by Anna Stockwell, Epicurious
In response to the increasing demand for alternatives to refined white sugar, unrefined sweeteners have become commonplace on grocery shelves. But this year, the conversation shifted in a way I can totally get behind: we started focusing on these sugar alternatives for flavor reasons above all else.
Let's back up for a second. What's the difference between refined sugar and unrefined sugar? Refined white sugar, or granulated sugar, is made from the juice of sugar cane or sugar beets, which gets processed to remove everything except the pure sugar crystal. This results in the nutrient-empty, pure white crystals we're all familiar with. This kind of sugar doesn't taste like much--it's just sweet. Which can be exactly what you need to create desserts and confections where you want other flavors to shine.
But with alternative sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, barley malt syrup, brown rice syrup, agave, coconut sugar, date sugar, turbinado and muscovado sugars, or even the natural sweetness of fruits and fruit juices, you can get both sweetness and flavor. They haven't been processed to remove those natural flavors. And the variety of rich, intense flavors (and textures!) available with these sweeteners opens up a whole world of possibility.
Two books in particular opened up the world of baking with alternative sweeteners this year: Real Sweet by Shauna Sever (William Morrow; March 17) and Baking With Less Sugar: Recipes for Desserts Using Natural Sweeteners and Little-to-No White Sugar by Joanne Chang (Chronicle; April 21). Both books came from professional pastry chefs with a self-proclaimed sweet tooth who have recently fallen in love with baking with sugar alternatives (or simply less sugar) for flavor and health reasons.
Baking is a science, and sugar is a huge part of that science. So using substitutions can get tricky, which is why it's so exciting to see baking pros putting out whole books on the subject. Healthy-eating focused bloggers have long been proponents of baking with alternative sweeteners, and one of my favorites, Sarah Britton, came out with a cookbook this year containing sweets made exclusively with alternative sweeteners--especially maple syrup and honey.
There just must have been something in the air. My home pantry got a little crazy with jars and bags full of all sorts of different kinds of sugars--I fell especially hard for coconut sugar. I played with making syrup out of fruit juice, reducing it to a thick consistency and they using it to sweeten cocktails, custards, and even roasted vegetables.
And here in the Epicurious Test Kitchen, as well as down the hall in the kitchen of our friends at Bon Appétit, more and more recipes used some of our favorite alternative sweeteners--we just all loved the flavor options available to us when we sweetened our baked goods with something besides white sugar.
Here's some of the ways we were all using sugar alternatives this year:
HARNESSING THE NATURAL SWEETENING POWER OF FRUIT (AND VEGETABLES!)
Have you ever eaten beets for dessert? Bon Appetit used them to sweeten and lend a gorgeous pink hue to an elegant panna cotta earlier this year.
A bit more expected than beets, dried dates are a wonderfully flavorful way to sweeten desserts. We saw them this year in chocolate coconut date bars, and they had us falling in love all over again with the classic date-sweetened sticky toffee pudding. But did you know you can make caramel sauce from pureed dates? Earlier this year our editorial assistant Gabriella taught us all how to make a surprisingly delicious date caramel sauce to go with her gluten-free pancake recipe.
In Real Sweet Sever uses pureed dates to sweeten all sorts of treats. And when you're only sweetening cookies with date paste, you can eat them for breakfast, right? After I ate my way through a batch of her nutrient-packed breakfast cookies, I'd have to say yes. Chang is also all about the date paste as a natural sweetener in her book, but she also uses fruit juice reductions in her book, such as the apple juice one used in this tapioca recipe.
Our friends over at BA had their spoons in the honey pot often this year: it's the star of this creme brûlée and sweetens these seeded snack bars, this gorgeous caramelized honey tart, and an easy milk pudding.
MAD FOR MAPLE
We love maple syrup here at Epi Headquarters, and we've been using it liberally all year long. Katherine's deep-dish maple bourbon cream pie is basically a love poem to the stuff, and Matt's Smoky Robinson cocktail wouldn't be the same without it.
NOT JUST FOR DESSERTS
Alternative sweeteners are one of my favorite secret ingredients in savory cooking, where they can lend a needed hint of sweetness but also interesting new depths of flavor. A bit of honey in a salad dressing can work all sorts of magic, like it does in this salad and it can also do wonders in a meat marinade. This recipe from this summer for honey-glazed pork chops is a prime example. My favorite savory use for an alternative sweetener this year though was when Mindy used dark, earthy buckwheat honey to glaze carrots for our Christmas menu.
See more of our best recipes using alternative sweeteners here.
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