Liquid Sweetness

Use these pourable treats in baking


Published May 4, 2009
Culinate.com



Granulated cane sugar might be the favored sweetener in most of our kitchens, but sometimes a liquid sweetener is a better choice, offering moistness, variety of flavor, and even vitamins and minerals.

When choosing a liquid sweetener to replace the sugar in a recipe, remember that certain sweeteners require up to three times the amount of sugar called for in a recipe, while others require less.

1. Honey. Produced by honey bees from the nectar of flowers, honey is the thick liquid extracted from honeycomb. More than 300 kinds of honey are available in the U.S. alone, each named after the principal source of nectar: alfalfa, clover, orange blossom, buckwheat, and the like. Honey ranges in color from almost white to dark brown; usually, the lighter the color, the milder the flavor.

Honey is about 25 percent sweeter than conventional sugar, and most guidelines for baking with it reduce the amount of liquid in a recipe by 1/4 cup for each cup of honey used. Sometimes an additional 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda is recommended to balance the acidity of the honey.

Because honey causes baked goods to caramelize more quickly, reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees when baking with it to prevent overbrowning.

Recipes: Ice Cream Sandwiches with Honey-Oatmeal Raisin Cookies, Anything Goes Oatmeal Bread, and Granola Bars

2. Maple syrup. Not to be confused with pancake syrup — the cheaper and commonly used substitute based on corn syrup — pure maple syrup is made by boiling the sap of sugar-maple and black-maple trees until nearly all of the water has evaporated. Most authentic maple syrup comes from the northeastern U.S. and Canada.

Maple syrup is graded by measuring its flavor and color, both of which vary depending on the temperature at which the sap was boiled and for how long. Fancy or Grade AA syrup has a very mild flavor and is light amber in color. Grade A has a mellow flavor and medium amber color. For baking and pancakes alike, I favor the dark amber Grade B syrup, which has a hearty maple flavor. Grade C syrup is almost molasses-like both in flavor and appearance.

In baking, substitute 3/4 cup of maple syrup for every 1 cup sugar and decrease the amount of liquid in the recipe by 3 tablespoons per cup of sugar.

Recipes: Spelt Pancakes and Sour Cream Coffee Cake

3. Agave nectar is great for baking. Natural, organic, and kosher, the agave plant grows wild in Jalisco, Mexico. Although agave nectar is made from more than one variety of the plant, the Blue Weber is the primary source, best known for providing nectar of another sort: tequila.

Less viscous than honey and more stable (because it’s less prone to crystallization), agave nectar is appreciated for its excellent moisture-retaining properties, which make it an especially good addition to breads and baked goods with light, fluffy textures. It also keeps baked items fresh longer.

The two rules of thumb when substituting agave nectar in a recipe is to reduce the other liquids by a third and to use a quarter less agave nectar to achieve the same level of sweetness — for example, 3/4 cup agave nectar for each cup of sugar.

Recipes: House Margarita and Chocolate Peanut Butter Mousse–Filled Cupcakes

4. Brown-rice syrup. Naturally processed from sprouted brown rice, brown-rice syrup contains complex sugars that are absorbed more slowly into the bloodstream than ordinary table sugar. Its mildly sweet butterscotch flavor generally produces baked goods that are crisper than those made with cane sugar. Brown-rice syrup is also good stirred into coffee or poured over pancakes and waffles.

Though it can’t be substituted directly for cane sugar in most recipes, you can use brown-rice syrup in place of other liquid sweeteners like corn syrup and simple syrup, or maple syrup and honey (3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons is equal to 1 cup), barley-malt syrup (3/4 cup for each cup), or molasses (1/2 cup for each cup).

Recipe: Peanut Butter Popcorn

5. Barley-malt syrup. A thick, dark, slow-digesting sweetener made from sprouted barley, barley-malt syrup is full of protein, vitamins, and minerals. Its rich mellow flavor tastes a bit like molasses, although for many, its closest association is with beer. In fact, to say that barley malt is to beer as grapes are to wine would be absolutely accurate.

About half as sweet as refined sugar or honey, barley malt is terrific in bread; I use it in my Multigrain No-Knead Bread recipe, for example. It’s also the source of the malt used in malted milkshakes and in that favorite movie treat, Whoppers.

In a pinch, barley-malt syrup can fill in for molasses (use 1 cup barley-malt syrup for every 2/3 cup molasses), or brown-rice syrup or maple syrup (use 1 cup barley-malt syrup for every 1 1/3 cups brown-rice syrup or maple syrup).

Recipe: Multigrain No-Knead Bread

6. Molasses. Ordinary granulated sugar is made by squeezing the juice from sugar cane or sugar beets, boiling it down to a syrupy mixture, and extracting the sugar crystals from it. Molasses is the thick, dark residue left behind. Its sweet, distinctive flavor is traditional in gingerbread, baked beans, and rye bread.

Light molasses (also known as sweet, mild, and Barbados) is taken from the first boiling. Less sweet and more flavorful, dark molasses (sometimes called full or full-flavored) is the syrup that remains after the juices are boiled a second time; to me, it hints pleasantly at black licorice. Finally, blackstrap molasses is the syrup left over from the third and last boiling. Too strong and bitter for most recipes, blackstrap molasses is more popular for its alleged health benefits (it’s a good source of iron and calcium).

The method used to process molasses determines whether it is labeled “sulphured” or “unsulphured,” which has a lighter, cleaner sugar-cane flavor.

Recipes: All I Want For Christmas Gingerbread and Ginger Cookies

7. Golden syrup. Also know as cane syrup or light treacle, golden syrup is made by evaporating sugar-cane juice until it is thick, syrupy, and golden-colored. Its consistency is very much like corn syrup, but golden syrup has a rich, toasty flavor with noticeably more depth and dimension than its industrially engineered, low-cost cousin. The amber syrup is especially beloved by British, Caribbean, and Creole cooks, who use Lyle’s Golden Syrup (in Britain) and Steen’s (in the South).

Like the difference between mild and full-flavored molasses, light treacle (golden syrup) has fewer impurities and a milder flavor than the dark, less refined syrup from which it is derived. Black treacle is the British version of blackstrap molasses, and is also very bitter.

Recipe: Sticky Toffee Pudding

8. Simple syrup. Made by bringing a mixture of sugar and water to a boil and simmering it until the sugar dissolves, simple syrup is widely used in restaurant kitchens and bars. Pastry chefs use it to sweeten fresh fruit purées (think sauces and sorbets) and for brushing on cake layers to add extra moistness, while bartenders rely on simple syrup for mixing cocktails and concocting homemade liqueurs.

The thickness of simple syrup depends on the ratio of sugar to water used to make it; 1:1 is lightly syrupy and useful for a range of applications, including sweetening iced coffee, tea, and lemonade.

Add sliced fresh ginger root, bruised mint or lemon verbena leaves, or a vanilla bean that’s been split and scraped to your next batch of simple syrup to punch up the flavor of your sorbet or beverage of choice.

Recipes: Grapefruit Simple Syrup, Mint Simple Syrup, and Pumpkin Waffles with Muscovado Syrup

Former pastry chef Ellen Jackson is a food writer who lives in Portland, Oregon.