So much sugar in my cookbooks
January 1, 2020 4:25 PM   Subscribe

This is a two-parter: 1) Has anyone tried to compare the sugar called for in American cuisine/recipes vs. recipes from other cultural monoliths/countries? 2) How do you go about decreasing sugar in a recipe? Obviously, more details under the fold...

I think of myself as a relatively average sugar-loving American. I have lately been trying recipes out of Dorie Greenspan’s Baking with Julia, and shoot, the amount of sugar in some these recipes seem over the top even to me. And they come out tasting too sweet to me as well.

I don’t remember having this reaction to stuff from my old Betty Crocker book, so I was wondering if maybe there is a trend in American recipes that perhaps parallels the trend of +sugar +salt in American fast food.

But Google searches turn up nothing on this particular subtopic. Hence, my question to you—I’m well acquainted with the research on processed food trends, but this narrative on food, not so much.

My other secondary question is—I know people often just cut sugar from a baking recipe. I assume this upsets a delicate balance of solids:liquids. How do you remedy this? Just add more flour?
posted by executive_dysfuncti0n to Food & Drink (18 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
+1 for toasted sugar. In NZ/Oz/UK, it’s called golden caster sugar. I made my own for years before it became popular here.

As far as reduction of sugar in recipes, I usually begin adaptation by reduce by 10-15%, at first, as I don’t like overly sweet food. Exceptions are when sugar is explicitly needed for structure like meringues, etc.

Upon edit, devrim looks to have covered all this already!
posted by lemon_icing at 5:21 PM on January 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

I know people often just cut sugar from a baking recipe. I assume this upsets a delicate balance of solids:liquids. How do you remedy this? Just add more flour?

My immediate reaction to this was "but sugar is considered a liquid ingredient!", followed by the realization that I didn't know why this was the case. So I looked up an explanation, which may clarify some possible results of reducing sugar in your baking.

Regarding your other question, my subjective impression (take it for the little it's worth!) is that it's not so much that American desserts are particularly sweet ounce for ounce (they can't possibly top Turkish desserts, for instance), but that we eat them in large portions and on any occasion.
posted by aws17576 at 6:33 PM on January 1, 2020

German here. At home we use way less sugar in baking. When working with American recipes, I always cut 1/3 of the sugar. Even 1/2 if it‘s just for me and not shared with sugar-loving Americans. Honestly I‘ve never had problems with modifying recipes in this very simple way and I bake a fair bit. Maybe in fussy stuff like merengue or angel food cake it would be a structural issue but not in everyday bakes like brownies, muffins, scones, yeast based pastries etc.
posted by The Toad at 8:37 PM on January 1, 2020 [5 favorites]

I've never directly compared the listed sugar in US recipes with Australian recipes, but I just know from a lot of baking experience that the sugar in US recipes is more often than not a lot more than ours. Sometimes I'm shocked to see a cake calling for like, 2 cups of sugar. I can't get my brain around that kind of sweetness. In an Aussie recipe the equivalent cake would be like 1 1/4 cups, or 1 1/2 cups max.

And in both those cases, I reduce the sugar to around 1 cup, even with Aussie recipes, and I've never had a problem. The only time I wouldn't reduce the sugar would be with sponges (which I never make) and things like buttercream frosting or meringue. It really depends on the kind of baking you're doing. Things like layer cakes and spongey type cakes need it more for structure, but the kind of cakes I make, the denser-than-sponge kind, can really handle a lot less sugar than the recipe calls for. Especially if they have fruit in them, which add a lot of sweetness of their own
posted by Zaire at 9:25 PM on January 1, 2020

Another caveat about sugar reduction is the kind of cookies where you start by creaming butter with sugar.

But yeah, for this Pole all American recipes have about twice as much sugar as necessary.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 10:32 PM on January 1, 2020

Back in 2009, a study out of Cornell found that many recipes in contemporary editions of The Joy of Cooking which could be traced in a continuous line back to the original 1936 edition had significantly more sugar and fat than the originals did.

However, the study was conducted by Brian Wansink, who has since been disgraced for faking numerous other studies, but I doubt there's much wrong with this one because it would have been too easy to check. In any case, the link is to a press release about the study rather than the study itself.
posted by jamjam at 10:38 PM on January 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

I routinely cut sugar by 1/3 to 1/2 in cookies, cakes, and even ice cream. But you pay in ice cream bc the sugar impedes ice crystal from forming (so says my chef/food chemist friend) and so makes the ice cream creamy and not so hard to scoop. I personally can live with hard ice cream to not have it be so sweet (or you can eat it all the day you make it), but ymmv.
posted by toodleydoodley at 10:46 PM on January 1, 2020

+1 for toasted sugar. In NZ/Oz/UK, it’s called golden caster sugar. I made my own for years before it became popular here.

