Sweetness is the only one of the five basic tastes for which the human brain shows an innate, pre-programmed preference, and for thousands of years the only reasonably pure form of sugar available to our ancestors was the honey produced by bees. Slowly, humankind learned to cultivate crops to satisfy its communal sweet tooth, and the cultivation of sugarcane began in India about four thousand years ago. The tropical climate required by this tall perennial grass (Saccoharum officinarum) meant that Europeans had to import one hundred percent of their sugar supply at great expense-or find a place to grow sugarcane themselves. The European demand for sugar (as well as other tropical fruits and spices) was growing faster than the supply, and the establishment of plantations to produce various tropical food products was one of the primary motivating factors behind European colonialism in the 16th and 17 centuries-it was no accident that Christopher Columbus carried sugarcane cuttings with him on his first voyage. In 1493 he planted the first crop of sugarcane on the island of Hispaniola in what was to be the beginning of a worldwide sugar industry.
Any essay pretentious enough to call itself "All About Sugar" should really be entitled "All About Sugars" in the plural because there are so many types of sugar and so many ways to examine them. Not only do we need to look at the various forms sugar can take in the kitchen, but we also need to understand a little about the chemistry of sugar. Any such inquiry will necessarily require at least a rudimentary understanding of such things as carbohydrates (both simple and complex), saccharides (both mono- and di-), and several chemical cousins including starches and dietary fiber. I'll try to cover all of these topics in an orderly and, I hope, clear and comprehensible manner, and I plan to debunk a common myth or two surrounding everyone's favorite carbohydrates (see, there's that word already) in the process, so please hold all your questions until the end-and no fidgeting in the back row, please.
Before we get all mired up in techno-speak mumbo-jumbo, let's take a non-technical look at the various forms that sugar takes in our kitchens. Every skilled and practiced food writer knows that the best way to captivate and thrill an audience is to divide things up into categories, and who am I to try to rewrite the rules? For the purpose of our discussion, the sugars found in the typical kitchen are divided into two categories: dry sugars and liquid sugars. See, wasn't that thrilling?
When a cook hears the word "sugar," the first thing that comes to mind is the white, granular, crystalline sweet stuff usually purchased in bags with the word "sugar" (go figure) printed in big bold letters. That's the sugar we will begin with.
Granulated sugar, also known as white sugar, often disparagingly referred to as refined sugar, and universally known simply as sugar, has several uses in the kitchen. Aside from its inherent sweetness, it also adds tenderness and color to baked goods, adds volume and stability to egg whites, and acts as a food preservative. In the United States it is commonly available in two forms: fine and superfine (or ultrafine). The only difference between these products is the size of the sugar crystals, and they can be used interchangeably in recipes. Superfine sugar (known as castor sugar in the United Kingdom) has the benefit of dissolving almost instantly, especially in cold mixtures and drinks. As with all pure sugars, it has a shelf-life measured in geological epochs and will keep indefinitely.
The sugar in your sugar bowl and in those little packets in restaurants either came from sugarcane or sugar beets. Since sugar is sugar (well, sugar is actually sucrose, which is actually glucose and fructose, but I promised no technical stuff today so we'll have to get back to that later) the US Food and Drug Administration doesn't require that the source of the sugar be declared on the package. Sugar processed from sugarcane is frequently (but not always) labeled "cane sugar" or "pure cane sugar," and it's a fair bet that sugar not so labeled is derived from sugar beets-maybe. Aside from anecdotal reports from readers of this magnificent recipezine that some beet sugar has an odor of "stinky feet," there is no difference between the two.
Confectioner's, or powdered sugar (icing sugar in the UK) is nothing more than finely ground granulated sugar with about 3 percent cornstarch (cornflour in the UK) added to prevent clumping (forming large chunks in the UK). In the US the fineness of the grind is denoted by a number of Xs, with 4X and 10X (the finest) being the most widely available. Confectioner's sugar may be substituted for an equal amount of granulated sugar by weight, or in the ratio of 1 3/4 measures of confectioner's sugar to 1 measure of granulated by volume.
Be sure to tune in tomorrow so we can explore the mysterious world of brown sugar, learn about the sugar refining process in the process, and witness the first ever use of the words "big, fat, stupid idiots" by your beloved and normally tolerant Chef.
