What Is Agave Nectar?

Your Guide to Using Agave Nectar in Food and Drinks

Agave Nectar
Agave nectar. sf_foodphoto/E+/Getty Images

Agave nectar, or agave syrup, is a common and natural sweetener used in food and drinks. It is often used as a substitute for sugar, simple syrup, honey, and molasses to sweeten cocktails, tea, and coffee. It has also become a popular alternative for baked goods, sauces, and even dressings.

Agave nectar is a common alternative sweetener for vegans when used instead of honey. Some people also prefer it because it is lower on the glycemic index than sugar.

The flavor of agave nectar is unique. It is sweeter than sugar and most similar to honey, though it does have a more neutral flavor than honey and is thinner. It lacks the bitter aftertaste of artificial sweeteners. Overall, it's a great option for many of your favorite foods and drinks.

Agave nectar is widely popular and can be found in many grocery stores. You can often find it with other sweeteners or in the natural foods section at most grocers.

Is Agave Nectar a Healthy Sweetener?

While agave nectar is often touted as a "healthy" sweetener, this is not necessarily true. People with diabetes and other health concerns often turn to it as a sugar substitute, but it is a good idea to use it in moderation, if at all.

The reason for this is complicated and goes deep into nutritional science. Agave nectar is lower on the glycemic index than refined sugar. This means that it will affect your blood sugar more slowly than refined sugar.

However, agave nectar is 90 percent fructose and too much fructose can raise triglycerides and affect insulin.

The claims that agave nectar is a healthier sweetener are a matter of debate. It is a nice alternative to sugar and other sweeteners, just not necessarily a healthier option in the overall scheme of things.

If you have special dietary concerns, it is best to speak with your doctor or a dietitian.

How Is Agave Nectar Made?

Agave nectar is made from the juice of the agave plant. As in the production of the production of tequila, agave nectar typically begins with 7- to 10-year-old agave plants in Mexico from which the piñas are harvested.

The juice, or sap, is extracted from the piña, filtered, then heated slowly at low temperatures until the carbohydrates are broken down into sugar. "Raw" agave nectar is that which has been heated to no more than 117 F.

Also like tequila, some of the best agave nectars are the products of the blue agave and labels will clearly state if that nectar is "100% Blue Agave." There are also "certificate of origin" laws for agave nectar, though that is where the similarities with tequila end. Agave nectar is alcohol-free.

Different Grades of Agave Nectar

Similar to other syrups, agave nectar is available in a range of color and flavor intensities. The lighter grades look similar to simple syrup. These are best for lightly flavored cocktails like the rosangel margarita and vodka sour because the flavor is almost transparent.

The dark agave nectars have a stronger flavor, near the intensity of honey.

Those can be mixed with strong flavored drinks such as dulce de tequila and many of your fruity margaritas. The darkest nectar is likened to light molasses.

Similarly, pair the dark and light agave nectars appropriately with your baked goods. For instance, a dark agave nectar is good for dark desserts like brownies, chocolate cakes, and recipes like these chocolate-topped oatmeal bars. A light agave nectar can be used for lighter baking needs such as cheesecakes.

Adjusting Agave Nectar to Taste

If agave nectar is too sweet for you, you may want to water it down. Do this by mixing the nectar and distilled water at a 1:1 ratio (or slightly less water) and stirring until it is thoroughly mixed. You can also heat it slowly to thicken it back up, but this is usually unnecessary.

Some recipes will ask you to mix the agave nectar with another liquid such as the borrachon cocktail.

This one uses balsamic vinegar and nectar to create a very interesting syrup.

Agave nectar can also be infused with flavor in a manner similar to flavored simple syrups. Some flavorings, such as cinnamon, can simply be mixed into (ground cinnamon) or infused into (cinnamon sticks) a desired amount of nectar. Drinks like the homecoming caipirinha rely on this.

Vanilla is another great option. You can either mix in a small amount (1 teaspoon or so depending on the volume) of vanilla extract or do an infusion with a whole vanilla bean. Place a vanilla bean in your agave nectar for about one month to get a full flavor.

Another option is to use a water infusion method similar to this spa nectar to ensure a full flavor.

