Baking with Sugar Substitutes

The holiday baking season is about to reach its fever pitch. Armies of gingerbread men have been given their marching orders, and are at this very moment trampling the sanity and dietary restraint of cooks across the land. They’re hauling molasses crinkles, chocolate-drizzled macaroons, apple cider sufganiyot, and the odd fruitcake with them, which means that for the sugar industry, this really is the most wonderful time of the year.

But what about the sugar-substitute industry? Content for most of the year to sweeten the beverages of America, the industry has never been able to convince the vast majority of cooks that the likes of Splenda, Truvia, Equal, and Stevia have a place in their seasonal exertions. It’s not for lack of trying: Both Splenda and Equal are now sold in canisters large enough to accommodate cup measures, and have websites that trumpet their supposed versatility in baking.

But because sugar functions as far more than a sweetener in baking—it also contributes volume, moisture, and tenderness and promotes browning—claims that you can substitute sweeteners like Splenda and Equal cup for cup seem just a wee bit dubious. Still, curious to know what, exactly, would happen if I swapped sugar for these great pretenders, I decided to run some trials. Using a recipe for snickerdoodles, a cookie that relies on sugar for its distinctive taste and texture, I baked one batch each with Splenda, Equal, Stevia, and real sugar. Four hours later, I had my answer, and a gut ache.

First up was Splenda. Because it measures like sugar, the substitution was easy enough to make. But watching as the Splenda tried, in vain, to cream with butter, it was soon clear that quantity was just about the only thing it shares with sugar. Plus, it kept off-gassing that chemical Splenda smell, which made me cough.

The finished dough was stiff, almost like Play-Doh. The baked cookies, preceded from the oven by that same weird chemical smell, were … not snickerdoodles. Cakey, pale, and prone to crumbling, they resembled dwarf scones more than cookies. They tasted mildly sweet and generally inoffensive—that is, until the zingy electric aftertaste kicked in. Then the game was up, and I had to go brush my teeth.

Duly refreshed but not particularly hopeful, I moved on. The Equal baking site advises adding the sweetener last when creaming with butter and eggs, so I did. Like Splenda, it proved reluctant, but did make an interesting grinding sound as the paddle pushed it around the mixing bowl.

The dough that resulted had a texture similar to the Splenda dough's, only a bit softer. So were the finished cookies. Although they were almost identical in appearance to the Splenda cookies, they didn’t crumble quite as easily or dry out as fast. Their flavor was mildly sweet (Equal loses sweetness during prolonged baking) and blessedly free of any food-science aftertaste. “It’s not a snickerdoodle, but not unpleasant,” my boyfriend said. I agree: While not a cookie you’d seek out, it’s not one you’d spit out, either.

It was onward and upward to Stevia, which, unlike both Equal and Splenda, sure as hell does not measure cup for cup like sugar. As anyone who’s tasted straight Stevia knows, it somehow manages to be both too sweet and hatefully bitter at once. I find it agreeable enough when mixed into a glass of iced tea, but suspected it would be only slightly nicer than arsenic when used in a cookie recipe.

Baking with Stevia is a horrible idea tricky not only because of flavor, but also because of volume. Searching the Internet, I found a couple of sites dedicated to the cause. Both recommended substituting 18-24 Stevia packets for 1 cup of sugar, then adding 1/3 cup of another ingredient like applesauce, yogurt, or pumpkin puree to replace the lost bulk. I used applesauce.

As I consigned packet after packet to the mixing bowl and tried not to breathe in the dust clouds kicked up by the paddle, I realized that I was well on my way to making something more Rosemary’s Baby than snickerdoodle. The addition of the applesauce resulted in a much wetter, cookie-like dough than I’d gotten with the Splenda or Equal, one that was impossible to roll in the customary snickerdoodle cinnamon-sugar (or in this case cinnamon-Stevia) blend.

Into the oven went the ectoplasmic blobs. Out they came 15 minutes later, the shape almost completely unaltered by their time in the oven. Their texture was surprisingly tender, thanks no doubt to the applesauce. Unsurprisingly, the flavor was foul and bitter, thanks no doubt to the enormous amounts of Stevia lurking inside. “I wouldn’t serve these at a shit-slinging,” my boyfriend said after taking a bite and immediately spitting it into the sink. Since we had no shit-slingings to attend and didn’t want to poison the dog, they went into the trash.

Finally, I made the cookies with real sugar. The butter and sugar creamed reassuringly, the dough was soft and a bit shaggy, and the cookies emerged from the oven flat, chewy, and snickerdoodle-y. Black to white, night to day, water to wine—all of those comparisons apply to the vast, unbridgeable gulf between the cookies made with real sugar and those made with ersatz contenders.

Still, though my experiments could be called “the evil of three lessers,” not all evils are created equal. To recap, they ranged from Equal’s fairly edible but strangely altered state, to Splenda’s mildly edible one, to Stevia’s do-yourself-a-favor-and-eat-a-lump-of-coal-instead status. Whatever your (literal) poison, happy baking!

Photos by Rebecca Flint Marx: Top, L to R, cookies containing Splenda, Equal, and Stevia; middle, the same in cross-section; bottom, snickerdoodle made with real sugar