There are plenty of good reasons to swap sugar for another natural sweetener, not least of which is flavor.
It’s not a huge leap to assume that most pastry chefs have an affinity for sugar, which makes Samantha Kincaid’s take somewhat surprising. “I personally don't love sugar,” says the co-owner of Cadence restaurant in Philadelphia. What now? She quickly clarifies. “Meaning, I don't want to rely on sugar in sucrose form to make something sweet, necessarily, because there are so many natural sources that are more flavorful," she continues.
The pastry chef says she uses organic cane sugar, honey, and maple syrup for some of her recipes, but otherwise seeks out more unconventional sources. It turns out, anyone can make appetizing confections using buckets of sugar, but it takes a true stroke of culinary savvy to spin sunchokes or malted grain into a delicious dessert.
Below, find four of Kincaid’s go-to ingredients to add complex flavor and sweetness sans sugar.
Cadence uses several malted grains from Deer Creek in their kitchen, including non-traditional grains like buckwheat. “There’s a natural sweetness that’s developed through the process of malting grain,” says the chef, who has used it in dishes like the malted chocolate tart and smoked malted shortbread with duck liver. “I like the more savory, roasted flavor of malt and date,” she says. “Especially for winter.”
Philly-based company Soom is best known for its tahini, which is used by chefs around the city to make everything from Zahav’s hummus to the milkshakes at Goldie. But they recently unveiled a new pantry staple: Silan, or date syrup. It can be mixed into salad dressing, baked goods, cocktails, and more to inject a sweet, nutty flavor. (Unlike sugar, it’s also got loads of beneficial vitamins and nutrients, like potassium and fiber.) Kincaid is using silan in her frozen nougat dessert. Traditionally, the dessert entails honey-cooked meringue that’s folded with whipped cream, but she’s replacing the honey with silan. “The date syrup is already roasty and caramelized, but when you cook it to a certain temperature, it gets even more intense in flavor,” she says, adding, “it doesn’t crystalize like sugar.”
Another Pennsylvania-based company, Keepwell has a robust line of craft vinegars in flavors like concord grape, bitter lemon, and celery leaf. Two former pastry chefs started the business, in part, to offer alternatives to straight up sugar, and Kincaid loves their products. “They have maybe 15 vinegars in their line, we use about six of them as our sole vinegars in house,” she says. “They’re using regional ingredients, and lots of byproducts.” To make their rice vinegar, the company first makes sake, which produces a yeast deposit byproduct called lees, or sake kasu. Kincaid transforms this into a dense puree that she blends with Mississippi brown rice grits for a rice pudding. “The sake lees—the fermented rice—is naturally really sweet and fruity tasting,” she says. For one dessert, she tops sake lees rice pudding with cider ice, candied apples, and toasted hazelnuts.
“Caramelized sunchokes are one of the best bases for custard,” says Kincaid. The chef uses roasted root vegetables, including beets and rutabagas, to sweeten dishes like rutabaga gratin, and then uses the scraps from the vegetable as a base for a spread that accompanies their cheeseboard, in lieu of fruit butter.