Corn syrup is in just about everything these days, from the candy and baked goods you get in the dessert aisle to the pizza crust in the frozen foods section. It's not quite as common in home cooking, one of the reasons dieticians often recommend cooking your food at home as much as possible, but it's creeping into more and more recipes.
Especially if you’re reading this from the United States, corn syrup is in everything. It’s a cheap and affordable ingredient for both consumers and companies. It also tastes good and helps attract people to come back and have the same foods again, which makes more companies want to use it and want to find ways to add it, even in foods that aren’t traditionally sweet.
But if you want to get the same taste, without adding the corn syrup, you’re in for a trick.
Let’s talk about some of the best corn syrup replacements, how they work in different kinds of cooking, and when you need, or don’t need them, to begin with.
What Is Corn Syrup?
Corn syrup isn’t made from boiling corn into a syrup, unlike a lot of other syrups out there. It’s concentrated sugars from corn grains, in a liquid solution. It’s a lot thicker than most syrups, which is why people in industrial kitchens and bakeries often scoop the stuff out of buckets with gloved hands and weigh it, rather than using measuring cups.
There are a couple of reasons corn syrup is preferred over regular sugar in some foods. It acts differently when heated than sugar, which can make it easier to use in some kinds of candy-making and baking. It's also a fantastic additive for foods that need a little bit of sugar but not much because it's cheaper and sweeter.
Corn syrup also tastes more like cane sugar than most alternative sweeteners, in that it’s got an extremely sweet and neutral taste that lets other ingredients shine.
What Is The Difference Between Regular Corn Syrup and High Fructose Corn Syrup?
One of the most common questions about corn syrup in cooking is the difference between corn syrup and (which can be hard to find these days) and high fructose corn syrup, which is both more common and the version that's most likely to show up on the evening news as a health problem.
High fructose corn syrup is simply a version of corn syrup that has a higher percentage of molecules that are fructose instead of glucose. Fructose is sweeter, but can also be harder on your digestive system, especially for people who are sensitive to it or have digestive problems.
Why Substitute Corn Syrup?
There are a few reasons why corn syrup might be something you want to substitute in your own cooking. For one thing, while corn syrup usually has minimal flavor, some people can taste it and do not like it.
Switching corn syrup for sugar isn’t necessarily going to make what you’re eating healthier, but it can in some cases, especially if you don’t use as much or find that you don’t crave it as much.
It can also be important to substitute corn syrup for other sweeteners for dietary reasons like a corn allergy, digestive sensitivity, or diabetes.
The Best Substitutes For Corn Syrup:
If you’re looking for a good substitute for corn syrup, there are a lot of different ways to substitute it. Most of them are going to be sugar or similar sweeteners, but there are other options out there.
Sugar and Water
One of the easiest switches you can make for corn syrup is to take a little regular white sugar and mix it into water. You don’t necessarily need the sugar to fully dissolve, and a paste is actually going to be closer to the taste and performance of corn syrup than a fully dissolved solution.
This is a good option for recipes that assume you’re going to get a small amount of moisture from the corn syrup, but it can be tricky to get the ratios right for your recipe. In general, start with as little moisture as possible to make a paste, and then add more water later if what you’re making does have the right texture.
However, that doesn’t necessarily work for anything that requires hot sugar, like candy making. If you add water to hot sugar, it can splatter and cause sugar burns, which are usually serious.
Easier and often safer than sugar and water, plain sugar can be used as a substitute for corn syrup in almost all circumstances. It melts down to a texture similar to corn syrup in hot processed foods like hard candy and can be added to most baked goods and savory dishes without changing the texture of the food.
Generally, this can be done in a 1:1 ratio of sugar : corn syrup.
However, you might notice that your favorite recipes aren’t quite as sweet when you make them from sugar instead of corn syrup,
Sugar syrup is a good option when you need liquid, and you need the increased sweetness found in high fructose corn syrup. Sugar syrup is different from sugar and water for two reasons. One, the sugar is heated and fully dissolved in sugar syrup. Two, you can change the ratios of sugar and water in syrups to create a more similar sweetness in your syrup to corn syrup.
Sugar syrup starts at a 1:1 ratio of sugar and water, but you can increase the amount of sugar quite a bit if you want a sweeter thicker syrup.
Using a thicker concentration of sugar can also make a thicker syrup that can be used to top and decorate desserts, or add to coffee and other drinks, so you’re adding less volume for the sweetness.
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Honey is a good 1:1 replacement for corn syrup, but you should be aware that it tends to be a little less sweet than corn syrup, and doesn’t have as much of a neutral flavor. The variety of honey you use also makes a big difference. Some varieties are much sweeter than others, while other varieties have a stronger or more neutral flavor.
In baking you should be especially aware of how sweet your honey is, because you may need to supplement a little sugar if you’re looking for a sweeter flavor like corn syrup.
Stevia is the first corn syrup substitute on this list that is actually sweeter than corn syrup typically is. Because this is a non-digestible sweetener, it's also calorie-free and a better option for people who have dietary restrictions that prevent them from using digestible sweeteners.
That said, it’s important to follow the instructions for substituting according to the package. Stevia, unlike a lot of chemical sweeteners, does handle heat from cooking or baking well, but different versions of stevia have different ratios for replacing sugar and corn syrup in your cooking and baking.
Golden Syrup is a little closer to honey than corn syrup and can add a lovely caramel taste to baked goods and confections.
However, you generally either have to make your own golden syrup, or pay higher prices for it at a grocery store if you want to use this substitute.
Maple syrup works as a 1:1 corn syrup substitute, but it will add a noticeable maple flavor to most baked goods.
It is a good option for a lot of people, however, because it has a lower impact on your blood sugar, and is digested more slowly than either corn syrup or sugar.
Molasses is another good option in foods where having some extra flavor isn’t a big problem. Molasses is a much more strongly flavored liquid, and not as sweet as corn syrup. However, it’s integral to the flavor of ginger snaps, some pies, and plenty of other foods. Adding a little more molasses in those recipes can help substitute for corn syrup, or at least reduce the amount you need.
Agave is a good alternative for corn syrup in most uses and has a similar, if slightly thinner, texture, making it a good option in baking.
However, like most other substitutes, it won’t react the same in making candy.
Cane syrup is the rendered and concentrated juice of sugar cane, and contains all the same things in molasses (a sugar-making by-product) along with all the sweetness of sugar syrup.
This is a great substitute for people who don’t mind a little molasses and caramel taste but is much less neutral-tasting than corn syrup.
Date syrup is made from dates, and is a good option for people who want more nutrition in their sweets, and can add a little fiber. Unlike date sugar, which doesn’t dissolve, date syrup is much smoother and a better fit for adding to baked goods, beverages, and whips that require a perfectly smooth texture.
Brown Rice Syrup
Brown rice syrup is made by isolating the glucose and sweetness found in brown rice and then concentrating it into syrup. It’s a corn syrup substitute, but it also works in beverages and as a sugar replacement. You might even notice it tasting better as a sweetener in a lot of Asian cooking since it's a more traditional ingredient.
Since cola is typically just colored and flavored corn syrup, watered down slightly, it’s actually a perfect replacement for corn syrup in a lot of recipes. The carbonation in the soda can help provide some lift in baking though, so it’s important to account for that added source of rise in doughs and batters.
Supposedly, cola is the best-kept secret of pecan pie making as well, since it adds incredible depth of flavor. Speaking of pie, have you ever tried making bourbon peach pie?