Using Honey in Cooking and Baking: Substituting a Natural Sweetener for Sugar in Recipes

Ever since the first prehistoric man or woman stuck a naked arm into a hollow stump to retrieve a prized slab of honeycomb (probably getting amply stung in the process), people have eagerly sought honey for its unique flavor and properties.

Honey is the only sweetener available for human use that doesn’t undergo significant modification prior to its consumption. It is strictly the product of insect activity – a sweet, viscous, amber-colored liquid distilled from nectar collected by bees.

Although honey’s constituents can be identified and enumerated, only honeybees can reproduce the finished product faithfully, year after year, in quantities sufficient for themselves and the egocentric humans who regularly raid their hives.

While honey recipe books are relatively easy to find, individuals who want to avoid artificial sweeteners or processed sugars – or who simply prefer honey’s unequalled flavor – must learn to make substitutions in some of their favorite recipes.

Honey Has Different Cooking Characteristics Than Other Sweeteners Do

Disadvantages of Using Honey in Cooking and Baking

  • Of course, the main problem with substituting honey for sugar is the pervasive inclusion of sugar in any recipe that requires a sweetener. Measurements for honey and sugar may not be equivalent, and most casual cooks don’t know how much honey is needed to confer a particular degree of sweetness to a given dish.
  • Another difficulty emanates from the natural variation in the flavor of honeys collected from different sources: clover honey tastes different than, say, buckwheat honey, which differs from locust honey, and so on. Only experimentation will determine what a cook’s preferences are, and this may prove daunting for some people.
  • Since honey contains some water – while table sugar does not – the amount of liquid used in a recipe might require modification.
  • Finally, honey actually cooks differently than other sweeteners do. When heat is applied to honey, it may brown more quickly, leading to burning of crusts or cookies if cooking times or temperatures aren’t adjusted.

Advantages of Using Honey in Cooking and Baking

  • Honey creams more readily with shortening, butter, or margarine than sugar does. This often improves the texture of finished products.
  • While both honey and sugar impart sweetness, only honey can contribute a subtle flavor that will enhance a dish. Once a particular honey is chosen for a recipe, cooks are often questioned about their “secret ingredient.”
  • Because it retains its ability to absorb moisture after cooking, honey helps to keep baked goods fresh, soft and moist longer than sugar does.
  • Honey imbues crusts and breads with a deep, rich brown color…once baking temperatures are appropriately adjusted.

How to Use Honey Instead of Sugar in Cooking and Baking

  1. Honey can be a substitution for sugar, measure for measure, in meat sauces and marinades, glazes, salad dressings, yeast breads, vegetable sauces (e.g., sweet-and-sour), and beverages.

Otherwise, the following rules of thumb apply:

  • Up to one cup of sugar, substitute an equal amount of honey
  • Over one cup of sugar, use 2/3 – 3/4 cup honey
  • Granulated or creamed honey is equivalent to liquid honey, but whipped honey contains a lot of air; it needs to be liquefied over hot water before it is measured.
  1. To account for the extra water content of honey:
  • For every 8 oz of honey used (equivalent to 250 ml, 1,000 gm, or 1 cup), reduce the amount of liquid called for (milk, water, juice, etc.) by 3 tablespoons (equivalent to 45 ml or 186 gm).
  • Maintaining these proportions will ensure that the recipe is not over-thinned.
  1. Oven temperature should be reduced 25º F (15º C) below that recommended in the recipe. Then a conscientious cook should hover as the allotted cooking time draws near. Likewise, stovetop recipes should be cooked over reduced heat and watched carefully for burning.

Although most recipes still call for sugar as a sweetening agent, anyone who wants to use Nature’s original sweetener can – with minimal effort and a modicum of experimentation – enjoy the benefits of honey in nearly any dish.

While you’re here, be sure to check out our kitchen product reviews!