Jul 31, 2023
6 common liquid sweeteners for cooking and baking
There’s a wide variety of sweeteners available to home cooks and bakers, including dry sugars and syrups, and natural products and those that are less so. It can be a broad and complex category to
There’s a wide variety of sweeteners available to home cooks and bakers, including dry sugars and syrups, and natural products and those that are less so. It can be a broad and complex category to cover fully, particularly when you factor in their uses and how they can impact the outcome of recipes.
Liquid sweeteners are great for stirring into drinks, whisking into dressings and mixing into sauces in savory cooking. In the world of desserts and baking, syrups can add shine, create smoother textures, enhance browning, add moisture and contribute more to flavor than just sweetness, depending on the type used.
Perhaps the most obvious difference between liquid sweeteners and granulated sugar is moisture content. These syrups typically contain about 20 percent water and 80 percent sugar. So if you were to swap in a syrup for dry sugar in a baking recipe, you’d need to either add more flour or reduce the amount of added liquid to achieve the intended consistency.
“For every cup of liquid sweetener used, reduce the added liquid in the recipe by about 3 to 4 tablespoons,” Kye Ameden of King Arthur Baking wrote as a rough approximation for swapping liquid sweeteners for granulated sugar. “If the recipe contains no added liquid, increase the flour by about 3 to 4 tablespoons for every cup of liquid sweetener used (about 1 tablespoon per 1/4 cup).”
However, this only addresses the moisture issue. Liquid sweeteners also have varying levels of sweetness, are more acidic than table sugar (you may need to increase the amount of baking powder or soda to balance it out), and don’t contribute the same physical attributes as dry sugar, such as when creaming with butter. It’s important to keep all of these things in mind if you want to make ingredient swaps on your own.
Here are the most common liquid sweeteners available in the United States and what you need to know to get the most out of them in your kitchen.
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Honey is perhaps the most natural sweetener, requiring no human involvement aside from taking it from beehives. It starts as flower nectar, which bees collect and transform into the substance we know and love. As it comes from flowers, honey has a floral taste and can vary in color and flavor based on the bees’ diet. It is sweeter than granulated sugar by weight (and is the sweetest of commonly used liquid sweeteners). You should store honey at room temperature, as it will crystallize at cold temperatures. But if you happen to put honey in the refrigerator by mistake, you can bring it back to life by submerging its container in hot water.
Put it to use in: Honey Citrus Chicken Thighs, Orange Blossom Honey Cake
Molasses is a byproduct of the sugar-making process. Sugar cane juice is boiled to form crystals that are removed as granulated sugar, and the liquid left behind is known as light molasses the first time around. The process is then repeated to form dark and then blackstrap molasses. Since the sugar crystals are being removed, it is not as sweet as table sugar. Molasses has a bittersweet flavor with deep, caramel tones.
With each boiling, the syrup becomes darker and stronger in flavor. Light molasses is most common and generally what is called-for in baked goods, such as in this recipe for Molasses Cookies. Blackstrap molasses is most often reserved for savory applications, such as baked beans or barbecue sauce.
Get the recipe: Molasses Cookies
You may also see sulfured and unsulfured bottles, which indicates the addition, or lack of, a preservative. (Though the most common brands are unsulfured.) Molasses does not require refrigeration.
Put it to use in: Bourbon-Molasses Glazed Ham, Honey Molasses Whole-Wheat Bread
Corn syrup is primarily composed of glucose, a simple sugar, and is made by treating the starch molecules from corn with an acid or enzyme. Not to be confused with the high-fructose corn syrup found in processed foods, the corn syrup available to home cooks, “is typically sold in light and dark versions,” staff writer Becky Krystal wrote. “Light corn syrup is flavored with salt and vanilla, while molasses and caramel flavor and color are added to dark.”
Compared to table sugar, corn syrup is 30 to 50 percent as sweet. Instead of flavor, corn syrup is primarily used for function, to prevent crystallization in things such as candy, ice cream and sorbet, or to add sheen to thing such as chocolate ganache. (Other liquid sweeteners can do the same.) It will keep indefinitely, opened or unopened, at room temperature. Corn syrup can be refrigerated, but will thicken over time.
Put it to use in: Any Fruit Sorbet, Brown Butter Pecan Pie
What is corn syrup, and how should you use it? Your questions, answered.
Sometimes called agave nectar, agave syrup is the concentrated juice of agave plants (yes, the same plants that give us tequila). It is sweeter than granulated sugar and has a unique flavor that is sometimes likened to honey or maple syrup. It does not need to be refrigerated.
Agave has been touted as a healthier alternative to table sugar due to its low glycemic index, which is a measure of how a food impacts one’s blood glucose levels. However, the “healthy” adjective is misleading, because it is still sugar and will still raise blood glucose levels, according to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Extension.
Put it to use in: Oaxaca Old Fashioned, Mango Sorbet
The discovery of maple syrup is the stuff of legends. “One is that the chief of a tribe threw a tomahawk at a tree, sap ran out and his wife boiled venison in the liquid,” Kate Pickert wrote in Time. “Another version holds that Native Americans stumbled on sap running from a broken maple branch.” To whomever first decided to drink the liquid coming from a sugar maple tree, thank you!
Not to be confused with pancake syrup, which is primarily just sweet, maple syrup’s flavor is complex with notes of caramel and vanilla. It takes about 40 gallons of tree sap to produce just 1 gallon of maple syrup, and each batch is graded according to color and flavor, with the darker syrups having a stronger maple flavor. It has about the same sweetness as table sugar. Maple syrup is about one-third water, and its high moisture content means that it should be stored in the refrigerator to prevent spoilage.
Put it to use in: Sour Cream Maple Cake With Maple Buttercream Frosting, Maple Mustard Tofu
Pomegranate molasses is a traditional ingredient in Middle Eastern cooking. Similar to maple and agave syrups, pomegranate molasses in its purest form is made by simply concentrating pomegranate juice (making it typically the least sweet of the ingredients included here, though some recipes add sugar and lemon juice to adjust the balance of sweet and sour).
How to make pomegranate molasses, a single-ingredient recipe for a complex elixir
“Pomegranate molasses is a flavor powerhouse,” cookbook author Reem Kassis wrote for The Post. “A balance of sweet and sour, it gives salad dressings acidity without being lip-puckeringly sour. In meat marinades, it tenderizes and produces better browning. Incorporated into sauces and glazes, it adds depth and layers of flavor.” It can last up to a year stored in the refrigerator.
Put it to use in: Pomegranate-Glazed Meatballs, Whole Roasted Fish With Pomegranate Molasses