Pecan pie is a classic dessert served on millions of tables in America during the holidays. It has been long regarded as one of the favorite recipes to make and serve for dessert.
Many people cannot imagine a Christmas or Thanksgiving celebration without a slice of rich buttery pecan pie topped with vanilla ice cream. In some locations, pecan pie is more popular than pumpkin pie.
Let’s talk about corn syrup, one of the main ingredients in pecan pie. Before we discuss substitutions for corn syrup, it is important to understand what corn syrup is and its role in pecan pie.
Pecan Pie Information
Pecan pie originated in the South, where pecans grow and thrive. A cookbook published in St. Louis in 1898 included a recipe for the first pecan pie created by a woman in Texas. Since then there have been many variations, such as chocolate pecan pie, but the basic recipe remains the same.
Pecan pie filling consists of a filling of pecans, eggs, melted butter, corn syrup, vanilla extract, and a pinch of sea salt. This combination is then baked in a traditional pie shell.
The gooey center of a homemade pecan pie comes from the combination of the butter, sugar, corn syrup, and eggs. The pecans rise to the top of the pie while baking, leaving a crispy topping of caramelized pecans.
Why is corn syrup used in pecan pie?
Corn syrup is an invert sugar, which means it is liquid at room temperature. It prevents sugar crystallization when pecan pie is baked. This crystallization would result in a grainy texture.
The corn syrup also combines with the eggs to thicken the pecan pie and give it a gooey custard-like filling.
Types of Corn Syrup
There are two kinds of corn syrup.
Light Corn Syrup
This variation is used in foods like jams and fruit sauces. It is often made with vanilla and has a subtly sweet flavor.
Dark Corn Syrup
The darker version is made with a type of molasses. It has a dark toasted and more robust flavor. Dark corn syrup is more often used in baked goods.
To convert light corn syrup to dark corn syrup, you can combine ¾ cup light corn syrup with ¼ cup molasses.
In practically every case, light and dark corn syrup can be used interchangeably, with minor flavor differences. Light corn syrup, for example, will provide sweetness and a tinge of vanilla to a pecan pie, but that's about it. Dark corn syrup will offer color and a more powerful, toasted flavor in addition to sweetness.
High Fructose Corn Syrup
Corn syrup used in baking is not the same thing as high fructose corn syrup. Some corn syrups contain high fructose corn syrup, but many do not. Corn syrup is glucose and is extracted from corn starch, while high fructose corn syrup is fructose.
Best Corn Syrup Substitutions in Pecan Pie
Whether you are allergic to corn, looking for healthier options, or just don’t like corn syrup, there are several other liquid sweeteners that work as fantastic alternatives. Even avid bakers may not keep corn syrup as a staple ingredient. Whatever you use instead of corn syrup, it is important to make sure the substitute is in liquid form.
Corn syrup has a fairly neutral flavor, so keep in mind that other sweeteners may impact the final flavor of your pecan pie. Some flavors may even be a welcome addition and take your pie to the next level!
Keep in mind that you may need to adjust the amounts needed because of their varying levels of sweetness. Make note of the ratios in which alternative sweeteners should be used in place of corn syrup.
There are many alternative sweeteners that can be used instead of corn syrup to create a delicious pecan pie. Several substitutes also offer added nutrition and health benefits. When substituted in the correct amounts, any of the below options will yield a great finished product.
Like corn syrup, sugar adds only neutral sweetness to a recipe, not flavor. This makes it the best substitute for corn syrup. It can be combined with water to create a concentrated simple syrup that tastes similar to corn syrup.
Use white sugar in place of light corn syrup. A sweetener made from golden or dark brown sugar, or even coconut sugar, can be used in place of dark corn syrup. You can also use a mixture of sugar as a corn syrup substitute.
Create a simple syrup of four parts sugar to one part water. For each cup of corn syrup, dissolve one cup of sugar in ¼ cup hot water. Heat the sugar and water in a small saucepan with a teaspoon of lemon juice or vinegar until the sugar has mostly dissolved.
Dissolving the sugar into the water creates a syrup that ensures the pie will have a normal texture. Adding heat and acidity also inverts the sugar, making it more like corn syrup. This prevents the sugar from crystallizing as the pie cools.
Pure Maple Syrup
If you are looking for a healthier option that is a natural sweetener, maple syrup is a good choice. Maple syrup is derived from the sap of the maple tree and contains many vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
Maple syrup has a deeper, more earthy flavor and aroma. It may change the flavor and color of your pie. However, the maple flavor works well with pecans, making it a great addition. If you love pecan pie, you will really love maple pecan pie.
Maple syrup holds up well in baked goods. It can be substituted for corn syrup in a 1-to-1 ratio. Use one cup of maple syrup for every cup of corn syrup.
