Sugar: The sweet stuff from A to Z
Updated: Jun 14
In other words: Hey Sweetie, there's more to sugar than the white stuff
Choosing the right sugar for the job can be trying for the uninitiated, but the following primer on sugar types and their uses should help home cooks navigate the amazing array of sugar choices at local stores and online.
“Over the centuries, cultures all over the world discovered new varieties of and uses for sugar, and today pastry chefs use different sugar types for different effects.”
Ed Lee, owner and pastry chef at St. Louis' Mélange, described his favorite sugar as “real live brown sugar.” Lee explained that much of the brown sugar we buy in the grocery store is refined white sugar flavored with molasses. The sugar Lee uses is a specialty brown sugar he found when he lived in Canada called Billington’s Dark Brown Molasses Sugar.
When he returned to the United States, he had to search to find it to use in his confections. “The brown sugar I’m talking about has a smoky, caramel flavor,” he said. “I use it in spice cake, and it is easy to make a quick toffee caramel sauce by just adding it to cream, melting it and bringing it to a boil.” Lee said people do not believe it when he tells them that there really is not much sugar in good desserts, but he insisted that if you use good ingredients, you do not need much. “If you are going to have dessert, you should have the good stuff,” he added when talking about his preference for using special sugars instead of the everyday.
Caster or superfine sugar
If you are a fan of any British cooking shows (“Nigella Bites” is my favorite), you may have heard the term caster sugar. This is a finer-grained version of the white granulated sugar we use in the United States. If you find a recipe using caster sugar, put white granulated sugar in your food processor and pulse a few times. This will process the sugar into a superfine version – and save you a little money at the same time; buying it at a specialty store will cost more for the same thing. Patrick Thirion, executive chef at St. Louis' Nadoz, said, “Granulated sugar can weigh down cakes. Superfine helps in the baking process. It dissolves easier and has better texture. It’s the sugar I use the most.”
“It’s the look of shining your headlights into the snow,” said Tim Brennan, owner of Cravings Gourmet Desserts in St. Louis, when describing crystal sugar. Crystal sugar is granulated white sugar, simply cut into larger crystals. If superfine sugar is the small end of the crystal-size spectrum, crystal sugar is the big end. Brennan likes both the unique reflection of light that crystal sugar adds as well as the mouth-feel. “It’s important to have layers of texture in food,” he said. “A moist muffin is great with the added sweet crunch of crystal sugar on top.” Crystal sugar is used in cookies, muffins and boule de neige, a dome-shaped French dessert, which translates to “ball of snow.”
Also known as fruit sugar, this version of sugar is often used by diabetics since it does not affect blood sugar quite as dramatically as common granulated sugar. You can find it with the special dietary foods in the grocery store. Chef George Guthier of at St. Louis' L’Ecole Culinaire uses fructose to make candies. “Fructose makes products moist longer,” he said. “It doesn’t crystallize, so it works well for gelées and sculptures.”
Jaggery sugar is popular in southern and southeastern Asia. It is a coarse, unrefined sugar made from sugar cane juice. It is commonly found in a cake form and can range from crumbly to rock hard. It has a tan color and can be found in Indian grocery stores.
Liquid invert sugar
As a home cook, you will probably never hear the term liquid invert sugar, but restaurant and food-industry types are familiar with it. “Invert sugar is created by combining a sugar syrup with a small amount of acid, like cream of tartar or lemon juice, and heating,” said Lee. The mixture is used in producing soft drinks but also can be used in dessert making and canning. Lee uses liquid invert sugar in chocolate desserts and to stabilize his pot de crème. Lee said, “It creates a silky, smooth texture you don’t get with regular sugar.”
Maltose is also referred to as malt sugar. This sugar is important for use in the fermentation of alcohol and is used in the production of beer. It can sometimes be found in Asian markets. Guthier said it is very important for yeast production. “If you are interested in making artisan breads, maltose sugar is something you should have. It also can be called dry malt.”
Piloncillo is an unrefined brown sugar made in Mexico that is pressed into a cone shape (much like a traditional sugar cube) and is used to sweeten Mexican drinks and desserts. It has a molasses-like taste, and the name actually translates to “little pillar.” If you see it in a recipe and can’t find it, you may substitute one cup of brown sugar mixed with two tablespoons of molasses for a close match. You can find piloncillo in Latin and specialty grocery stores.
“Turbinado is my favorite sugar,” said Carolyn Downs, owner/pastry chef of St. Louis' Cyrano’s. “I use it in my crème brûlée , with any kind of puff pastry, and it is a major component in my shortbread cookies.” Downs said the home cook may have had trouble finding turbinado sugar in local stores five years ago, but it is common these days and can be found at the supermarket. “It’s also called sugar in the raw. It has the same texture as kosher salt, but it is brown and very crystal-looking.”
Turbinado is made from the first pressing of the sugar cane, allowing some natural molasses to remain in the sugar crystals. She said it caramelizes perfectly on crème brûlée and has a beautiful golden look and crunch. Downs uses up to six kinds of sugars in her role as pastry chef at Cyrano’s but raved about turbinado. “It is just beautiful. Way better than brown!”
Palm sugar is made from the sap of various palm trees. It is often found in a disc form and is sometimes called coconut sugar. Palm sugar is most commonly found in Asian and Indian markets and is sold in logs, tubs and cans.
Vanilla, muscovado and pearl sugars
For an intensely flavored sugar, Anne Cori, owner of St. Louis' Kitchen Conservatory, recommended making your own vanilla sugar. “You can buy it – Penzey’s sells a really good one – but it’s so easy to make.” Cori said many recipes call for letting a vanilla bean sit in sugar for weeks to allow the vanilla flavor to sink into the sugar, but she suggested a faster method. “You can just grind up the vanilla bean in the food processor. Depending upon the intensity you want, you mix the sugar with the vanilla bean. This mix will add a burst of vanilla taste wherever you use it. I roll cookies in it.”
Cori remarked that people often come into Kitchen Conservatory looking for unique sugars. “Martha Stewart is notorious for using sugars in recipes that you just can’t easily find … muscovado or pearl sugar, for example.” Muscovado is a raw, unrefined sugar with a strong molasses flavor. Pearl sugar is a decorative sugar that is white, like the salt on pretzels. Pearl sugar is also referred to as decorative or sanding sugar.
Look for Zuckerhut in German markets. It is a cone of shaped sugar. During Christmas and New Year’s holiday celebrations, Germans pour rum over the cones and ignite them to make Feuerzangebowle, or fire tong punch. The melted sugar cone is added to a mix of red wine, oranges, rum, cinnamon and cloves, sweetening the punch.
When it comes to sugar, force yourself to think outside the bowl; with so many varieties so easily available, there’s no reason to use only the same old white stuff.
—Originally published in Sauce Magazine