Just because I’ve eliminated refined, white sugar from my diet doesn’t mean my wicked sweet tooth went away with it. Far from it. But I have learned to cook with some alternative sweeteners and to also enjoy more with less. For a good part of the time, I will reach for some fresh or dried fruit if I crave something sweet. And then the rest of the time, I just simply need something to make my teeth ache. There are so many options besides the bag of white cane sugar found in the baking aisle at the supermarket. I will focus on the ones I choose to use and the reasons why.
The sweetener in the white dish is coconut sugar.
A sweetener serves to do more than just lend sugary goodness to a recipe. It contributes to the bulk of the mixture, increase the moisture of the dish, and gives flavor to the end product. Sweeteners are used to carmelize food and build texture. These are all things to consider when you pick a sweetener for your next kitchen experiment.
In terms of liquid sweeteners, I use honey and maple syrup. Both have distinctive flavors and each has a unique nutrient profile. Honey has long been used by various cultures as a healing food. Unfiltered, raw, organic honey is full of enzymes, pollen, antioxidant, minerals and other as-of-yet unidentified substances. A quick search will yield more information and health benefits than I can adequately convey here. I use it when I need something sweet, floral, and viscous in a recipe. Additionally, honey acts as a humectant as it helps to retain moisture in, say, a baked good. One thing to watch out for when using honey is that it tends to burn, so you will need to adjust the cooking temperature and time.
Maple syrup is another one I like to use. It comes straight from the sugar maple tree and is very minimally processed. I buy grade B syrup which is darker in color, more concentrated in flavor and is supposed to have a higher mineral content than grade A syrup. None of that fake Aunt Jemima stuff here. In my opinion, maple syrup works well with recipes that have cocoa or chocolate. I use it about as much as I do honey when cooking. Because both are liquid, recipes may need to be adjusted accordingly, especially if you are converting one that uses granular sugar.
There is another popular liquid sweetener with a lot of buzz around it – agave nectar. It is touted to rank low on the glycemic index and is marketed as a natural sugar. I have used it before but because I am not convinced that it’s actually healthy, I refrain from cooking with it. I don’t go out of my way to avoid it altogether, though, as I do sometimes indulge in snacks that contain agave.
When I need a non-liquid sweetener, either because I need the granular properties or because I don’t want the flavors that honey or maple impart, I turn to coconut sugar and erythritol (brand: Zsweet). Coconut sugar is made from the nectar of the palm blossom that’s collected and crystallized. It is also lower on the glycemic index than white sugar or honey and looks similar to brown sugar, except the grains are slightly larger and more irregular. There is a caramelly flavor to coconut sugar that reminds me of toffee or butterscotch. I use it 1:1 in recipes but I don’t think it’s quite as sweet as regular sugar. Any batter or mixture with coconut sugar will look dark, so if you ever need a light colored cake, this may not be your sweetener.
The other granular sweetener in the photo is Zsweet which consists mostly of erythritol with some stevia and natural flavors. Erythritol is a sugar alcohol found in fruit and fermented foods. It’s not as sweet as sugar and is almost calorie-free. I often combine coconut sugar and Zsweet when I need the volume that the sugars provide in a recipe but don’t want the cooling effect or mint-like taste of erythritol to overwhelm the dish.
Lastly, I use stevia to sweeten many of my foods because only a tiny amount is needed for the job. The stevia plant has been used for centuries as a medicinal herb and gets its sweetening power from a compound called Rebaudioside A. Those tasting stevia for the first time will not find it as palatable as sugar because of its slight licorice taste or bitterness. I’ve tried several different brands that have done a good job of removing much if not all of the bitterness but there seems to be a threshold for aftertaste where after a certain amount, your drink or dish will have a much more pronounced licorice flavor. That’s why, like the erythritol, I usually combine it with another sweetener to balance the flavors. NuNaturals stevia (not pictured) along with the Trader Joe’s brand stevia are my preferred choices.
If you weren’t already familiar with some of the sweeteners I commonly use, I hope you’ve found something helpful. Drop me a line and let me know what you like to use to sweeten your food.