All About Sugars, Syrups, Sweeteners, and Sugar Substitutes, and While We're at it, We Debunk Raw Sugar
"A wise woman puts a grain of sugar into everything she says to a man, and takes a grain of salt with everything he says to her." Helen Rowland, journalist and humorist for the New York World
Sugar can do much more than just sweeten food and there are several forms of sugars and sweet syrups used in cooking. If you use too much it can destroy its natural flavor, burying it, turning it into a dessert, a common problem with many barbecue sauces. But when used judiciously sugars can amplify scent and flavor.
When used in a barbecue rub it produces childhood memories of roasted marshmallows mixed with the aroma of sexy smoke and roasted meat. In the mouth it is half the balletic tandem of the sweet/acid balance, a core concept in food and drink. Foods that are too tart can be brought to heel with a counter balance of sweetness. The most obvious examples are Chinese sweet and sour dishes. Take the sugar out of sweet and sour pork and it is inedible. Take the vinegar out, and it makes your teeth squeak. This sweet sour tango is what makes most barbecue sauces a treat. Sugar can also do the delicate dance with salt that makes sweet ketchup love salty French fries and honey glazes the perfect pair for salty hams. So it is handy to remember that when the tomato sauce is too tart, when your hand slips as you are pouring the salt into the pot, a sweetener can't remove the excess acidity or salt, but it can balance them and bring harmony to the world.
Plain old granulated white sugar is flavorless in its raw state, but all the other forms of sugar have their own unique song to sing. Sometimes substituting one for another in cooking can yield delightful results. Other times, disaster. One of sugar's best features is that, when heated, the chemistry changes and it caramelizes, creating hundreds of tasty new compounds. Even a very light sprinkling of sugar on the surface of a pork chop can react with the protein and help the surface brown and create a marvelous crust. Click here to read more about caramelization and it's cousin the Maillard reaction and here to read more about crust and bark formation. Sugar can also make a shiny glaze. Click here to find the recipe for a classy glaze for pork or ham.
Most sugars have long shelf lives and do not need refrigeration and when there is enough in a sauce, jam, or jelly it can act as a preservative and microbial inhibitor. They can even delay discoloration of some products that oxidize easily. Of course sugar is essential in baking where it feeds yeast for leavening, absorbs moisture, helps gases to form and cake batters to rise, impacts texture and crumb, and combines elegantly with eggs.
And then there is candy. Candy making is an art and one of these days I'll write more about it, but for now I have included a table of the different stages that sugar goes through when heated in the candy making process at the bottom of this page.
There is a lot of misinformation out there about sugar. I'll not get into the gory details, but it can be safely said that the best scientists agree that all forms of sugar pack a lot of calories and have little nutritional value, but what is often overlooked is that they can be used to make nutritious foods more palatable. Don't like veggies? You haven't tasted my honeyed carrot coins. In large quantities, all forms of sugar can be unhealthy, but there is not any hard evidence that any one form is significantly better or worse if used in moderate quantities. Yes, raw sugar has a few more nutrients than white sugar, but so few as to be negligible.
Fruits and vegetables
Sugar is found naturally in many foods, especially fruits and vegetables. All green plants produce sugar from sunlight and nutrients from soil during photosynthesis. When ripe, practically all fruits are loaded with sugar. But fruits bring acidity, so be careful when using apples, for instance, to balance something that is too tart, like cole slaw. They can really enliven a salad, but be aware of the vinegar in the dressing and cut back to allow for the acid in the fruit.
Midsummer corn, especially the new hybrids, is loaded with sugars and starches that turn sweet in your mouth. Onions start out sharp and piquant, but the chemistry changes when it wilts under heat and they can get quite sweet when grilled or slowly fried in a pan. Caramelized onions on a burger or a steak? Can I hear an amen?
Granulated and powdered sugars
- Regular white granulated sugar a.k.a. lump sugar a.k.a. cane sugar.
- Sugar is 99.9% sucrose, a disaccharide (C12H22O11), of two simpler sugars, saccharides, glucose and fructose in roughly equal amounts. Grocery store sugar is usually made from sugar cane or beets. Most comes from sugar cane, a 6 to 15' tall woody grass that grows rapidly in warm climates. The cane fields are harvested, some by machete, some by machine. At the mill the cane is crushed and milled to press out the juice. About 15% sugar, it is then treated with sulfur dioxide and chemicals like lime to clarify and bleach it. It is boiled to a concentrate, spun at high speeds through a centrifuge to separate the crystals and the molasses. Not all the molasses can be removed at this stage so what remains is raw sugar (see below). The raw sugar can then be bagged and sold, or go through a series of steps called affination, or refining, where it is washed, melted into a syrup, filtered, treated with chemicals, boiled until it forms white crystals, and then dried. The process for beets is similar. They are harvested, cleaned, sliced into strips like French fries, and then handled much the same as cane syrup.
