Shortbread is one of the easiest baked recipes there is, but the real challenge begins when you’re following a low-calorie diet. Maybe it’s not even nutrition-related, and you just ran out of white sugar.
Either way, you’re left wondering: Can you make shortbread without sugar? Or is that too much to ask of an already-simple recipe that calls for three ingredients only?
It’s possible to make shortbread with granulated monk fruit sweeteners, honey, or maple syrup instead of white sugar. However, you can also ditch the sugar altogether and go all the way savory.
In this post, we’ll share some tips and tricks for making shortbread without sugar, from the swap ratios to the texture boosters!
What Role Does Sugar Play in Shortbread Recipes?
Before we dive into all the possible ways to make shortbread when you’re low on white sugar, let’s first tackle one critical question: why does sugar do for the shortbread, anyway?
Well, the obvious answer is that it adjusts the taste to make the crumbly dough sweet and, thus, a bit more cookie-like.
But that’s not the only role; the sugar portion tweaks the texture and color, as well.
- Enzymatic Browning: Even white sugar can give your shortbread the iconic golden glow—thanks to a little chemical reaction called Maillard’s browning reaction.
- Caramelization: As you heat sugar, it caramelizes, which helps add even more color to the baked dough.
- Hardness Level: Shortbread is supposed to be crumbly, but the way sugar recrystallizes in the post-baking cooling period adds just enough hardness.
- Fat Creaming: When you mix the butter and the sugar, the resulting “cream” keeps the texture light and airy.
So, without sugar, you’d expect the shortbread to be white, bland, and too dense—until you find the right workaround.
How Can You Make Shortbread Without Sugar?
After some experimentation in the kitchen and searching on baking forums, we settled on these top three picks:
Method #1: Use a Granulated Sweetener
Artificial sweeteners can save you in a pinch if you’d rather not use refined white sugar.
Yet, the trick here is to go for granulated packets rather than fine powders. Remember that you want to get the closest texture match to the real thing to keep the shortbread crumbly.
The best part about this method (aside from cutting calories) is that you don’t have to figure out the swap ratio yourself.
Most brands will include the info on the packaging, but we’d recommend going with 1:1 options to cut the hassle.
Here’s a pro tip: Granulated monk fruit sweeteners work well with keto shortbread recipes that use almond flour.
Method #2: Use Honey or Maple Syrup
Swapping sugar for honey in your shortbread recipe is a bit risky since you’re steering away from the original texture, but it’s still doable. The aroma alone makes the risk worthwhile!
As for the ratio, 0.25 cups of thick honey for every 1.5 cups of flour seems to get the job done. However, it’s possible to add some hazelnuts to your honey-sweetened shortbread to improve the texture.
If you want a vegan alternative, consider maple syrup—just make sure you pick a brand that doesn’t use animal-based defoamers.
Method #3: Turn the Whole Recipe Savory
You don’t always have to find an alternative sweetener.
Although shortbread is mostly lumped up in the cookies category, it works just as well with a full-on savory palate: pepper, sharp cheddar, and Worcestershire sauce.
One hiccup here is that the ingredient list is no longer as simple as it used to be, but you can refer to Martha Steward’s recipe to keep the cheese-to-flour ratio balanced.
The recipe calls for 2 cups of sharp cheddar, 2.25 cups of all-purpose flour, 2 cups of butter, 0.5 cups of milk, cayenne pepper, and a bit of Worcestershire sauce. That will give you the basic savory shortbread recipe.
That said, you don’t have to settle for the basics. If you’re feeling adventurous, take the texture to the next level with twists like:
- Chopped olives
- Thyme leaves
Can You Make Shortbread With Brown Sugar?
Yes, it’s possible to use brown sugar instead of white sugar in a shortbread recipe. However, you’ll have to consider that the flavor and texture will be slightly altered.
Brown sugar has a fairly high molasses content, so the end result will carry caramel undertones.
Don’t let that fool you; the shortbread won’t taste overly syrupy since brown sugar is less sweet than white sugar.
In fact, you might have to go beyond the traditional 3:2:1 shortbread ratio to get the same sweetness level.
The texture could be chewier than your average shortbread cookie because brown sugar retains more moisture.
None of those changes is necessarily bad, but it could take a few bites to acquire a taste for the recipe variation.
If you end up liking the molasses taste, consider using dark brown sugar packets rather than light ones. We’d also recommend adding a couple of drops of vanilla to make the caramel taste pop!
From the color boost to the crumbly texture, granulated white sugar does a lot of heavy lifting in a shortbread recipe.
However, you can still make things work with maple syrup or honey. There are even keto variations with monk fruit sweeteners.
If your sweet tooth cravings aren’t intense, opt for sharp cheddar cheese and herbs rather than sugar and fix up a savory shortbread snack!
Sarah is the founder of Baking Kneads, LLC, a blog sharing guides, tips, and recipes for those learning how to bake. Growing up as the daughter of a baker, she spent much of her childhood learning the basics in a local bakery.