As you begin to cook and bake more from scratch, you also begin to get a feeling for how much sugar goes into our culture’s typical desserts. And that can be a little shocking. After all, we know that sugar, at the very least, is full of empty calories, bad for our teeth, and actually dangerous for people with conditions like diabetes. Isn’t there some way to avoid all that and still cook up enjoyably sweet dishes?
Yes and no. There are plenty of sweeteners besides sugar, some of them with issues of their own. But there’s nothing you can toss into your recipe in place of the sugar and have it come out just the same. The two reasons for this are taste and texture.
Honey, for example, is both sweeter and way healthier than sugar — but I need hardly point out that it’s a liquid. (Yes, even when it’s gone so thick in the jar that you can’t pour it.) You can’t cream it with fat to create tiny air pockets that will make the baked goods rise. I’ve read that you can compensate by reducing the liquid in the recipe — for example, if you’re using ¼ cup honey instead of sugar, then put in ¼ cup milk instead of ½. I’ve never tried this, and my hunch is that it would give you something heavier than the original, though probably still very good. It would definitely have that honey taste rather than the generic sweetness of white sugar.
Stevia, at first glance, looks a lot more like sugar, and like honey, it’s natural. The University of Nebraska Extension says it works well in fruit and dairy recipes, but “Stevia lacks the ability to add texture, caramelize, feed the fermentation of yeast and help tenderize a batter, all properties that sugar possesses.” I’ll add, from my experience, that it tastes more like artificial sweetener than like sugar. There are also “baking blends” containing stevia mixed with sugar; if you’re content to cut down on sugar instead of cutting it out, these give a taste closer to using straight sugar.
Finally, we have the artificial sweeteners with commercial names like Splenda. Some of them are formulated for baking, even to the point where they’ll behave — though not taste — just like sugar. With all the controversy about these, I can’t fault anyone who just wants to steer clear of them, however.
If you want to substitute any of these sweeteners for sugar in cooking, I’d advise seeking out recipes specially formulated for that exact sweetener. Like the sweeteners themselves, they’ll be good in their own ways.