. They are as sweet or sweeter than sugar and are often manufactured to measure cup for cup like sugar, to help bakers figure out how much to use. I won’t speak to any health issues associated with them, except to say that they are considered by the FDA to be GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe).
Your biggest issue with these sweeteners is that they lack bulk. What does this mean for baking? Well, they lack much volume and even the granulated versions are so light and powdery that they don’t add much besides sweetness to your recipe. They won’t whip little air bubbles into creamed butter, which is what gives many cakes their fine crumb. If bulk is necessary for the recipe, you will have to find ways to make up for it with another ingredient. These sweeteners also won’t help your recipe brown or caramelize, if you need it to, so the final product may appear paler than one made with sugar.
Naturally-Occurring: This category includes stevia and the sugar alcohols like xylitol and erythritol (I am excluding other sugar alcohols like sorbital and maltitol here because they can raise blood glucose almost as much as regular sugar). There are other naturally-occurring sweeteners, but these are the most commonly available on the market. They tend to be more expensive than the artificial sweeteners. Stevia is much, much sweeter than sugar (about 600 times in its concentrated form), so a little goes a long way, but it also has a distinctive, licorice-like aftertaste that some people don’t like. Xylitol and erythritol come in both granulated and powdered versions, so they are very useful in baking, but they tend not to be as sweet as regular sugar. Xylitol is known to cause gastrointestinal upset when eaten in large doses, and both xylitol and erythritol have a distinctive “mouth-cooling” sensation when used in concentrated quantities. Erythritol has a crystalline structure like sugar, so it can be used for bulk in baked goods and it will whip tiny air bubbles into creamed butter.
All of these sugar substitutes, both artificial and naturally-occurring, differ from sugar in that they don’t attract and hold moisture. This can be both good and bad. It’s good in that the particles don’t clump together in humidity, like sugar does, so your sweetener will always remain pourable right out of the bag. But it’s bad in that your baked goods may be drier and more crumbly, and you will need to find ways to make up for that, with extra oils, liquids, yogurts or fruit purees.
If you are used to baking with sugar, learning to bake without will largely be a matter of experimentation. You can take any conventional recipe and swap in a different sweetener, but your results will almost certainly differ from those made with sugar. If you are mindful of the differences between these products and sugar, however, you can still come up with some amazing and delicious treats that everyone will love. A great way to begin is to do a little research on recipes that use these sweeteners, to see how they accommodate the differences, and use those as a guideline. There are a lot of talented bakers out there who don’t use any sugar at all.
In almost all of my sugar-free baking, I used a combination of erythritol and liquid stevia extract. I sometimes experiment with other sweetening products or other combinations, but I find that this one, which I hit upon early in my sugar-free baking career, really works for most of what I do. For one thing, I find that in combination, neither the aftertaste of stevia, nor the cooling effect of erythritol, is apparent. I also favour this combination because it has little to no effect on my blood glucose levels, allowing me to enjoy my baked goods whenever I want. Most of what I make is also made without wheat flour or gluten, but that’s a whole other subject altogether!
So don’t be afraid to try baking without sugar. Refined sugars are undoubtedly one of our society’s biggest health issues, and no matter what substitute you choose, you are doing yourself a big favour. You may have some failures, but you will certainly also have many successes and you will get better and better as you learn. And I will say that there is nothing quite like enjoying a big slice of cake for breakfast because guess what? It’s good for you!