Agave nectar (also called agave syrup) is a natural sweetener made from several species of the agave plant. It’s been making a splash in the culinary world because of its healthy properties and low glycemic index. And it's showing up more and more frequently on restaurant and cocktail menus, in bottled drinks, and in a wide variety of other products.
The agave plant has been cultivated in Mexico for centuries, but agaves also grow in the southern and western United States and in Central and South America. The ancient Aztecs considered the agave plant to be sacred and used the nectar from the plant to flavor their food and drink. They also made a fermented beverage from the agave plant, but when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th century, they began to distill this agave drink to produce what we now know as tequila.
Besides being used to make tequila, agave nectar has become increasingly popular in recent years as a natural sweetener. It consists primarily of fructose (about 90%) with a smaller amount of glucose. Because it consists primarily of fructose, the sugar that occurs naturally in fruits and vegetables, it has a lower glycemic index and glycemic load as compared to table sugar (sucrose). This means that it doesn’t cause an unhealthy spike in insulin levels which can lead to insulin resistance and conditions such as diabetes. In addition, the nectar is natural without any chemical processing and it doesn’t have the aftertaste associated with many artificial sweeteners. It also is sweeter than table sugar (about 1 and a half times), so less in needed in recipes, making agave nectar a good alternative for anyone who is watching their carbohydrate intake. It works well as a sweetener in beverages because it dissolves easily, unlike table sugar. It is also a good option for vegans to replace honey. As with any sweetener though, it is a good idea to use it in moderation.
Agave nectars are sold in light, amber, dark, and raw varieties. Light agave nectar is the most versatile and has a mild, neutral flavor. It can be substituted for sugar in almost any type of recipe from drinks to salad dressings, sauces and desserts. Amber and dark agave nectar have a more intense caramel flavor and can be used to flavor foods or drinks or as a substitute for maple syrup. Agave nectar can pretty much be substituted in any recipe that calls for sugar or honey, with a little adjusting. As a general rule of thumb, for every cup of sugar called for in a recipe, replace it with three-quarters of a cup of agave. Also, when baking, lower the oven temperature by about 25 degrees because agave tends to brown more quickly than sugar.
Miso and Agave Marinated Salmon
Makes 4 servings
5 tablespoons sake
5 tablespoons mirin
2 ½ teaspoons grated ginger
1 tablespoon light agave nectar
¼ cup canola or vegetable oil
4 skinless, boneless salmon fillets
Whisk the miso, sake, mirin, ginger, agave nectar, and oil together in a large, shallow bowl. Add the salmon and coat with the marinade. Cover and refrigerate at least a few hours, ideally overnight.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place one oven rack under the broiler and another rack in the center of the oven.
Wipe any excess marinade off the salmon fillets and place them in a baking dish. Bake the salmon on the middle rack to desired doneness, about 8-12 minutes. Then move the dish to the top rack and turn the broiler on. Cook until the top of the fish is nicely browned, 2-3 minutes, keeping a close eye so that it doesn't burn. Serve warm.
Spicy Asian Greens:
2 teaspoons canola oil
2 cloves garlic, thinly minced
Large pinch red pepper flakes
1 bunch Swiss chard or desired greens, washed and cut into chiffonade
2 teaspoons low sodium soy sauce
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1-2 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds for garnish
Heat a medium saute pan over medium heat. Add the oil, garlic, and red pepper flakes. Cook 1-2 minutes then add the greens. Toss the greens to coat with the oil. Cook until wilted, then add the soy sauce and sesame oil. Sprinkle with sesame seeds before serving.
Glazed Baby or Thumbelina Carrots:
1 tablespoon butter
1 bunch baby or Thumbelina carrots, cleaned, trimmed and cut in half
Salt and pepper
1 cup water
½ teaspoon brown sugar
Heat a small saute pan over medium heat. Melt the butter in the pan, then add the carrot halves and saute for a few minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add enough water to just cover the carrots, then partially cover the pan and simmer until the carots are just tender, about 6-8 minutes. Remove the lid and stir in the sugar. Continue to cook another couple of minutes until the liquid is reduced and the carrots are glazed.