When cooking with agave nectar—and especially when substituting agave nectar for other sweeteners—it's helpful to remember that agave nectar is basically high fructose corn syrup that comes from a cactus rather than from corn.
That means it has the same calories, sweetness, and consistency as high fructose corn syrup. Once you understand that, it makes substituting it in your cakes, cookies and other desserts a lot more straightforward.
What is Agave Nectar?
Agave nectar is about 60 percent fructose, 20 percent glucose, and 20 percent water. This makes it roughly equivalent to high fructose corn syrup in terms of its fructose content, its calories, its sweetness, and the fact that it's a liquid.
Thus agave nectar will act just like high fructose corn syrup, which means that when looking to substitute agave nectar in recipes that use other sweeteners, it's easiest to do so in recipes that already call for corn syrup, like pecan pie, peanut brittle, and cooked frostings, as well as marinades like this pork rib marinade.
Now, just because it acts the same as corn syrup doesn't mean it tastes exactly the same. Just as dark and light corn syrups look and taste different from each other, as well as from other liquid sweeteners like honey, maple syrup and molasses, agave nectar has its own distinct flavor.
This flavor is more pronounced in the darker versions of agave nectar, but it's noticeable in the lighter ones, too.
In general, though, when substituting agave nectar for liquid sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, corn syrup, or molasses, you can do so on a 1:1 basis.
Substituting Agave for White Sugar
Sometimes, though, you might want to use agave nectar in place of granulated sugar, and that's where you have to do some conversions.
Here, we adhere to the 75 percent rule, which means you use 3/4 the amount of liquid sweetener by volume as granulated sugar. This happens to be the rule for substituting any liquid sweetener for granulated sugar, including corn syrup, honey, molasses or maple syrup.
That's only part of the equation, however. The other part has to do with the other liquids in your recipe. Because agave nectar is 20 percent water, you'll have to reduce the amount of liquid elsewhere in the recipe.
So if a recipe calls for a cup of sugar, you'd use 3/4 cup of agave nectar and reduce 2 tablespoons of liquid.
Substituting Agave Nectar for Brown Sugar
When substituting agave nectar for brown sugar, the technique is a bit different. The 3/4 ratio stays the same, meaning you'd use 3/4 cup of agave nectar for each cup of brown sugar the recipe calls for. But since brown sugar is already moist, you don't need to reduce the liquid in the recipe quite as much—if at all. A tablespoon less should be plenty.
But remember too that brown sugar in a recipe also contributes color as well as sweetness and moisture, so here is where you can consider using darker agave nectar instead of light. But bear in mind that darker agave syrup has a stronger flavor than lighter.
Reducing the Liquid
Not every recipe uses the same liquid, so there's no hard and fast rule for what ingredient to use less of when trying to get rid of that extra 2 tablespoons. But in general, think in terms of ingredients that are made up of water, such as milk and eggs, rather than liquid fats like cooking oil. That's because with milk and eggs (just as with corn syrup and agave nectar), the water content evaporates in the form of steam, whereas oil stays in the food.
So if your recipe calls for milk, use 2 tablespoons less milk. This is a bit trickier with eggs since standard large eggs come in discrete units of around 3 1/4 tablespoons each. But you can beat the egg, spoon out two tablespoons of the liquid egg and do something else with it.
Remember that making these various minor changes is going to affect the recipe. How much? It depends. But that's why it's a good idea to make the recipe once as written before making changes to it.
Think of it this way: if you make a recipe and there's something off about it, something tastes not quite right, when you go to troubleshoot it, it's much easier to figure out what's different if you've tasted it once the way it was written and you've only changed one thing in the recipe. If you've made multiple changes, it makes it harder to figure out what went wrong.
Substituting All or Part?
Another approach to substituting agave nectar for other sweeteners is to swap out only half of the called-for sweetener. In other words, for each cup of sugar, you'd instead use half a cup of sugar plus 6 fluid ounces (about 12 tablespoons) of agave nectar. In this case you'd only need to leave out a tablespoon of liquid, which is minimal enough so that you might not have to bother at all.
Some recipes fare better with this kind of substitution than others. With cakes, for instance, you can substitute half the sugar, but with cookies, you might want to try swapping out 1/3 instead.