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Searching for Sugar, Man

7 sweet substitutes you should use instead of the granulated stuff
Photo: Katie Foster/Tasting Table
Alternative Sugars

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Not disciplined enough for Paleo? Less than fired up to hit your gym more in the New Year? At least it's easy to switch out boring ole white sugar in sweets you're going to eat anyway with something that will make them more interesting, more complex and, yes, healthier.

"In my experience, white sugar is a good, all-purpose ingredient that no one really thinks twice about using," Kerstin Bellah, the pastry chef at Juniper in Austin, says. "However, reliable though it may be, white sugar doesn't lend any flavor (other than apparent sweetness)."

Here's what pastry chefs are relying on beyond the basic white powder.

? Brown Sugar: Raw, light and dark, this partially refined sugar is loaded with more minerals (calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron), thanks to all the molasses. "I think white sugar is very one note and one dimensional," Tracy Obolsky, the pastry chef at Cookshop in New York City, says. "I like to use other sugars, like raw, dark brown and light brown, to add more depth of flavor to things. It gives a more interesting almost caramel taste rather than just sweet." You heard her; start rolling light brown sugar into your next batch of cinnamon rolls or sprinkle raw flecks over sweet potato bread.

? Date Syrup: Fiber is your friend in this coffee-hued, glossy thick syrup. It's been the sweetener of choice in the Middle East since ancient times, maybe even biblical times. Unrefined and made mostly of puréed dates, the molasses-like syrup is less sweet than honey but more so than granulated sugar, so swirl it over fig-studded almond panna cotta.

? Honey: Sticky sweet and touted for its anti-inflammatory quality and high amount of antioxidants, honey can also save your desserts from becoming dry. "Honey is going to add moisture to any recipe, and knowing how to manipulate a recipe so that you can account for the honey is the fun in baking," Rene Cruz, the pastry chef at Presidio Social Club in San Francisco, says. And move aside, bear-shaped bottle. There is a whole world of honey out there—buttery avocado, delicate clover, mild tupelo—and any one of them is simple to swap into your sweets. "I would typically use three-quarter cup of honey to every one cup of white sugar. In most cases, brown sugar can be used one for one," Cruz explains.

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? Coconut Sugar: We're in love with the coco(nut sugar). "It's underutilized and has great caramel flavor and lower glycemic index than white sugar, making it diabetic friendly," Bellah says. The camel-colored grains long relied on in South and Southeast Asian cooking are made by collecting sap from cut coconut palm flowers and boiling off the water. They can be a bit pricey, but the conversion from granulated white to coconut sugar is a no-brainer (one to one), making cinnamon toast and matcha gingerbread cookies all the easier.

? Fruit Juice: Well, duh. Fleshy fruits, especially in-season citrus, are basically sugar and water, and pastry chefs are taking advantage. "I tend to use apple juice, freshly made and reduced, and a lot of compressed fruits where the natural sugars are intensified," Michelle Karr-Ueoka, the pastry chef at MW Restaurant in Honolulu, says. They're a go-to in smoothies and green juices, but if you're feeling adventurous, squeeze some over rose-scented faloodeh.

? Maple Syrup: Thank you, Canada! Quebec is the largest producer of maple syrup, tapping trees and boiling down the sap for three-fourths of the world's syrupy stock. Yes, you can do the usual pancake pairing, but Obolsky has a more ingenious idea: "Maple mixed with confectioners' sugar (and some salt, orange juice and zest) makes a great glaze for scones, pumpkin bread or any other pastry," she says.

? Kokuto (Okinawan Brown Sugar): Japan's southernmost prefecture is best known for fried things like sata andagi and goya champuru, but its tropical climate is also perfect for sugarcane. Considered by some the world's healthiest sugar (and often attributed to the long life of Okinawans), Japan's version of brown sugar comes from a painstaking process of harvesting, pressing, boiling and stirring with a large bamboo stick to yield the grassy, acidic sugar, perfect for testing out in chocolate chip cookies.

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