I don’t think it’s actually the same thing? Golden caster sugar is caster sugar that includes some of the molasses from unrefined sugar, rather than white sugar which has been caramelised. I don’t know how much difference that makes for baking.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 2:53 AM on January 2, 2020

Australian here. I routinely cut the sugar in american (internet) cake and cookie recipes down to 2/3rds to 1/2. It rarely affects anything, and greatly increases the likelihood of Australians eating it without wincing.

I remove it completely from american bread recipes, as bread without sugar is fine.
posted by kjs4 at 3:26 AM on January 2, 2020

Best answer: An interesting question regarding sugar content in US vs UK/intl recipes. I very quickly did a search on chocolate cake recipes on the BBC (UK) website, vs some popular American sites. Here were the sugar measurements (I've ignored sugar in the icing/topping - only including added sugar in the cake itself):

BBC Good Food (UK) - Easy Chocolate Cake - 200g sugar
BBC Good Food (UK) - Ultimate Chocolate Cake - 400g sugar
BBC Good Food (UK) - Dark Chocolate and Orange Cake - 280g sugar

Good Housekeeping (US) - Best Chocolate Cake Recipe - 450g sugar (2 cups)
Good Housekeeping (US) - Deep Dark Chocolate Cake - 450g sugar (2 cups)
Good Housekeeping (US) - Classic Chocolate Cake - 340g sugar (1.5 cups)

This is a very small sample size, but looking at the averages US recipes have about 40% more sugar.

I'd look at some low-carb or keto recipes for good ideas on reducing sugar in baking. I try to avoid sugar substitutes, but looking at recipes like this one which I've used for blueberry and dark chocolate keto cake, there are recipes out there that contain no-added sugar, but are still rather enjoyable!
posted by MrWonton at 4:14 AM on January 2, 2020 [4 favorites]

Another vote to just cut the sugar by half. Also if you’re making pie, I routinely make apple pies without any sugar in the filling and it comes out fine due to the fructose.
posted by donut_princess at 4:21 AM on January 2, 2020

Another Australian - I cut down the sugar by half or grump afterwards "aah it's an American recipe, I should have cut the sugar!"

Sample Australian recipe for chocolate cake - 1 cup sugar
posted by chiquitita at 4:27 AM on January 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

Many recipes work if you cut the sugar down to one third and put in one third the amount of unsweetened applesauce that the recipe called for. There can be significant texture changes so this won't work for anything you want to turn out brittle.

Read up on milliard reaction if you are doing savoury cooking and don't want to be adding sugar to your stir fries and similar dishes. You can use baking soda, or change the cooking times.

Additionally using chopped dates retains the perceived sweetness but nudges a baking recipe a not insignificant distance on the glycemic index. Chopped dates won't work in baking that is supposed to taste vanilla/white, but usually works well with savoury recipes and chocolate.

Interestingly those tubs of premade soft icing that you can buy at the grocery store have been getting less sweet - the palm oil and cornstarch proportions have been going up. But this is definitely not an improvement unless you actually like the strong flavour of cheap cooking oil.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:51 AM on January 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

The Joy of Cooking sugar thing was torn apart pretty effectively. You can p-hack pretty much any dataset.
posted by rockindata at 5:09 AM on January 2, 2020 [4 favorites]

The Joy of Cooking article was officially retracted. Of course this doesn't mean that the conclusions of the article are necessarily wrong, just that the article didn't demonstrate them (in the eyes of the journal).
posted by dfan at 6:10 AM on January 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

My wife often will use Japanese recipes for cakes and cookies and I'll know when she does because the sugar and salt are usually much less than tastes right to me. When she uses "western" recipes she will often just cut the sugar by half to no noticeable effect. I'll frequently just eyeball a reduction in sugar or use unpacked brown sugar instead of packed when I'm baking something because a lot of recipes are too sweet even for me.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 10:48 AM on January 2, 2020

Response by poster: Thank you so much for all these insights!
posted by executive_dysfuncti0n at 9:33 AM on January 3, 2020

I baked with xylitol occasionally when I was still living in the States. As MrWonton suggested, have a look at keto and paleo baking.

For recipes where texture is more critical, like a butter cookie, try any of the fixes mentioned above.

My mother was an excellent home baker and routinely reduced the sugar in just about every recipe. No one ever noticed or missed it, including this dessert junkie.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 2:40 PM on January 4, 2020

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