November 4, 2012

Baking Experiment! Cupcakes with Varying Sweeteners

I've been neglecting my studies.  Last year, I got How Baking Works by Paula Figoni as a gift and have been slowly (very slowly) working my way through it.  At the end of each section, there are experiments that demonstrate the concept being taught.  I learned about different flours in a previous experiment, but I hadn't done a single experiment since then.  It's time to change that - this weekend I did an experiment to determine the effect of the amount and type of sweetener used in pound cupcakes.

First, I tried out different amounts of sweetener.  The book outlines five different amounts to be tried, but I chose three (I don't have all the time in the world): no sugar (0x), the correct amount of sugar (control), and twice the sugar (2x).  I figured that both the 0x and 2x amounts wouldn't taste good (one would be too sweet, the other not sweet enough), but according to the book, the structure of the cupcake would be different as well.  The presence of sugar delays structure-building (often provided by egg proteins and gluten), which means that a lack of sugar causes structure to be built sooner, and a surplus means that structure-building will be delayed longer.

This was completely supported by my experiment.  The cupcake with no sugar was dense, short, and terrible, with a nasty clay-like texture.  It also was super pale and looked unappetizing because it didn't brown at all.  The cupcake with twice the sugar wasn't able to build enough structure in the 20 minutes of bake time and ended up collapsing.  It was also kind of chewy and unpleasant.

This is really good information.  I find myself often cutting sugar out of recipes because I tend to like things a little less sweet.  When I do this without making other adjustments, I can expect the result to be denser, shorter, and less brown.  So, what adjustments can I make?  I believe the addition of fats will also interfere with structure-building, but I'd love to hear other suggestions in the comments!

Next, I experimented with different types of sweeteners.  I chose to try Splenda, brown sugar, and honey.  I don't usually use Splenda, but I know a lot of people do to make things sugar-free.  I do use both brown sugar and honey as substitutes for sugar quite often, so it's good to know what effect that has.

Left to right: no sweetener, regular sugar, and Splenda

Splenda - I have to say, I really disliked Splenda.  As you can see in the above image, it doesn't look too different texture-wise from the cupcake with no sweetener.  The flavor was a bit more palatable, but I just couldn't get over how dense and clay-like it was.  I was really disappointed, because I'd like to eventually be able to bake for people who can't have sugar.  Does anyone have a favorite non-sugar sweetener that I could try next?

Brown sugar - This turned out very similar to regular sugar.  The only real difference was the darker color and the slight molasses-y flavor imparted by the sugar.

Honey - This was a bit denser than the cupcake with regular sugar (see the image below), but not as dense as the Splenda.  The honey flavor was delicious.

Left to right: regular sugar, honey

This was a really great experiment!  I honestly had no idea that sugar was so important to the chemistry of baking, and now I know I can't just go replacing sugar with other sweeteners (except brown sugar, apparently) or altering the amount willy nilly. 

Pound Cupcakes for Experiment
Adapted from Tish Boyle's Plainly Perfect Pound Cake (The Cake Book).  Makes about 4 cupcakes.

50 grams cake flour
⅛ teaspoon baking powder
⅛ teaspoon salt
¼ cup (½ stick) unsalted butter, softened
63 grams sugar*
1 egg
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
20 mL heavy cream**
*For volume variations, substitute with the volume of sugar desired (I did 0g and 126g).  For sweetener type variations, replace as follows: 63g brown sugar, 8g granulated Splenda, 63g honey.
**Leave out for the honey variation.

  1. Preheat your oven to 325° F.
  2. Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl.
  3. In a medium bowl, beat the butter until creamy (30 seconds - time yourself to be consistent).  
  4. Beat in the sugar or sweetener for 60 seconds (again, time yourself).  If you're doing the 0 sweetener variation, just beat for 60 seconds without adding any sweetener.
  5. Add the egg and vanilla extract and beat until combined.
  6. Add half the dry ingredients, beating until combined.  Beat in the heavy cream, and then the rest of the dry ingredients.  If doing the honey variation, leave out the heavy cream.
  7. Place a cupcake liner on a scale and weigh out 50 grams of batter.  Place the liner and batter in a cupcake pan.  Repeat 2-3 times until you've used all the batter.
  8. Bake for 20 minutes.  Allow to cool completely.


  1. I often bake diabetic cupcakes for clients and I like using Xylitol, an all natural sweetener and low glycemic index, and cocnut palm sugar, also an all natural sweetener and low glycemic index. I have had great success with both, Although I use the coconut palm sugar for darker cakes as it will turn your white cakes brown. My clients can't tell they are eating sugar free. Some people use stevia, but I have found that it has a licorice after taste and most people do not like its after taste. I hope this helps!

  2. My husband is diabetic, and I would appreciate it if you could try your experiment with Stevia, Nectresse,, and The splenda version that is now out for baking. Thank you!


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