How Do You Substitute Honey For Sugar?

It seems like the perfect health food.

The many health benefits of eating honey make it seem, at first glance, as if doctors or dieticians – and not bees – created it.

A closer look, however, reveals that while honey is certainly a natural, healthier alternative to refined sugar or artificial sugar substitutes, it isn’t really perfect. Honey is still high in calories and contains lots of natural sugars like glucose and fructose – so it can increase blood sugar levels and weight, and is best used in moderation.

In addition, when heated or cooked, raw honey loses many of its nutritional benefits. (Commercial, processed honey already loses many of those health benefits during the pasteurization process.)

Don’t let that stop you from substituting honey for sugar in your recipes, though, because it’s a terrific ingredient.

Honey brings its own unique taste to cooked foods or baked goods, there are many different flavors to experiment with, it helps keep food moist and it crusts beautifully when you bake with it.

And it’s still much healthier than using table sugar in your recipes.

It can be a bit tricky to substitute honey for sugar, however. Here’s how to do it.

Four Basic Guidelines When Using Honey as a Sugar Substitute

If you want to use honey to replace sugar (or artificial sweeteners) in your tea or coffee, you don’t really need guidance; try it, and if the beverage needs more sweetening, add it.

For this discussion, we’re basically talking about baking and cooking.

Every recipe is a bit different, so it may require several attempts before you wind up with a perfect cake, loaf of bread or batch of muffins. You can find conversion charts online, which will tell you the approximate amount of honey to use to replace the sugar in your recipe – but charts don’t tell the whole story.

Here are the four key rules to keep in mind when making substitutions.

  1. Use less honey. Honey is much sweeter than white sugar. A one-for-one replacement is too much honey, and will leave your food anywhere between “way too sweet” and inedible.
    A good rule of thumb is to replace every cup of sugar with 1/2 to 2/3 cup of honey, but if you’re using an extremely sweet honey like Acacia or Tupelo, use even less.
    If you’re substituting for up to one cup of brown sugar, you can make an equal substitution with one cup honey, but start using a bit less if the recipe calls for more than a cup of brown sugar.
  2. Add a little baking soda to the recipe. Too much acid prevents baked goods from rising, and the natural acidity of honey can cause a problem. If baking soda isn’t already in the recipe, add 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon to avoid problems.
  3. Cut the amount of liquid in the recipe. Since honey is about one-fifth water, you’ll need to use less water, milk or other liquid to keep your finished product from coming out soupy. You’ll usually be OK by eliminating around 1/4 cup of liquid for every cup of honey, but you may need a few trial-and-error runs to get the percentages right.
  4. Use a lower temperature. The natural sugars contained in honey caramelize quickly and burn faster than granulated sugar, so turn the oven temperature down about 25° from what’s recommended in the recipe.

Other Tips for Baking or Cooking With Honey

There’s one type of recipe in which you should not replace sugar with honey: if you have to cream sugar and butter together, honey is a bad substitution. The purpose of creaming those ingredients is to integrate air into the sugar-butter mixture, but the greater density of honey will prevent air from being incorporated into the mixture. Substituting honey for sugar in this case will leave you with denser and chewier baked goods, rather than light and airy ones.

Sugar isn’t the only ingredient that can be replaced with honey.

If your recipe calls for maple syrup, the best formula to use is one cup of honey plus 1/2 cup of sugar for each 3/4 cup of maple syrup. Why extra sugar? It’s to compensate for the fact that maple syrup is sweeter than honey.

You can replace corn syrup with honey on a one-to-one basis, so one cup of honey will replace one cup of corn syrup. In most cases that’s a good idea, since corn syrup contains empty calories linked to a laundry list of health issues.

However, you’ll also need to add a bit of lemon juice or cream of tartar if substituting honey in candy or caramel recipes, because one function of the corn syrup is to prevent crystallization. Lemon juice or cream of tartar will preserve the texture of the caramel.

As you’ve probably already discovered at one point or another, honey will stick to the sides of measuring cups, making it tough to measure accurately. The easy solution is to first coat the inside of the cup with butter, water, oil, egg white or cooking spray. Choose between them by checking the other ingredients in your recipe and picking the lubricant that will match best.  

Remember that lighter-colored honeys usually have a lighter taste than dark ones. When making substitutions in most of your favorite recipes, you’ll do better using a light- or amber-colored honey like orange blossom or clover than a dark, strong one. (It’s not a hard-and-fast rule that light-colored honeys are always milder, though; basswood honey has a light color but a very strong taste, while mild tulip honey is darker in color than you’d expect.)

Dark honeys do have their place in baking, however. The bold taste of buckwheat honey, for example, is ideally suited to some types of heavier breads and cakes, which will really pack a flavor punch when the intensity of buckwheat honey is added.