I’m always on the hunt for great whole grain, naturally sweetened baked good recipes and I’m happy to share another with you today. Well technically, it’s really more like three quick bread recipes in one, because the resulting loaves taste so different depending on which sweetener you use! I came across Joy’s recipe for quick molasses bread on a cold night this winter. Looking for an excuse to crank up the oven, I peeled myself off the couch, poured myself a drink, mixed all six (6!) ingredients together and popped it in the oven.
An hour later, I pulled out a dense and heavy, moist molasses bread. I nibbled on a corner piece and wondered, could I make this with honey? I poured myself another drink and mixed up some more quick bread batter, this time with honey instead of molasses. The recipe is so simple that I had almost had it memorized by the second go-around. The next thing I knew, I was nibbling on delicious honey bread. Since then I’ve tried the bread with blackstrap molasses and maple syrup; each loaf has its own signature characteristics but they are all delicious.
My dear friend/college roommate Grace and I have been in an ongoing discussion about natural sweeteners in the comments of my banana bread post. Neither Grace or I did much baking when we lived together, but we’ve both developed an interest in the years since and I love comparing results with her. She has such a voice, in person and in writing, that when I read her notes I hear her speaking them in my head (have a I told you that, G?). Every time I hear from her, I feel like we’re back in our cozy living room on 315 College Avenue and the discussion is as lively as ever.
Today I thought I’d publicly share my notes for this recipe with Grace and all of you so we can open up the discussion. I don’t have anything groundbreaking to report, but I hope you glean some useful information and feel more confident playing around with the natural sweeteners in your pantry after reading my notes. Here we go!
Honey is the sweetest, and the signature honey flavor really shines through when used in baked goods. The flavor will depend on the type of honey used. Clover honey, the most common type, is milder than most and the kind that I use in my baked goods. Honey browns easily in baking so most recommend baking with honey at a lower temperature. Some recommending reducing the temperature by 25 degrees Fahrenheit. Both my banana bread and this bread recipe specify a 325 degree oven, which seems ideal.
Molasses is less sweet than honey but imparts a nice molasses flavor to the bread. The resulting bread could go either sweet or savory depending on toppings. As expected, molasses that is lighter in color is also lighter in flavor and produces a loaf with a lighter color.
Blackstrap molasses is the most concentrated of molasses and is also the highest in minerals. Slices from my blackstrap loaf required a considerable amount of almond butter or cream cheese to balance the strong, bitter flavor of the blackstrap molasses. I actually learned to love the intensity of the flavor, but I would only recommend making all blackstrap bread to hardcore molasses lovers. You can ease the intensity by mixing blackstrap with lighter molasses or honey for a total of 1/2 cup.
When you’re shopping for molasses, be sure to check the ingredients label. I grabbed the only organic molasses in the store, which was labeled on the front simply as molasses, but the ingredients label revealed that it was entirely blackstrap.
Real maple syrup imparted the least amount of flavor to the bread. It had nice mapley undertones and a light sweetness. Unexpectedly, the maple syrup either enhanced or allowed the cornmeal flavor to shine through. That loaf almost tasted like cornbread (in a good way!) and I’m trying to adapt it into a more authentic cornbread recipe. Maple syrup comes in grade A and grade B. Grade A is less expensive, easier to find and less intensely flavored. I used grade B maple syrup this time, but I have not noticed a significant difference between Grade A and Grade B, so either will do.
I did not try making a loaf with agave nectar, but based on other baking experiences, I think it would turn out fine. Agave has a neutral flavor, so it would just contribute sweetness. Agave is less sweet than honey. I tried substituting agave for honey in my zucchini brownies once and the brownies turned out bittersweet. Agave’s health benefits are debatable and I enjoy the taste of other, less processed natural sweeteners so I tend to use it sparingly.
Further considerations for substituting one natural sweetener for another in baked goods:
Keep in mind that the ratio of sweetener to other ingredients was relatively low, but based on the results from this bread experiment, all three of the natural sweeteners used can be substituted for each other 1 for 1. The most important considerations are flavor and the level of sweetness desired.
Roughly speaking, when comparing 1 cup of honey, maple syrup or agave to 1 cup of sugar, they are each more sweet than sugar. Molasses, on the other hand, is about half as sweet as sugar (source: Grainlady). When you’re looking at bottles of sweeteners in the store, the darker shades of each natural sweetener generally have stronger flavors. By the way it is best to buy organic natural sweeteners since they are concentrated products.
Feel free to mix different natural sweeteners to achieve the level of sweetness and flavor desired. For instance, mixing a bit of molasses with agave nectar would produce a sweet loaf with a very light molasses flavor. Honey would also sweeten up molasses but it will also add its own flavor. And on and on!
- Oil or butter for greasing pan
- 1½ cups milk of choice and 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar (or 1⅔ cups buttermilk or plain yogurt*)
- 2½ cups white whole wheat flour or regular whole wheat flour
- ½ cup cornmeal (I prefer medium grind cornmeal)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- ½ cup molasses (or honey or maple syrup, see notes on blackstrap molasses above)
- Heat oven to 325 degrees. Grease an 8-by-4-inch or 9-by 5-inch loaf pan (Bittman recommends a non-stick loaf pan but I prefer my stoneware loaf pan).
- If using buttermilk or yogurt, ignore this step. Make soured milk: gently warm the milk gently (1 minute in the microwave will suffice) and add vinegar. Set the soured milk aside.
- Mix together the dry ingredients. Stir molasses (or honey or maple syrup) into the soured milk, buttermilk or yogurt. Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir with a big spoon, just until combined. Pour the batter into a greased loaf pan.
- Bake until firm and a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Allow the bread to cool in the loaf pan for 15 minutes, then carefully invert the bread onto a wire rack.
- If you can stand it, let the bread rest for a day. I’ve found that whole wheat quick breads taste better the next day, when the flavors have had more time to develop. This bread freezes wonderfully. I slice it beforehand so I can pull out a slice of bread any time. Defrost it and boom—breakfast is served.
*Milk vs. yogurt: I have tried using both milk and yogurt and didn't notice a big difference in texture either way. I use milk most often because it's less expensive.
Make it vegan: This bread is already eggless, so just substitute your preferred non-dairy milk for the dairy milk.
Serving suggestions: Molasses bread is great with almond butter, cream cheese or homemade citrus curd with Greek yogurt!
Thank you: To Native Roots Market in Norman for supplying the local clover honey for my honey loaf!
Further reading materials:
- Mark Bittman on quick breads.
- Sara of Sprouted Kitchen on natural sweeteners.
- Heidi Swanson of 101cookbooks’ favorite natural sweeteners.
- Lindsay Nixon’s tips on how to replace sugar with natural sweeteners.
- [Book] Green Market Baking Book: 100 Delicious Recipes for Naturally Sweet & Savory Treats.