Note that the filling of your pie will be thinner when using maple syrup and can soak through the crust. Adding an extra egg yolk or a spoonful of cornstarch or flour can help thicken it. You can also parbake the empty pie crust covered in aluminum foil and weighed down with pie weights for 10-15 minutes first.
Because honey contains fructose, it is a sweeter option for a corn syrup replacement. Keep in mind that honey does have a distinctive floral flavor that will be apparent in the pie. It retains its moisture in baked goods.
Honey has many health benefits, including antimicrobial, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties. Raw honey retains even more beneficial nutrients because it is not filtered or heated before it is bottled.
The color of the honey indicates its flavor intensity. Light honey, such as clover or acacia varieties, has a mild flavor. Dark honey has a bold flavor. Dark buckwheat honey is a good replacement for dark corn syrup.
Honey can be substituted in equal amounts to corn syrup. However, since honey is sweeter than corn syrup, a smaller amount (a third less) can help keep the recipe from becoming too sweet.
If using a lighter honey, you can combine it with molasses for a richer flavor. Combine ¾ cup honey with ¼ cup molasses to create dark corn syrup.
Since honey does crystallize, heat it with a splash of vinegar or lemon juice in the same manner as the sugar. This leads to a better pie texture in the end.
Agave nectar is a sweetener extracted from the fluid of blue agave plants in Mexico. It is milder and more neutral than honey and is slightly thinner than corn syrup.
Because of its sweetness as well as thinner consistency, you should substitute ½ to ¾ cup of agave nectar for every cup of corn syrup.
Brown Rice Syrup
Brown rice syrup has a sweet nutty flavor that works well in pecan pie. It tastes similar to cooked brown rice. This syrup is made from the liquid of fermented brown rice that is heated until the liquid thickens.
This syrup has the same chemical properties as corn syrup. It will prevent sugar crystals from forming.
Brown rice syrup is a bit thinner than corn syrup, but has a stronger flavor. Use a one-to-one ratio to substitute brown rice syrup for corn syrup.
Cane syrup is a common baking ingredient in southern households. It is made from raw sugar cane stalks that are boiled into a thick liquid.
This syrup has a deep amber color similar to molasses. It tastes as sweet as corn syrup but has a slight molasses taste.
Cane syrup can work as a great substitute to replace corn syrup using a one-to-one ratio.
This British staple is mainly used in the United Kingdom, but is becoming popular in other parts of the world too. It is a refined form of cane sugar or sugar beet juice.
Golden syrup, also known as “light treacle,” has a light and buttery flavor. It is slightly thicker than corn syrup. It has the same properties as corn syrup, and remains liquid at high temperatures.
Golden syrup can be used in place of corn syrup as a 1-to-1 replacement.
Glucose Syrup (Confectioner’s Glucose)
Glucose syrup, or liquid glucose, is slightly thicker than corn syrup. It has a neutral flavor. It enhances the smoothness of finished products and adds fluffiness and bulk to a variety of baked goods.
Corn syrup is actually a type of glucose syrup. Glucose syrup can be made from any form of starch, including wheat, rice, barley, potatoes, and cassava.
It is available in cake-decorating stores.
Glucose syrup is a 1 to 1 replacement for corn syrup.
Molasses is a byproduct of the sugar-making process. It is rich in nutrients and provides several key vitamins and minerals.
If you run out of other options when making pecan pie and have no alternatives on hand, molasses can be used in place of corn syrup. It should only be used as a last resort since it will alter the flavor of the pecan pie more than any of the other substitutes.
Corn syrup offers very little flavor other than its sweetness. Molasses offers a rich and almost bitter flavor in addition to its sweetness.
Avoid using blackstrap molasses since its distinct taste will overwhelm the other flavors in the pie. Light molasses can be substituted for corn syrup in a one-to-one ratio.
Dates are bursting with sweetness, so using something like date syrup as a replacement for corn syrup makes total sense. Not only is it a completely natural sweetener with only one ingredient - dates, but the color, texture, and slight caramel flavor work beautifully in pecan pie.
You can buy it online or you can make it yourself. To make date syrup, simply chop Medjool dates, boil them in water, puree the cooked dates, and strain out the solids. The resulting liquid is rather thin, so a concentrated syrup can be made by continuing to simmer it until the moisture content reduces and a thick syrup remains.
There are recipes for pecan pie with date syrup out there, but if it is the right consistency, it will work as a 1:1 replacement for corn syrup.
Whatever your reason for avoiding corn syrup, with one simple ingredient swap, you can still use your favorite old-fashioned pecan pie recipe you know and love. Whether it is your first time making it, or you have been the designated pie baker for your family’s holiday celebrations for years, you can’t go wrong with any of these substitutes. Pick the one that works the best for you and that pecan pie recipe will remain a family favorite.
Do you have any other tried and true substitution recommendations? Please let me know in the comments!