Agave Nectar Cocktails and Mixed Drinks

Agave nectar can be used in any mixed drink that calls for any other drink sweetener. Some recipes call for it specifically.

It is an ideal sweetener for tequila cocktails because the two agave products are natural companions. This means that you can use in cocktails like the jalapeño margaritaDanny OceanGuadalajaratequiliano, and papaya smash.

Agave nectar also pairs nicely with most other distilled spirits. For instance, it is used with rum in the daiquir-ease and with whiskey in the hot buttered whiskey or hot cinn apple toddy. It is used in many vodka cocktails such as the summertime fruit punch lemonade and the celery cup no. 1. You can even use it to sweeten gin cocktails as we see in the Soho cocktail and Union Square recipes.

It's not all about the alcohol, either. The autumnal temptations recipe is a perfect example of how well agave nectar works in mocktails. You can even make fresh-squeezed lemonade using agave nectar rather than sugar or simple syrup.

Substituting Agave Nectar for Simple Syrup in Drinks

Agave nectar is said to be 1 1/2 times sweeter than sugar and it can be used in almost any drink that calls for simple syrup. The recipe needs to be adapted to make up for that additional sweetness.

It is usually best to cut the amount of syrup by 1/2 to 1/4 of that suggested when using agave nectar.

For example, if a recipe asks for 1 tablespoon of simple syrup, you would use 1/2 to 3/4 tablespoon of agave nectar, depending on your personal taste.

Baking and Cooking With Agave Nectar

The uses of agave nectar can extend into food as well. It's most common use is in baked goods, though you can also find it in recipes for certain dressings and sauces as well. If your recipe calls for something other than agave nectar, you will need to make adjustments.

Agave nectar is a liquid sweetener, so the easiest recipe substitutions in food are those in which it replaces another liquid such as honey, molasses, simple syrup, or corn syrup. If you're going to use it instead of dry cane sugar, then you will need to make further adjustments to the recipe.

It's important to understand that desserts made with agave nectar, particularly dark agave nectar, will naturally be darker than normal. Keep this in mind if you're looking for that "golden brown" look while baking.

Agave Nectar Substitutions in Food Recipes

Modifying a recipe for agave nectar does take a little experimentation, though there are some standards that will help you out. In general, you will use a 2:3 substitution for most sweeteners (for every cup, use 2/3 cup of agave nectar). When substituting it for some sweeteners, you will have to adjust the recipe's liquid ingredients as well.

Recommended substitutions include:

  • Agave nectar instead of dry white cane sugar: For 1 cup of sugar, use 2/3 cup agave nectar. Reduce the other liquids by 1/4 to 1/3 cup. Reduce the oven temperature by 25 F and you may also need to increase baking time slightly. Watch carefully, especially at the end.
  • Agave nectar instead of brown sugar: For 1 cup of brown sugar, use 2/3 cup agave nectar. Reduce other liquids by 2 tablespoons. Use the same time and temperature adjustments as white sugar.
  • Agave nectar instead of honey or molasses: Use the same amount of agave nectar as called for in the recipe.
  • Agave nectar instead of corn syrup: For 1 cup of corn syrup, use 1/2 cup agave nectar. Increase other liquid ingredients by 1/3 cup.
  • Agave nectar instead of brown rice syrup: For 1 cup brown rice syrup, use 1/2 cup agave nectar. Increase other liquid ingredients by 1/2 cup.

4 Tips for Successful Agave Nectar Substitutions

Substituting ingredients in a food recipe, especially baked goods, always comes with a few risks. Here are a few tips that you may find helpful.

  1. If you're new to the recipe, make it with the original sweetener first. This will give you an idea for the texture and taste that is your target so you can gauge how well your agave nectar substitute worked out.
  2. Agave nectar desserts tend to be a little stickier when fresh out of the oven. It's best to use parchment paper when baking. The stickiness dissipates as the food cools, though, so this effect is only temporary.
  3. Bake or refrigerate your dough and batters immediately after mixing. The fats of agave nectar can cause separation, but you can help prevent this by not allowing it to sit out at room temperature.
  4. When making cookies or cakes, keep some of the recipe's original sugars. You'll find it best to substitute only 1/3 to 1/2 of the total sugars with agave nectar.