Searching for sweetness: Chapter 1

We’ve all heard how overweight we are as a nation. The incidence of diabetes in this country is disturbingly high and headed upward all the time. It’s not surprising that we get a lot of requests from bakers within days of their last doctor’s visit asking for help.
I hear from Baking Sheet subscribers all the time, looking for ways to make healthier, lower calorie recipes. So I decided to do some homework.

After doing some cruising around online, I decided to test the best-suited artificial sweeteners for baking in three different recipes. A basic sugar cookie, simple muffin, and our favorite brownie recipe, to see how they perform in a variety of recipe types. My research told me that the two most promising sugar substitutes for baking were going to be Sucralose (Splenda) and a new blend of sugar alcohols from Clabber Girl, called Sugar Replacer for Baking.

sugarfree-1.jpg

Both of them promised cup for cup replacement for measuring, heat stability (better for baking), and browning capabilities. Since Stevia isn’t yet approved by the FDA as “Generally recognized safe”, I didn’t include it in the testing mix. Aspartame (Equal or Nutrasweet) loses flavor when exposed to heat over time, so it’s not a good choice for baking. Saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low) is heat stable, but has a bitter aftertaste and requires bulking agents and conversions in order to bake with, so it was out, too. Besides, how many versions of a no-sugar sugar cookie can you expect people to actually taste?

First up? Sugar cookies. Our Simple Sugar Cookie recipe is a good one for this task. It doesn’t have any eggs; it’s a basic butter/sugar/flour kind of recipe, which will show how much or little the sugar substitute behaves like granulated sugar. Will the cookies spread? Will they get brown around the edges? Will they become crisp as they cool as the recipe says? What about aftertaste?

creaming clabber girl

Clabber Girl Sugar replacer, creamed with butter

I mixed up three batches of dough. I did make one change to the recipe for testing: I used half butter and half shortening. Butter spreads more than shortening does in a cookie, so I wanted to use some to get an idea of how the sweeteners affecting the dough’s spread. The Clabber Girl measured the most like real sugar (it weighed 5 ounces per cup; sugar weighs 7). It also creamed pretty much the same way.

Splenda is a lot airier than sugar; a full cup only weights 7/8 of an ounce. Here’s what it looked like when I creamed it with butter:
creaming splenda

Not a dramatic difference, really, until the rest of the dough was made. Here are all three doughs, side by side.

three doughs

True confessions time. I am an inveterate raw dough-eater. The CG dough looked like normal cookie dough, so of course I had to have a taste. It was a little, well, different. Not exactly the same kind of sweetness as sugar; kind of one dimensional, a slightly off note in the finish. The Splenda dough had a disturbingly bouncy texture: kind of like play-dough, but not in a good way. It also had an aftertaste that wouldn’t go away until I had some tea to clear it.

Time to bake.

scoopeddough1.jpg

In the oven.

intheoven

Notice the cookies on the far right. They’re the Splenda version. I rolled them by hand and squished them flat. Now look at what happened to them once they finished baking.

postbake1.jpg

That bounciness I was experiencing when from the Splenda dough manifested itself during baking; the cookies popped right back up to be round again. Both sugar substitutes browned pretty nicely, in line with how the control recipe performed in the center.

So, how did they taste?

tastingcookies2.jpg

The Clabber Girl cookie had the closest texture to the control, but instead of getting crisp it was more on the slightly hard side. It had a minimal aftertaste, and with some more recipe adjustments, (I think an egg in the dough would have been helpful to the texture) could probably make a pretty good sugar cookie.

The Splenda cookie didn’t really look too appealing, had a stronger aftertaste: it’s texture could be described as problematic. Our tasters reactions were lukewarm, at best, but these are the folks who get a lot of top quality snacking all the time, so that’s not too surprising. The muffins, which I’ll tell you about in the next chapter, fared much better.

Some general conclusions so far? Sugar substitutes will work best when they’re not more than 25% of the recipe’s ingredients by volume. It’s helpful if they’re put in high moisture recipes. Baked goods made with them go stale pretty quickly; one reason why successful baking recipes for cutting calories almost always include some kind of fruit puree in their ingredients list. One of the qualities sugar gives to baked goods is tenderness; sugar is also hygroscopic, which means it absorbs and retains water. When it’s replaced by a different substance, tenderness and moisture are lacking. Stay tuned later in the week for a tale of two muffins.

Susan Reid
About

Susan Reid grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Bates College and the Culinary Institute of America, and is presently enjoying her fourth career after stints in advertising, running restaurants, and teaching at the New England Culinary Institute. She joined King Arthur in 2002 to ...