- Confectioner's sugar, powdered sugar, icing sugar, baker's sugar, bar sugar, superfine, and ultrafine.
- This is simply white sugar that has been ground into a fine powder. You can make your own by grinding white sugar. There are different degrees of fineness such as XXX, XXXX, and 10X. The more Xs the finer.
- Dark brown from molasses, Sucranat is the trade name for sugar made by boiling cane juice until it forms crystals.
- Raw sugar, muscovado, Barbados, demerara and turbinado.
- Raw sugars are about 96 to 98% sucrose. The remainder is a thin brown coating of molasses, water, plant material, minerals, and other nonsugars. As you can see from the process of making white sugar, raw sugar is far from raw! It goes through a lot of machinery and chemicals. Only the final affination steps are skipped so the idea that this is somehow wholesome and close to nature is a sweet lie. And since it goes through only slightly less machinery and chemistry than white sugar, the only explanation for it's higher price is that marketers are taking advantage of misguided buyers. Yet another myth busted.
- Brown sugar.
- Brown sugar is not, as many people think, a raw form or unrefined sugar. It is, in fact, just regular granulated white sugar with molasses added back. This allows manufacturers to make them consistent. Dark brown sugar has about 6.5% molasses added, and light brown sugar has about 3.5% molasses. Like the raw sugars, they are moist and tend to clump. If you don't have brown sugar and a recipe calls for it, you can make something close:
1 cup white granulated sugar + 2 tablespoons molasses = dark brown sugar
1 cup white granulated sugar + 1 tablespoon molasses = light brown sugar
Is made by heating sugar gently, often with a little water or dairy, until it melts and starts to turn dark. In the process it can go from pale straw to amber to golden to brown increasing in intensity as it goes, as shown at the top of the page and at right. The process is used to make hard candy, caramel candy, crme brulee, and many other confections.
Muscovado, sometimes called Barbados sugar, is a dark brown raw cane sugar that has a significant amount of molasses on the surface. It is moist and slightly sticky. The molasses gives it a deeper, richer, nuttier flavor than plain sugar. Demerara and turbinado also have molasses on them but there is not as much and they are paler, blonde, and not as strong. The exact amount of molasses varies significantly from producer to producer, so using them in cooking is tricky since the same recipe can turn out differently each time. Brown sugars are better for cooking because they are more consistent. Because they are all slightly moist they tend to clump.
- Simple syrup.
- Use by bartenders, this is an equal amount by volume of sugar mixed with water.
- True honey is made by honey bees from nectar, the sugary liquid found in some flowers. It is one of the miracles of nature because, in the process, the bees get coated with pollen that they carry from flower to flower and enable them to reproduce. They digest the nectar and regurgitate honey into wax cells in the hive called honeycombs where it is used for food. Most honeybees live in man made hives so the honey can be easily harvested, and many beekeepers truck their hives to orchards and other agricultural areas where they are paid to pollinate. But bees make far more than they need, so we get to steal some. Beekeepers collect the honey by blowing smoke into the hives which makes the bees less aggressive. They then open the hive and remove the combs. The combs are melted, the honey drains away and it can be bottled without any treatment. Pure and natural. Some honeys are heated to pasteurize them to improve shelf life. Some are filtered to remove any remaining pollen and allergens.
- Honey is composed of mostly fructose and glucose, and has about the same sweetness as white granulated sugar. It can vary significantly in color and flavor depending on the predominant flower in their diets. Clover, orange blossom, buckwheat are common varieties. After it sits idle for months it can crystallize. Submerging the bottle in warm water can melt the crystals and restore it to its natural thick liquid form.
- Occasionally honey has tiny amounts of dormant forms of the botulism bacterium, so it is recommended that it not be fed to infants. It is an important cooking ingredient and can be used in baking, sauces, drinks, and salad dressings. Try it drizzled over fried chicken, cornbread, pancakes, and hush puppies.
- Cane syrups (a.k.a. treacle).
- Sugar cane is used to make several sweet syrups. Molasses is the most common. Known as treacle in the UK, production was introduced to the West Indies by Columbus in 1493, and shortly thereafter, rum was created by fermenting the stuff. Molasses and rum later became vital trade commodities of the American Colonies and historians tell us that the British Molasses Act of 1733 was every bit as inflammatory as the tax on tea. Molasses was the most popular sweetener through World War I when the cost of granulated sugar fell. In Boston, on January 15, 1919, a tank holding millions of gallons of hot molasses cracked and flooded part of the city. The wave of sticky stuff killed 21 people, injured more than 100, and did millions of dollars in damage. It is known as The Great Molasses Flood of 1919. There are three types of molasses, light, dark, and blackstrap.
