While there’s certainly room in a balanced diet for the occasional treat, we love making healthier versions of our favorite recipes—as long as they stay tasty. And so we were duly impressed when we discovered this interesting way to slash the sugar in cookies without making them taste, well, sugarless.
James Beard award-winning cookbook author PJ Hamel recently shared her trick with King Arthur Flour for making any cookie recipe healthier. Hamel experimented with reducing the sugar content of eight types of cookies with varying textures and flavors to determine if they would still taste as good as the original recipe. Hamel found that, depending on the cookie, one can reduce sugar content pretty significantly and still maintain a delicious flavor.
Eating healthy should still be delicious.
To do this, Hamel encourages embracing the “baker’s percentage”—a formula where each ingredient is expressed as a percentage of the flour weight, where the flour weight is always expressed as 100%—to achieve the best results. It can be a little tricky to master (especially if you’re mathematically challenged like me), but here’s a really good explainer on how to get it right if you’re just starting out.
Pro tip: You’ll need a scale and/or weight chart to accurately determine the weight of the ingredients used in your favorite recipes, since a cup of flour, milk, and butter don’t necessarily weigh the same.
The Baker’s Percentage formula is: Weight of ingredient/Weight of flour x 100
Using this formula, according to Hamel, you can often reduce the amount of sugar in recipes by up to 50 or even 75 percent, and still end up with something pretty tasty. Hamel experimented on a variety of cookies, seeing what the reduction did to tender, moist, crunchy, and crispy cookies among other desserts.
It’s worth reading her entire in-depth piece, but here’s what she did for four types of treats:
Hamel says if your baker’s percentage comes out to be 100% or higher, you can successfully reduce the sugar content of your cookies without sacrificing the taste. They will spread less than the traditional recipe, and will likely turn out more crumbly, but will be tasty nonetheless. However, if you are baking a spice cookie, the spices may be a little overpowering with the reduced sugar content (so you may want to adjust accordingly).
View Recipe: Five-Spice Cookies
Cut-out cookies were less difficult to experiment with than the drop cookies in Hamel’s test, as the texture hardly changed at all. Hamel attempted changing the sugar content with 50% sugar baker’s percentage—half the amount of sugar the original recipe calls for—and 25% baker’s percentage, all of which turned out at least palatable. Reducing the amount of sugar in the recipe by half is probably as far as you want to go: Any more may make the cookies too bitter or flavorless.
View Recipe: Iced Whole-Wheat Sugar Cookies
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Hamel found brownies were pretty easy to manipulate, as the best results came from halving the sugar in her recipe while still providing an excellent flavor. The altered brownies were more cake-like than fudgey, but every bit as rich. However, unsweetened chocolate and bitter cocoa can make for a less-than-sweet treat if you’re not careful.
View Recipe: Flourless Cosmic Brownies With Cocoa-Date Frosting
If you’re team blondie over brownie, don’t worry, you can get the same results by halving the amount of sugar. You might actually enjoy them more because you don’t have to worry about balancing out a potentially bitter chocolate taste. Hamel said the vanilla chai cookies bars she experimented with were slightly more crumbly than the original recipe, but still moist and flavorful.
View Recipe: Butterscotch Crispy Rice Bars
The best thing you can do with your reduced-sugar treats before baking is give them time in the fridge or freezer—even just 30 minutes will do! Hamel says this is an important step, as chilling the dough increases caramelization, and therefore enhances the flavor of the final product.
You also may want to consider adding healthy natural sweeteners like dried fruit to your cookie recipe. Hamel also suggests rolling a piece of cookie dough in sugar if it’s just not sweet enough—it’ll likely still have less sugar than the recipe originally called for.
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