Sweet and rich breads: brioche, panettone, and their cousins

What sugar does in festive breads

Panettone de maracujá da Cacau Show

Photo credit: Claudia_midori on Flickr

Festive breads like panettone, brioche, and stollen have much more sugar than regular yeast breads. Sugar does three things in bread doughs.

First, sugar slows down the develpment of gluten, the protein in wheat flour that is necessary for bread to have a good structure.[5370] Think of gluten as the ladder on which a good loaf of bread is built. Sugar and water love to be together, so when there is extra sugar in a bread dough, water goes to the sugar and not to help form gluten. That's why many of the festive breads like brioche are tender and fragile. Bakers often help the structure along with special pans that give extra support. For example, think of panettone and its tall distinctive pan.

Extra sugar also inhibits the growth of yeast.[5370] I know it's counterintuitive, since every baker knows a little sugar helps the yeast bloom. Nevertheless, because water loves sugar, too much sugar will dehydrate the yeast cells.

Sugar also acts as a preservative in baked goods.[5371] Again that's due to its love of water. Water binds to the sugar molecules and is no longer availble to microorganisms to use. Stollen and other festive breads are often made in advance.

Finally, sugar will cause browning too early in the baking process, before the bread's internal structure is set.[5370] That's why festive breads are often baked at relatively low temperatures.

Batters - popovers, pancakes, muffins, and cakes

What sugar does for batter based baked goods

Cornbread Batter

Photo credit: The Recipe Drawer, on Flickr

First, what is the difference between a batter and a dough. Batters (from the root meaning to beat) are usually more liquid than doughs.[5370] They are stirred in a bowl and we cook them in a way to give them a shape. Doughs, on the other hand, are formed by hand and have their own shape.

Now that we've cleared that up, what is the role of sugar in batters? In a word, tenderness. Whether you use a thin batter for pancakes, crepes, or cream puffs, or a thicker batter for muffins, cupcakes, or quick breads, sugar tenderizes the end product. How? You already know, it slows down gluten formation.


What sugar does in cookies

Lemon-Honey Drop Cookies

Photo credit: christine592 on Flickr

Sugar does more than add sweet taste to cookies. It is an important ingredient for the cookie's structure and texture.

First, when beaten with the sugar, as in all baked goods, it helps incorporate air bubbles into the mixture. More air means a lighter cookie.

Second, sugar loves water and takes it away from the starch. This raises the temperature at which starch will gelatinize (or harden). That's why more sugar makes a crisper cookie. Another reason why more sugar means a crispier cookie is that not all of it dissolves in the batter. The remaining sugar dissolves in the heat of the oven and when the cookie cools, some of it recrystallizes. Thus, the snap of gingersnaps.

Other sweeteners like honey and molasses tend to absorb water. So, when the cookie bakes, they form a syrup which goes through the whole cookie, making it moist and chewy. Think of lebuchken.

Molasses instead of sugar

What molasses does in baking

As Slow As Molasses

Photo credit: technicool on Flickr

Technically, molasses, referred to as treacle in the U.K., is the syrup leftover after cane sugar is produced. Most molasses available today is actually a blend of molasses and syrups from throughout the sugar refining process.[5370] Like honey and maple syrup, its flavor is complex - sweet, caramel, slightly bitter, acidic, woody, and even slightly buttery. Unlike sugar, molasses retains many nutrients, including B vitamins, iron, calcium, potassium, and copper.Molasses also has invert sugars which stop crystallization from happening. These invert sugars help give baked goods extra moisture.

How do you substitute molasses for sugar in a recipe? Use 1 1/3 cups of molasses for each cup of sugar. Because it is more liquid than sugar, you also need to reduce the liquid 1/4 cup.Because of its acidity, molasses is used as part of the leavening reaction with baking soda to produce gas (therefore, air bubbles) in cookies, muffins, and quick breads. If you plan to substitue molasses for sugar, you need to add 1/2 tsp. baking soda for each cup of molasses to offset this acidity. Don't replace more than half the sugar with molasses or you will significantly change the flavor. Molasses can sometimes be unpalatable.

