Less Sugar, More Fruit!

Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of our series on baking with more fruit. Be sure to read our first installment on subbing fruit for fat in baking recipes.

Yes, it’s the holiday season and most likely you have more than the usual amount of sugar on hand in your pantry. That’s okay—it’s the holidays. If, however, you’re trying to limit your own sugar intake for health reasons (or if you’re going to be cooking for people who are), I’m here to show you that it’s possible to swap fruit for some sugar in your recipes no matter the season (or the reason). The trick is to know where to logically switch sugar for fruit, and in what amounts.

Fruits / Mario Diogo / CC BY 2.0

As always, when you start fiddling with recipes, be prepared to do some experimenting—certain recipes are easier to tweak and I’ll clue you in as to those. Recipes for baked goods are like scientific formulas—when one ingredient changes there are likely to be other modifications needed as well. And again, cherished family recipes that only come out at holiday time might not be the best ones to start adjusting.  Some things should be left alone if you are counting on a completely predictable, traditional end result.

Baked Goods

Most people think of sugar as just a sweetening agent, which of course it is, but sugar has many more functions in baked goods. Here are some examples:

  • Sugar contributes to the texture of all kinds of baked goods, giving them a fine “crumb” and adding tenderness and moisture.
  • Sugar serves as the food for yeast in yeast-leavened breads.
  • Sugar adds “bulk” to doughs and batters.
  • Sugar helps aerate butter during the creaming step for cakes.
  • Sugar provides structure to whipped egg whites for meringue.
  • Sugar’s ability to caramelize when heated allows crusts to turn that wonderful “golden brown” color that we look for.
  • Sugar creates the delicious stickiness in sticky buns.
  • Sugar thickens certain sauces, fillings and frostings.

Sugar is indispensable in baking. Its functions are not easily duplicated; this is why commercial sugar substitutes for baking and cooking are typically combined with real sugar.

The Sweet Swap

Fortunately, some recipes are easily modified to include less sugar without any other adjustments. These include drop cookies and muffins. Try decreasing the sugar in these recipes by 1/4 to 1/3 and you likely won’t need to do anything else. In fact, it’s likely that nobody will notice a thing unless they’re clued-in ahead of time.

As for adding fruit while also decreasing sugar, start by reducing the sugar by 1/3 – 1/2 to retain some of the functions of sugar. Successfully replacing ALL the sugar with fruit will likely require additional experimentation and multiple tries. With that in mind, here are some guidelines for what to use as a replacement for that sugar:

Homemade fruit purees: puree ripe fresh fruit or frozen fruit that’s been thawed, and use 1/2 cup in place of an equal amount of sugar in cake, quick bread or muffin recipes.

Overripe fresh fruit or canned fruit (in juice): cut it up or mash it and use 1/2 cup in place of an equal amount of sugar in quick breads, muffins and bread pudding.

Fruit pulp: if you use a juicer, you no doubt have fruit pulp left over. Consider using it in cooking instead of just tossing it or composting it. Because it’s fairly dry, it’s probably best used in recipes that have a decent amount of fat in them, such as quickbreads and muffins. Use 1/2 cup in place of an equal amount of sugar.

Dried fruit: finely chop dried fruit and simply add it to things like cookies, bars and brownies. Adding more dried fruit than a recipe calls for usually is not a problem as long as there is enough batter or dough to hold it together. How much sugar to eliminate in these cases requires some experimentation, but you’re probably safe reducing the sugar by 1/4 and adding an equal amount of chopped, dried fruit. Also consider adding dried fruit to savory recipes such as for stuffing/dressing or pilaf—it’s tasty!

Rehydrated dried fruit: Allow dried fruit such as raisins, unsweetened cranberries or dried apricots to rehydrate overnight in plain water, a combination of water plus a little balsamic vinegar, or in fruit juice (orange or apple work well). For fruit pie and pastry fillings, eliminate 3/4 of the sugar called for in the filling and swap in the rehydrated fruit in an equal amount.

Reduced fruit juice: Although reduced fruit juice isn’t wildly successful as a sugar replacement in baked goods due to the liquid it contributes, it does make a nice addition to other desserts and also to savory dishes. To try it, boil fruit juice down to 1/2  – 1/3 of its original volume. At that point you can add dried fruit and rehydrate the fruit overnight in the reduced juice, or use the juice alone. Try this as a sauce for drizzling over poached fruit and sorbet, in place of simple syrup in punch or cocktails, or as a the basis for a sauce for meat or poultry entrees (think pork with reduced pomegranate juice or chicken with reduced apricot nectar).

Did You Know?

Granulated sugar is produced from either sugar cane or sugar beets. According to the US Department of Agriculture, about 45% of domestic sugar production is from sugarcane and the remainder is from beets. The Sugar Association maintains that sugar is sugar regardless of its source, although some chefs and avid bakers claim that the two perform differently in certain recipes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not require sugar manufacturers to indicate whether the sugar in the package is from cane or beets, but some do anyway in order to differentiate their product from the rest.