The Growing Appeal of Desserts That Are 'Not Too Sweet'

It's time to bid farewell to candy-covered milkshakes and usher in a more complex idea of how we view desserts.
Bettina Makalintal
Brooklyn, United States
October 8, 2020, 11:00am
a pair of hands holding a bowl full of cookies
Photo: Getty Images

The idea of a dessert that's "not too sweet" has a Goldilocks quality suggesting that you've pushed away a cake that's too cloying and another that's insufficiently sugary. A sweet tooth isn't one-size-fits-all; my tolerance for "too sweet" likely isn't the same yours, and it's certainly no match for that of people who down candy-covered milkshakes to the last drop. But in the dessert world, the idea of "not too sweet" is growing in popularity.

Epicurious wrote this April that "not too sweet" is its "benchmark for a great bite" when it comes to desserts. It's become a sell for chocolate cake, matcha cookies, and packaged cold brew and tea. "Not too sweet" is a Millennial tagline, joked a popular Twitter post in August. The classic idea of dessert has historically depended on the difference between "sweet" and "savory", but the desirable ratio of the two has changed as the public's sweet tooth has come to favor less-sugary treats. 

"I don't necessarily think that things are more delicious when you're completely hit over the head with sugar," said Lani Halliday, owner and baker of New York City's Brutus Bake Shop. Though it shocks people since she's a pastry chef, Halliday said she's likely to skip dessert if a restaurant's options read like "sugar bombs." To her, the best desserts are more complex. "Some of the most beautiful things that I've had, dessert-wise, were incorporating bitterness and creaminess and crunch, and really playing with flavors and textures that aren't just like, hey, this is a thing that's sweet." 

The United States led the world in sugar (and fat) consumption as recently as 2015, but the following year indicated a shift as Americans appeared to be cutting back, with a 15 percent decrease in sweetener consumption from our peak in 1999. Epicurious suggested that the tip toward the "not too sweet" could be a response to previous overindulgence; cupcakes with "heaps of stiff buttercream" boomed through the late 00s. Giant artisanal doughnuts followed. Pastry chefs have noticed a shift over the past few years toward greater complexity, both from their perspective and from diners' interest, and the dessert scene in the United States has incorporated more saltiness, spiciness, and bitterness instead of just sweetness. 

Just look at salted caramel, which has, of course, become inescapable, alongside chocolate chip cookies with fleur de sel or pastries flecked with black pepper. As the New York Times wrote in a year-end retrospective at the time, 2008 was the flavor's "very lucky" year; it had gone from a traditional treat in the French region of Brittany, to an experiment of Parisian pastry chef Pierre Hermé in the late 1990s, to an element of high-end New York menus in the 2000s, to a product of the mass American market via Häagen-Dazs, Starbucks, and Walmart. Interest in the term skyrocketed to a peak in 2017, and salted caramel is now so easy to find that it seems staid and even dated. 

Though sweet and salty have long co-existed in American dessert culture—Cracker Jacks date to 1893, as the Times pointed out—savory desserts have had a moment in recent years. In 2015, market research firm Mintel forecasted a continued rise of sea salt-, olive oil-, and black pepper-flavored ice cream, and by 2018, the addition of mac and cheese or pizza in fancy doughnuts emerged as signs that we'd hit the trend's "peak stupid," as Extra Crispy put it. In a 2019 report, market research firm Datassential concluded that "some of the fastest-growing dessert terms and ingredients on American menus were salty or savory, including pretzels, olive oil, and bacon." 

Though salty has certainly made a play for sweet's reign, the growing integration of ingredients from around the world might also account for the break from sugar's unchecked dominance in the United States: According to Datassential's report, the surge in savory desserts coincided with the rising emergence of "globally influenced" ones. 

While American dessert flavors classically mirror the stripes of Neapolitan ice cream—heavy on chocolate, fruit, and vanilla—Asian desserts often use ingredients like beans, tea, and sesame, with less pronounced sugar. The same report that found Americans led the world in sugar consumption found that India, Israel, Indonesia, and China ate the least amount of sugar. Outside the classic "American" image of dessert, "not too sweet" is a more foundational idea. It's a common refrain in the Asian diaspora that calling a dessert "not too sweet" is the peak form of praise. 

"It would be a compliment because that means that they find it more enjoyable and more lasting, and they can eat more of it," said San Francisco-based pastry chef Penelope Lao, who runs a dessert pop-up series called "Not Too Sweet." (Still, when Eater explored the proliferation of the subtly sweet fruit cream cakes in Western-style bakeries in Asia and Asian bakeries in the West, it cited research that found no "compelling evidence" of Asian participants as a whole preferring less-sweet foods.)

When Bowl Cut Table, a New York-based collective of eight Asian American women, launched its first dessert variety box last month, the name came easy: "Not Too Sweet," describing a selection that included miso chocolate chip cookies, Swiss rolls with red bean paste, and chiffon cakes flavored with pandan. "We've always kind of joked about how our elder family members… will always talk about dessert that way," said member Tatiana Bautista, who works as an assistant editor at Taste. "Growing up, I always thought it was something that my grandparents said, but after talking to more of my friends about it, it definitely is this common theme."

Lao, who has baked professionally for around 10 years, has noticed a flavor shift in the pastry scene. "I would say dessert is trending more balanced, and definitely pastry chefs are embracing more of the savory aspects of pastry," she said. These more experimental, savory-influenced desserts can push the conventional understanding of the category as only—and at times, cloyingly—sweet. The dessert scene has diversified, and this change, alongside increased mindfulness about nutrition and health, could account for the rising interest in "not too sweet" options. Finding their way into desserts are the tart spice sumac; the Japanese spice mix shichimi togarashi; old faithful black pepper; warming blends of cardamom and coriander; the spice blend za'atar; and more.

From her 20 years in the industry, Halliday has found that, in general, economic expansion has led to evolution in the restaurant scene: When people have more money to dine out, the restaurant industry grows, and pastry programs expand. Accordingly, pastry chefs—frequently seen as more expendable than savory chefs—tend to come and go with budgets. 

Without a designated pastry chef, restaurants might rely on dessert recipes from a consultant or a chef with basic standbys. As a result, she said, they might lean on classics like flourless chocolate cakes and pot de cremes. While those options are beloved for a reason, their conventional flavors don't necessarily expand the idea of dessert.

But, Halliday speculated, when restaurants have the luxury of affording dedicated pastry programs, they can hire more people who are willing to experiment and break from standard dessert offerings. As people from different backgrounds—particularly young people and people of color—enter the industry, they bring different ideas, whether that's through new flavors or expanded notions of "comfort food." To Halliday, the broadening of who's making dessert doesn't just explain the niche's changing flavor profiles, but it also enriches the dining experience. 

"When you open the floor up to ideas and people [have] more opportunities to share their culinary point of view, you're gonna get things that aren't just this traditional 'American' idea—because what is 'American'?—or which is just classic French stuff, essentially, when we're talking about the food world," she said. "When we have new ideas, we get new flavor profiles and more exciting things. It's like more variety, more excitement, and more deliciousness." 

Black Tap milkshakes and other tooth-aching treats will always have their place in the American palate, and dessert will always be the sugary reprieve to the savory meal. Clearly, we need something sweet, but it doesn't have to be too sweet.

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