Here's my favorite ginger cookie recipe, with just enough molasses for flavor and a soft texture.

  • 3/4 c. butter
  • 1 c. sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 c. molasses
  • 2 1/4 c. flour
  • 2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cloves

Cream butter and sugar until light. Add egg and molasses. Sift the dry ingredients and add them to the dough. Wrap the cookie dough and chill for 2 hours. Roll into 1 inch balls and dip the tops in additional sugar. Bake for 8-10 minutes at 375°F. Makes 5 dozen gingersnaps.

Honey instead of sugar

What difference does honey make in baking?


Photo credit: Siona Karen on Flickr

Honey was the most important sweetener in Europe until cane sugar took over the market in the 16th century. Consequently, there are a slew of traditional recipe that call for honey. It is found in baklava, lebkuchen, nougat, and halvah.[5370]

What does honey do in baked goods? First, it adds moisture. Since honey is hygroscopic[5371], meaning it holds water, adding it to breads and cakes will make them mositer than sugar will. It will even absorb a little moisture from the air on humid days. Secondly, honey is slightly acid and is often used to react with baking soda to leaven quick breads. Finally, it speeds up browning reactions, that why honey makes such a good glaze for hams.

Honey makes an excellent alternative to sugar. If you plan to substitute honey for sugar, 1 measure of honey sweetens as much as 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 measures of sugar. Additionally, the amount of liquid should also be reduced in your recipe. For instance, if your favorite zucchini bread recipe calls for 2 c. sugar, substitute 1 1/2 c. honey and reduce the milk (or whatever liquid you are using) by 1/4. Because honey caramelizes faster than sugar, lower the ove temperature by 25°F to prevent excess browning.

Honey makes a great sweetener in these banana peanut butter muffins from Wild About Muffins[5378], a little cookbook dedicated to muffins that I've had for decades.

  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 c. honey
  • 1/2 c. oil
  • 1 c. mashed banana
  • 1/2 c. peanut butter
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 1/2 c. flour
  • 1 Tbsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp. salt

Preheat the oven to 400°F. In a large bowl combine the eggs, honey, oil, mashed bananas, peanut butter, and vanilla. In a smaller bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ones and fold until just combined. Fill muffin tins 2/3 full and bake at 400°F for 20 minutes.

Maple syrup instead of sugar

How is maple syrup different than sugar in baking?

Maple Hill Farm - Cobleskill, New York

Photo credit: dougtone on Flickr

Just like honey was widely used in Europe before can sugar became ubiquitous, maple syrup and its sugar was used by native people in North America. Several tribes, especially the Algonquins, Iroquois, and Ojibways, used maple sugar to provide sweetness and calories to their diets. Colonists used maple sugar regularly, too, since sugar was heavily taxed and maple syrup was readily available.[5370]

Although most of us think of maple syrup as a necessity for the breakfast table to pour on pancakes and waffles, it can be used in baking. Maple syrup, which is only 60% as sweet as sugar, imparts an earthy, slightly acidic, aromatic taste to many baked goods.

If you want to substitute maple syrup in a recipe, use 3/4 cup for every cup of  sugar. As with honey and molasses, you need to reduce the liquid by 3 tablespoons. Because maple syrup is slightly acidic, add 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda to counteract it. Finally, reduce the oven temperature by 25°F, since maple syrup will caramelize more than sugar.

These maple cookies showcase the great flavor of maple syrup in baked goods.

  • 1 c. maple syrup
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 c. softened butter
  • 1 1/2 c. flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. frshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 1/2 c. oatmeal
  • 1/2 c. milk
  • 1/2 c. chopped nuts (I like pecans)
  • 1/2 c. raisins

Cream butter, maple syrup, and the egg until light. Sift the flour through salt. Add the dry ingredients to the batter. Add the milk. Fold in the oatmeal, nuts, and raisins. Drop by tablespoon onto a cookie sheet that has been covered with parchment paper. Bake at 375°F for 15 minutes.