French toast is one of those treats that combine decadent richness with just enough sweetness to make you want more. However, knowing when to add the sweet element in the recipe makes all the difference in how it turns out.
Read on to find out how to make French toast sweet without it becoming too cloying or burning in the pan while cooking. We’ll also shed light on some sugar-free alternatives that can replace your traditional sweeteners with no flavor compromise!
Most of us grew up with French toast that was doused in some kind of syrup, but that’s not the only way to sweeten it! There are many ways you can incorporate sweetness into your French toast. Let’s go over them one by one.
The original recipe for pain perdu (French toast) calls for an egg custard that’s sweetened using sugar to dip your stale bread in before frying.
This is the simplest way to make French toast sweet, but it has its downsides. Although sugar is an excellent sweetener, using it in the custard can cause the French toast to burn, especially if you’re not careful with the heat.
What happens is that the sugar melts at a low temperature and then caramelizes. Because it’s in liquid form, it forms a crust on the surface of the bread, which can get dark pretty fast.
That’s why it’s advised to use only a couple of tablespoons of sugar in your egg custard, and then use more to garnish after it’s off the heat when you’re serving.
In this case, you can opt for a generous sprinkling of powdered sugar or a quick dip in cinnamon sugar for a churros-like crispy crust.
Another traditional sweetener for French toast is honey. Besides coming in liquid form, which makes it easier to incorporate, it can also give the flavor a little more intrigue than just plain old sugar.
There are many different varieties of honey that can make your French toast more interesting. Classics like clover, wildflower, and alfalfa honey are all great choices for cooking.
Opt for something raw and local to get the most flavor. I personally enjoy orange blossom honey for its refreshing, almost acidic tang, as well as its floral aftertaste.
To sweeten French toast, honey can be mixed into the custard, like sugar, or you can use it as a syrupy drizzle after you take the French toast off the heat. The latter will yield a less caramelized exterior, but it can cause the toast to get soggy if you don’t serve it right away.
Just like how great it goes with pancakes and waffles, French toast and maple syrup are a match made in food heaven.
Aside from being a classic breakfast flavor, maple syrup compliments the buttery richness of French toast so well.
Because it comes from maple tree sap that’s been boiled down to concentrate its sugar content, it has an almost resiny nuttiness that cuts through the heavy eggy bread.
Pairing the sweet French toast with a savory element, like crispy bacon or sausage patties, and drizzling the whole thing with maple syrup is borderline criminally delicious. Try this at your next breakfast or brunch gathering and thank me later!
Just like maple syrup, agave nectar (also known as agave syrup) is a great choice as a sweetener for your French toast. Just be careful with it because it’s 1.4–1.6 times sweeter than sugar, and you wouldn’t want your French toast to become cloying!
Agave nectar comes in different “shades,” so to speak, and each has a different flavor profile:
Has a mostly neutral flavor and is mostly used as a substitute for simple syrup in beverages.
A little more caramelly in flavor and can be used to sweeten French toast if you don’t like a strong agave flavor.
Unfiltered and has a deeper, more caramel-like flavor and is the closest thing to maple syrup. That’s what most people use straight from the bottle to flavor their French toast, pancakes, and waffles.
Processed at a much lower temperature to conserve most of the natural probiotic enzymes that agave naturally has. However, it might not be the best choice for your French toast simply because it lacks any special flavor.
Agave is a great substitute for honey for vegans, but it shouldn’t be considered a “health food” per se. Due to its high fructose concentration, it’s similar to High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), which can have some adverse health effects if used in excessive amounts.
For those who have diabetes or just want to lower their sugar intake, stevia can be a great substitute for sugar and other high-calorie sweeteners. Since it’s available as food drops, it can be used to sweeten the egg custard you dip the bread in, making the French toast sweet.
Stevia is about 50 to 300 times sweeter than sugar, so the amount you use is a lot less than other sweeteners. Just follow the package directions and substitute the number of tablespoons necessary to sweeten the egg custard with the right amount of stevia.
Like other sugar substitutes, the sweetness it provides is a little different than regular sugar. Some people report an aftertaste that can be slightly bitter, so maybe you should try it out in a beverage and see if you like it before you make French toast with it.
Almost all of the options we mentioned above can be used to sweeten the egg and dairy mixture you use to soak the bread in before cooking or as a topping after the French toast is done.
Choosing which route to take depends on several things, like the possibility of caramelization or burning, the ability to adjust the sweetness level, and the final presentation of the finished dish.
Let’s discuss each one:
Sugar, honey, and maple syrup all contain glucose, which, when heated, melts and loses water molecules, turning into a less sweet, more bitter compound called caramel.
If you use the full amount of sugar needed to sweeten the French toast in your egg custard, by the time the raw egg cooks through, the sugar will darken and even burn on the surface.
That’s why it’s better to use a portion of the sugar in the custard and leave the rest to be used as a garnish or topping when serving.
If you’re making French toast for a crowd, it’s more than likely you won’t be able to get the exact sweetness preference for each and every one of your guests.
That’s why syrup bottles and sugar dusters exist! To make sure everybody is satisfied with their French toast, let them adjust the sweetness to their liking.
However, it won’t hurt to start with a base amount of sugar in the custard just to get things going and provide a good base. And while you’re at it, you can add vanilla extract and cinnamon to the mixture, as both enhance the perception of sweetness.
You must have heard the phrase “we eat with our eyes” a million times already, and it’s kind of true. We always gravitate towards food that’s presented in an appetizing way more often than not.
That’s why a couple of French toast slices with a pad of butter on top and syrup dripping down the sides, or with mixed berries and a dusting of powdered sugar, will always be enticing. Just thinking about this makes my mouth water!
So, syrup or powdered sugar on top of French toast serves more than one purpose here; the practical one, which is sweetening the dish, and the visual cue of being a signal that the dish is sweet.
If you can’t use sugar, honey, or any syrup to sweeten your French toast for health reasons, you can use fresh fruit as a garnish with the no-calorie sweetener of your choice. It’ll taste delicious and look gorgeous.
Never underestimate the power of food styling; it’s more effective than you think!
Learning how to make French toast sweet will give you many options to choose from the next time you’re making this breakfast classic.
It doesn’t always have to be boring old sugar, which contributes sweetness and little else. You can use honey, which comes in many varieties that have different flavor profiles.
There are also maple and agave syrups, which come from plant sources and can make for amazing French toast toppings. The delicious caramel-like quality of the darker varieties compliments the buttery richness of French toast very well.
Last but not least, if you have health concerns or dietary restrictions, stevia can be a good alternative sweetener. It has zero calories and can be added to the egg custard to provide sweetness for the whole dish without any blood sugar spikes. Win-win!
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.