One of nature’s oldest sweeteners, sugar has a long history and many modern variations. Whether you’re a budding baker or you have an insatiable sweet tooth, you’re in for a real treat.
1. A Brief History
Cane sugar – the original sugar, if you will – has been around for ages. The earliest indications of the domestication of sugarcane were around 8000 B.C. in what is now Papua New Guinea, where the indigenous people are believed to have chewed it raw. Around 4000 B.C., the sugarcane plant was first processed into cane juice in areas that correspond to present-day Papua New Guinea, Thailand and southern China, but it wasn’t until sometime between the first century B.C. and the first century A.D. that India discovered how to crystallize the juice by boiling it and subsequently began the first organized production of sugar. The sugarcane plant then headed due west to the Middle East and northern Africa during the Middle Ages, finally leapfrogging to the West Indies and tropical regions of the Americas during the 17th century. Like the best group projects, every region’s people worked to further enhance and refine the cultivation and production of sugar as it spread across the globe.
Approximately a century later, an industrious German realized that beets contain almost the same amount of sucrose by weight as sugarcane and that by using a slightly different processing method, the sucrose in beets could be extracted and crystallized to produce cane sugar’s chemical twin. Beet sugar hit markets in 1783, kick-starting the sugar industry in Europe – which had largely missed out on the sugar rush up until that point due to its climate.
Sugar didn’t achieve world domination until the 19th and 20th centuries. Suddenly, sugar was everywhere: easy to get and easy to use thanks to massive streamlining in sugar production and distribution. Worldwide, beet sugar accounts for 30 percent of the sugar market, but in the U.S., it makes up 60 percent of the sugar on our shelves.
2. Cane Sugar vs. Beet Sugar
Chemically, cane sugar and beet sugar are identical. Both are 100 percent pure crystallized sucrose once processed, so the plant it came from is mostly irrelevant. That said, professional tasters can detect the difference in flavor; beet sugar has an earthier flavor with a bite at the end while cane sugar is fruitier with more of a sweet finish.
To achieve its pure white color, cane sugar is processed with bone char from cattle – a deal-breaker for some. Beet sugar, on the other hand, can’t become brown sugar without a little help from cane sugar-derived molasses, which some say changes the moisture level and texture of the final product – and not in a good way.
3. Home Sweet Home
Looking to surprise your sweet tooth? These unconventional sugars bring something new to the kitchen.
The World Travelers
Light or dark in color, jaggery is an unrefined cane sugar often combined with date or palm sap and set in molds. It’s less readily available outside of the regions where it’s produced, including India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan, but if you can snag some, you’ll surely enjoy its floral vanilla flavor with hints of caramel.
Japanese kokuto, an unrefined sugar made from slow-cooking cane juice, is touted as “the world’s healthiest brown sugar.” It’s firm with a sweet, complex flavor.
A partially refined sugar with a hefty molasses flavor, muscovado is dark, coarse and contains more moisture than standard brown sugar. Most of the artisanal muscovadosugars come from the island nation of Mauritius off the east coast of Africa.
Panela – which has different names depending on the country you’re in, from Mexico to Brazil to Chile – is an unrefined sugar with robust caramel flavor. Warm and earthy, it’s set in molds to harden like jaggery.
Coconut sugar comes from the sap of the buds on coconut palms and boasts a flavor similar to light brown sugar.
Dark brown with a sweet butterscotch flavor, date sugar has limited applications because it won’t melt or dissolve in liquid.
If you continue boiling maple sap past the point of syrup, you get maple sugar. It has a sweet, mellow maple flavor, but be careful because it burns easily.
The Exterior Decorators
The crystals of pearl sugar are approximately the size of – you guessed it – pearls. Pure white, this sugar is used for decorating and adding crunch to baked goods, as it won’t melt at regular baking temperatures.
Sanding sugar, or coarse sugar, has large crystals that won’t dissolve with heat, so it’s added to cookies prior to baking or sprinkled on cakes and cupcakes after baking for decoration.
If you polish coarse sugar until it glistens, you get sparkling sugar, which can easily turn treats into art.
4. A Smidgen of Science
From reading cookbooks to mastering kitchen skills, you’ve likely come across the terms “Maillard reaction” and “caramelization,” but do you know the difference between the two?
What is it? Named for French physician and chemist Louis-Camille Maillard, it’s the chemical reaction between amino acids (in other words, proteins) and reducing sugars that occurs during cooking – be it grilling, frying or baking.
What does it do? The Maillard reaction gives instant complexity and depth of flavor to food as well as a “crust” to the finished product. Imagine the crispy exterior of a perfectly grilled steak, the signature crunch of potato chips, the pleasingly burnt edges of a fried egg, the toasty meringue on top of a pie or the dark, robust nature of coffee – that’s the Maillard reaction at work. If you’re cooking tonight, chances are you’ll be using the Maillard reaction to bring a better sensory experience to the table.
What is it? Caramelization is a form of pyrolysis. Put simply, when carbohydrates – the sugars found in starches, fruits and vegetables – are exposed to high temperatures and begin to break down, caramelization occurs, creating all kinds of new flavors, colors, aromas and textures. It’s all about sugar changing forms in a heat-driven environment; caramelization doesn’t require any amino acids to get the job done.
What does it do? Similar to the Maillard reaction, caramelization darkens food and brings forth a complexity and depth of flavor that other cooking methods simply can’t attain. Without caramelization, you wouldn’t have those exquisitely toasted marshmallows for s’mores, and crème brûlée would just be upscale pudding.
5. Orange-Cardamom-Scented Serinakaker
Serinakaker is a classic Norwegian holiday cookie topped with pearl sugar, which adds an unexpected crunch. This version incorporates my favorite flavor combination for this time of year: orange and cardamom. Like nutmeg, freshly ground cardamom is far superior to pre-ground cardamom, so keep a few pods in your pantry to grind up as needed.