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Sweetening with Agave

By Cook's Illustrated Published November 2009

Is agave nectar a good substitute for sugar?

Agave nectar comes from the sap of the thorny, thick-leaved agave plant native to Mexico. The nectar ranges in color from pale gold to amber, depending on the amount of filtration during processing. Lighter nectar has a relatively neutral flavor, while darker nectar has a caramel-like taste. Agave contains 2.9 calories per gram compared to sugar’s 4 calories per gram. Agave is also sweeter than sugar, so less of it is needed, further reducing the caloric intake.

We purchased several bottles of nationally available light Madhava Agave Nectar ($6.99 for 23.5 ounces) and used it to replace granulated sugar in oatmeal cookies, yellow cake, sweet iced tea, and margaritas, following the proportions recommended on the Madhava website: 2/3 cup agave nectar for every cup of sugar. Madhava also advises reducing the liquid content of recipes by 1 ounce per 2/3 cup of agave used, dropping the oven temperature by 25 degrees, and upping the baking time by 6 percent. Even with these measures, the cookies were marred by a soft, bready texture, while the cake had a layer of tough, chewy agave that settled on the bottom of the pan. On the bright side, there were no off-flavors.

When we used agave in beverages, the results were more to our liking. In the sweet tea, tasters found the agave a perfectly acceptable substitute, despite the slightly bitter aftertaste some of the more discerning tasters detected. The agave margaritas were hugely popular, which makes sense given that tequila is derived from the agave plant. Another bonus: Because it is a liquid, the nectar dissolves better in drinks than granulated sugar.

In sum: Agave is great for sweetening drinks, but don’t use it for baking.