- Light molasses.
- Molasses is made by crushing sugar cane (and to a lesser extent, sugar beets), and extracting the sweet juice. It is then boiled and reduced until thick. After clarifying, this straight cane syrup, called light molasses, is the purest. It is rich, and sweet, with a hint of bitterness. I use Grandma's Original Molasses in many recipes, the one with the yellow label. It is amber in color, complex, and has just a hint of buttery flavor and a kiss of bitterness.
- Dark molasses.
- After crystallized table sugar is extracted from the juice, usually by high speed spinning in a centrifuge, it can be boiled again, creating dark molasses, occasionally called first molasses. When I want a more robust flavor, I use Grandma's Robust Molasses, with the green label. It is a dark molasses with a rich, musky, with a distinct bitterness and a slightly burnt taste. I use it in many of my barbecue sauces, especially my Kansas City Classic.
- Blackstrap molasses.
- Further rounds of boiling and extraction yields second molasses, and then blackstrap molasses. Each reduction is less sweet, less pure, and more flavorful. Blackstrap is said to be the most nutritionally valuable and is often sold as a health supplement. It is also often used as cattle feed, and I rarely use it in cooking. Some molasses is treated with sulfur to aid in the sugar extraction and are so labeled. I prefer the unsulfured.
- Lyle's Golden Syrup
- is also a cane syrup, made with an enzyme called invertase to create what is called an inverted sugar. First created in 1883, Lyle's is honeylike in color and consistency and has an elegant butterscotch character. It is required on English muffins, and wonderful on toast, and waffles, and it makes a fine glaze for ribs, but is too expensive for use in making sauces.
- Steen's Pure Cane Syrup
- is a very nice, molasses-like syrup made from sugar cane. It is a bit darker than Grandma's Golden Molasses, more robust, less sweet, and less bitter.
- Pancake syrup
- is usually made from high fructose corn syrup with artificial maple flavoring. Once you've tasted the real deal, there's no going back.
- Sweet sorghum syrup
- is a thick, sweet, dark syrup that looks and tastes a lot like molasses, and it is even sometimes erroneously called sorghum molasses. It is made from a heat and drought tolerant grass named sorghum grown in warm climates. You can use it in place of molasses in most recipes and visa versa.
- Agave nectar.
- Agave nectar is a sweet pale amber syrup collected from agave plant, a spiky succulent found in warm climates like Mexico. It is not as thick as honey, but it is a little sweeter. It is usually more than 50% fructose, more than high fructose corn syrup. The leaves are cut from the core of the plant, the nectar is squeezed out, heated, filtered, and bottled.
- Apple cider molasses.
- This a rarity, but it has some wonderful nuances and is really worth seeking out. It is especially good in baked goods. According to the owners, John and Carolyn Loveland, apples were plentiful and sugar was not during colonial times, so resourceful cooks made molasses from apple cider by cooking it down. It takes 10 gallons of cider to make 1 gallon of the syrup (technically it is not a true molasses), and they bottle it with no additives, flavorings, or preservatives. To my knowledge, Allens Hill Farm near Rochester, NY, the only producer left. They also make apple cinnamon syrup, a smoky apple glaze, and a spiced apple glaze. I visited them in 2006 and was very impressed with the syrups and the baked goods they made with them.
- Corn syrups.
- I have created a separate page to discuss the facts about these controversial sweeteners.
Maple syrup. Real maple syrup is expensive and it is worth every penny. No imitation pancake syrup I have tasted even comes close. The real thing is made by drilling a hole in the side of sugar maple trees in cold climates in early spring, gathering the watery sap, and then boiling it to reduce it into a thick syrup. Vermont, Maine, and New York are the three largest producing states.
There are two major grades, Grade A and Grade B. Grade A has three subgrades: Grade A Light Amber (a.k.a. "Fancy"), Grade A Medium Amber, and Grade A Dark Amber. Grade B is darker than Grade A Dark Amber. Usually the paler the color the more delicate the flavor and the higher the price. I prefer bigger bolder, richer flavor of the darkest grade, Grade B.
Other good sweeteners
- Hoisin sauce.
- Called Chinese barbecue sauce or Chinese ketchup, hoisin sauce bears no resemblance to either, other than Chinese cooks use it a lot. If you don't think you've tasted it, chances are you have. This is the wonderful sweet glossy brown glop that you swab on the thin pancakes when you eat Peking Duck or Mu Shu pork. I use it in my recipes Hoisinful Nine Dragon Ribs and Chinatown Char Siu Ribs. This most excellent condiment is made from soybeans, vinegar, rice, salt, flour, garlic, and chili peppers. Lee Kum Kee brand is probably the most popular and the brand I use. If you have trouble finding it in your grocery store, try. Amazon.com I prefer the squeeze bottles.
