The role of sugar (why you can’t substitute one ingredient for another in baking)

 

When I teach a class, someone always asks: “Can I lower the amount of sugar in the recipe if I want it less sweet?”.
My answer is invariably: “No you can’t (or do it at your own risk).”

In some cakes recipes, you can lower the amount of sugar by 5 or 10% and it won’t make much of a difference but take macarons for example, they are primarily made of meringue, which is sugar and egg whites. Then you fold in the dry ingredients: almond flour and icing sugar. Yes that’s a lot of sugar but you need it to achieve the proper chemical reactions that will end up making a macaron.

Let’s explain why we need sugar in some recipes, and why other sweeteners won’t give the same results as granulated (white or cane) sugar.

Sugar has many functions in baking:
– it’s a sweetener

– it increases the shelf life of baked goods, jams, etc. First because it lowers the level of water activity, replacing it with sugar. And although bacteria like sugar, they can’t use it without water, that’s why if you want to store jams for months out of the fridge, you’ll need more sugar than if you’re making a compote that you intend to eat within a few days and store in the fridge.  And when you’re making fruits confits, you’re basically removing all the water from the fruit and replacing it with sugar. At the shop, we were using old macarons to display examples of macarons towers for weddings and I’ve never seen one macaron become mouldy! They were just getting drier and drier like mummyfied macarons… Not edible any more of course!

– But it also helps retaining humidity in moist cakes and cookies because sugar molecules bind with water (the relationship between sugar and water is a matter of dosage, temperature and how you work the sugar).

–  Which brings me to my next point: it crystallizes in different ways depending on the temperature you boil it to which makes it a very versatile ingredient to work with. That’s why it’s very useful to own a sugar thermometer, precision is key when you work with sugar!

– it helps achieve a nice caramelization. If you’ve read the previous post, you know all about the Maillard reaction. Well, sugar is definitely a big help to get a nice golden color in your baked goods!

– it can trap air and helps achieve a wide array of structures (hard, soft, spongy…)

– it brings some crunch to recipes (think pie dough, cookies…)

 

 

– it decreases the freezing temperature of water, that’s why it’s essential to make ice cream, gelato or sorbets that will remain creamy even when frozen.

– when coupled with sugar, eggs coagulate at a higher temperature, that’s what allows to make scrumptious pastry cream or creme anglaise. Just be careful not to leave sugar in direct contact with egg yolks for too long with beating because the sugar will start to coagulate the yolks and you’ll end up with egg yolk lumps in your batter. As soon as you’ve added sugar to the yolks, beat well the two ingredients together and then you won’t need to worry about lumps.

My baking experiments with sugar
marocaines almond orange ballsI’ve made a little experiment with the Marocaines and Coconut macaroons recipes the other day.

In the Marocaines recipe I replaced the sugar with agave syrup while in the macaroons I replaced it with honey.

Both recipes were successful, the cookies looked and tasted good, both the syrup and honey work fine as sweetening agents (but you can taste the syrup and honey).

Now when it came to texture, that’s where the big difference was. When I make the recipes with sugar, there’s a bit of a crunch, a thin shell forms and caramelizes on the cookies while they bake. With honey and syrup, the cookies were moister and softer all the way. The difference wasn’t major when they came out of the oven but as the hours passed they became softer  and softer because the alternative sweeteners trap more moisture than sugar does (and for that reason you wouldn’t be able to keep the cookies made with syrup and honey as long as the ones made with sugar).

My personal preference in terms of taste and texture goes to the traditional recipe with sugar. 

Pro tip

Do you know how easy it is to make vanilla sugar at home? You can make a big jar and use it to add a subtle flavour to cakes, custards or your coffee!

When you’re scraping vanilla beans to add the seeds to a recipe, keep the dry pods and place them in a big jar full of sugar (I like to do 50% cane-50% white sugar) and leave them in to infuse the sugar with their flavour. Every time you have a dry pod, add it to the jar and add more sugar.

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