Baking Secrets: Know when to hold the line on sugar

  • A balance of sugars ensures spiced zucchini muffins don't cross into cupcake territory.

    A balance of sugars ensures spiced zucchini muffins don't cross into cupcake territory. Courtesy of Annie Overboe

Updated 9/16/2014 6:02 AM

Attending events like the DuPage County Fair, offers me an opportunity to gauge what really happens in home kitchens. Start talking about food and people feel comfortable sharing their recipes for success and their stories of spectacular failures.

My presentation at the fair on gluten-free baking sparked interest and questions on an equally hot culinary topic: sugar. This baking staple receives everything but a sweet review from food scientists, columnists and nutritionists alike. Truth is, it's hard for home bakers to stay current amid the avalanche of information out there.


To distill the issue down to a common point of reference, I told the crowd, "A muffin should not taste like a cupcake dessert."

Understanding the role of sugar in baking includes clarity on how it should be used and, just as important, how it should not be abused. Sugar wields one of the greatest powers in our kitchens and few bakers know how to keep it in check.

Back to my muffin vs cupcake statement, the majority of modern recipes and commercially prepared muffins hang success upon ultra-sweetness. Sugar not only pleases the palette, but also liquefies batter and prevents toughness due to over mixing. A few stirs too many and gluten takes over, resulting in rubbery texture.

In addition, low-fat makeovers have trampled our vintage muffin recipes by boosting sugar while reducing butter or oil. This has transformed muffins into cupcakes, sans the frosting. Stir-ins like chocolate chips and dried fruits actually deepen the sugary flavors.

Starting with the premise that muffins should boast diverse tastes, I chose grated zucchini as the base. While bland in flavor, this vegetable offers partnership to a wide range of ingredients. Warm, fall spices immediately came to mind.

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Zucchini brings tons of moisture to recipes and that allows for the easy reduction of sugar. Still, you don't want too much moisture. The key is to limit the water from the zucchini by lightly salting, resting at room temperature and pressing on the shreds to release excess liquid.

Great muffin recipes succeed through a nice balance of sweet and savory. Here extra-virgin olive oil subs for plain oil or melted butter and adds a savory nuance to the spices. Ground almond meal boosts the protein and infuses a nutty background without overpowering the spice taste or texture. A splash of sour cream smooths any rough edges.

With all the other players secure, it's safe to bring sugar back into the kitchen. Granulated sugar conveys only sweetness to muffins; however brown sugar includes multi-levels of flavor due to molasses. A mix of dark and light varieties enhances the spicy notes of the batter. Madagascar Bourbon vanilla provides rounds out the batter.

Here's the best kept secret I shared with the DuPage County Fairgoers in July: Judges want so much more than simply sweet treats!

• Annie Overboe, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, lives in Oakbrook Terrace. Write her at

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