- Jams & jellies.
- Jams and jellies are usually made from sweet ripe fruits with lots of sugar, and they are among the first sweeteners you should reach for when formulating your own super secret house barbecue sauce. They have the added benefit of thickening sauces.
- Juice concentrates.
- Orange juice concentrate, apple juice concentrate, grape juice concentrate, can all add both sweetness and flavor.
- Caramelized onions.
- As strange as it may seem, when cooked onions get sweet. Throw a little butter in a pan, slice up some onions, and slowly let them simmer for perhaps an hour and you have caramelized onions. Of course they deserve a seat of prominence on hot dogs and hamburgers, but they can be mixed in with pulled pork and many other dishes as a sweetener.
- Tomato paste.
- Ripe tomatoes are sweet, and when you concentrate them by cooking them down to a burly paste, you have a sweetener. Next time you tomato sauce or spaghetti sauce tastes too tart, add some tomato paste. It can't reduce the acidity, but it can hide it.
- Kansas City barbecue sauce.
- This is the great red sauce that Americans think of first when the word barbecue sauce is mentioned, but if you haven't discovered it yet, there are many other rapturous other styles from around the nation based variously on vinegar and even mustard. But the thick red variant is widely called Kansas City style because it was perfected there, and it is often made with a heavy hand on the molasses. Grind up some beef, cook it in a pan, give it a shower of KC sauce, and it's Sloppy Joe time. Heck, it even makes ground turkey into something palatable: Sloppy Tom. Mix a splash in your next Bloody Mary, or just about anything that calls for tomato paste.
- Liqueurs and cordials.
- A sure fire way to add sophistication to a dish is with a splash of amaretto, Galliano, Kahlua, and my favorite, raspberry liquer. Just beware that too much can make a dish boozy and it is almost always a good idea to cook off most of the alcohol. I know this sounds sissy, but booze can really mask flavors and dominate a dish.
There are a number of sugar substitutes on the market. Most are used in "diet" beverages because, although they taste sweet, because they are very different in chemical composition and as a result they do not react in the same way as sugars when cooked. My friends who bake recommend that you do not replace all the sugar with a substitute, but try using half sugar and half artificial sweetener. DiabeticLivingOnline.com says "We have the most success with baking blends, such as Splenda Sugar Blend or C&H Light, and limited success with other brands, depending on the length of cooking or baking time. Splenda Granular has proved successful in many recipes, and we have some success with Sweet'N Low, Truvia, and Equal."
There is controversy over the health risks of using them in large quantities or over many years, but most research has determined them to be safe in moderation.
- Best known as Splenda, this is the rare artificial sweetener that retains its sweetness when heated and when mixed with liquids of different pH so it makes an acceptable sugar substitute in cooking some foods. My baker friends tell me that it does not perform well in baked goods but my wife has made very nice macaroons with it. It does not caramelize like sugar.
- Best known as Sweet'N Low, it was first produced in 1878 this is the oldest artificial sweetener. I am told it works well in cooking.
- Best known as NutraSweet and Equal, it is not very good for cooking because it can lose its sweetness when heated.
- . Best known as Truvia, it is extracted from plants and it was approved in the US in 2008.
As sugar heats, the water in its chemistry boils off and it goes through stages of concentration that candy makers need to know. Experienced candy makers use a good digital thermometer and the cold water test. To do a cold water test, use a spoon to portion a few drops of the syrup into a small bowl of ice water. Each step along the way is given a name. Note that caramels and caramelization are not the same. Caramels are chewy confections made from sugar, dairy, and usually corn syrup. The brown color comes from the Maillard reaction and occurs ar about 245°F. Caramelization is another reaction that occurs at about 338°F. One word of caution: Be very careful in working with melted sugar. It retains its heat tenaciously, and a splatter on your arm can produce a serious burn. Get some in your eyes and you'd better start learning braille.
|Temp (F)||Makes||Stage||Cold water test|
|230-234||Syrup||Thread||Pulls into threads but will not form a ball|
|235-240||Fudge, pralines||Soft ball||Forms a soft ball that will flatten|
|244-248||Caramels||Firm ball||Forms a firm ball that will not flatten|
|250-266||Gummies, rock, nougat||Hard ball||Forms a hard ball that is still stretchy|
|270-290||Taffy, butterscotch||Soft crack||Separates into threads that are not brittle|
|300-310||Brittles, toffee, lolliepops||Hard crack||Separates into threads that are hard and brittle|
|320-338||Caramel liquid||Clear liquid||Liquifies and turns light amber in color|
|338-345||Dark caramel liquid||Brown liquid||Turns brown in color|
|350+||Burnt marshmallows||Burnt||Turns black and bitter|