Agave nectar is one of my favorite unrefined sweeteners to use in baking. I first learned about it early this year and was an immediate convert. It’s a liquid sweetener that’s about 1.4 times sweeter than sugar and thinner than honey, or “less viscous,” if you want to get technical.
Agave nectar is made from the Mexican agave plant, which sort of looks like a cactus. Fun fact – it’s actually the same plant from which tequila is made. Can you say agave margarita?! Even though agave nectar has been used by natives for thousands of years for flavoring and medicinal purposes, it didn’t really become commercially available until the 1990s. To produce agave nectar, juice is extracted from the agave plant when it’s about 7-10 years old – and up to 12 feet tall! Harvesters cut off the top of the plant and cap it with a stone. The pressure from the stone causes all of the plant’s juices to collect in the center, so the harvesters can go in and ladle it out. The juice is then filtered and heated, which turns its carbohydrates into sugars. And voila! Agave nectar.
Agave nectar ranges in color – from light to amber to dark – based on how much it’s been filtered. The darker the color, the less it’s been filtered. The darker colors also have the strongest, most distinct flavors – sort of caramel-y. The lighter colors add a mild, neutral sweetness.
I think the best thing agave nectar’s got going for itself is that it’s the lowest natural sweetener on the Glycemic Index. What does that mean? Basically, the lower something is on the Glycemic Index, the slower it’s processed in your body. So you don’t get the same “sugar rush” and subsequent crash with agave nectar as you would with, say, regular white sugar. It also still contains the agave plant’s iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium. Ah, the benefits of unrefined sweeteners!
To substitute agave nectar for sugar in baking, I use 3/4 cup agave nectar for every 1 cup sugar – you don’t need as much since it’s sweeter. I also reduce other liquids in the recipe by…a little bit. Um, yeah, I totally have no science for that one. Some people say you should reduce your oven temperature by 25*F, but I’m of the opinion that no two ovens are alike, so I usually just ignore this and keep my eye on the goods while they’re in there. If I’m substituting agave nectar for another liquid sweetener, I use the exact same amount – easy!
Madhava and Wholesome Sweeteners are two brands of agave nectar I’ve tried. And my Baking with Agave Nectar cookbook gives me lots of ideas for ways to use them. It offers over 100 recipes with agave nectar in the starring role. And – bonus for some of you! – a lot of them are vegan and gluten-free as well.
If you’re super interested in all this and want to learn more, this site has a lot of good info.
Have you ever baked with agave nectar? Any favorite recipes to share?