That about covers it for white sugars, or what some misinformed health food zealots sneeringly refer to as "refined" (with a snarl) sugar. These misguided pundits insist that refined sugar is somehow bad for you because it has had all the good stuff removed. To this I say poppycock.
You see, all sugar is refined. It's just a matter of how much refining has been done that determines the color of the end product. All sugar begins as the liquid juices of some plant, usually sugarcane or sugar beets as we have already seen, complete with a small but nonetheless disgusting amount of dirt, insect parts, plant matter, and a veritable plethora of bacteria and yeasts. This mixture is then clarified by the addition of lime, boiled, and reduced until the sugar becomes so concentrated that it forms solid crystals. This sludge is then spun in a centrifuge to remove the liquid (think of your washing machine during the spin cycle) and the result is known as raw sugar. Remember, it still has all the nasty stuff in it at this point, and the US FDA classifies raw sugar as unfit for human consumption, so the next time someone recommends eating raw sugar, be sure to add them to your "People Who Don't Know What They're Talking About" list.
The sugar is further refined and purified with two more cycles of washing, boiling, reducing, and spinning, until the final result is almost 100 percent pure sucrose crystals-sugar. By the way, the liquid that is removed is molasses, and we'll talk more about that later.
Brown sugars are produced by one of two methods. The original procedure eliminated the third washing so that the brown sugar was the result of the second purification process, but no matter how you look at it, it's still just white sugar with a little molasses that hasn't been removed. The second process, and by far the most popular method used these days, is to simply add a little molasses to refined sugar. That's right-most of the brown sugar we buy is really white sugar that has been reunited with some molasses. Molasses derived from sugar beets is foul smelling and tasting and is used only for animal feed, so the brown sugar you buy in the store is almost certainly cane sugar.
The only difference between light and dark brown sugars available in the United States is the amount of molasses that has been added, giving dark brown sugar a stronger flavor. They may be used interchangeably and your choice should be based on your taste preferences. Other types of brown sugars include Demerara (from Guyana), Barbados (from you know where), and Turbinado (from I don't know where). They are all made by allowing some of the natural molasses to remain on the sugar crystals. Jaggery, a sugar from India, is made from the sap of certain palm trees, but it's still the same thing-sugar plus molasses.
So if brown sugar is really nothing more than refined sugar with a little molasses added, what are those people talking about when they preach the evils of refined sugar? Did the raw sugar have something good in it that was removed? Granted, molasses contains small amounts of minerals (so does dirt, you know) but you would have to eat a coma-inducing amount of raw sugar to get your minimum daily allowance of healthy stuff.
So what's wrong with refined sugar? Let's say, just for conversation's sake, that molasses has the ability to cure everything that ails you, and that a small amount of molasses in your diet will lead to a long, healthy, and prosperous life, complete with sexy Italian sports cars and leggy supermodels. Does this make the sugar bad when we remove the molasses? I think not. It may not be as good for you as it was before we removed all the molasses with all its life-giving, rejuvenating, and supermodel-attracting properties, but that still doesn't mean that the resulting refined sugar is bad for you, does it? Anyone who says so is just a big, fat, stupid idiot.
There, I said it. At the risk of sounding prematurely technical (not for another day or two, I promise), it all boils down to one thing: glucose. Glucose is the only fuel needed by the cells of our bodies, and every sugar, starch, and cellulose fiber we eat (yes, those are all carbohydrates for those who are keeping score) is made of glucose. Our bodies break down complex carbohydrates (such as starches) into simple carbohydrates (such as sugars) which are then converted into glucose (that's what your liver is busy doing every day, in case you haven't checked in on it lately) which are then transported in the blood to all the hungry little cells in our bodies. Glucose is glucose, and our bodies don't know or care where it came from, or whether it was previously mixed with a whole bunch of impurities, or whether a bunch of self-righteous macrobiotic food crusaders approve of it.
Now we'll take a look at some of the liquid forms of sugar found in most kitchens, and there is no more appropriate place to begin than with the original sweetener-honey.
Cave paintings near Valencia, Spain depict humans gathering wild honey over 10,000 years ago, and there is written evidence of the cultivation of honey in India and Egypt as long as 4,000 years ago. For thousands of years it was humankind's only source of (relatively) pure sugar, and the domestication of the honey bee and cultivation of honey has been well established all over the Old World for many centuries. Native North Americans did not taste honey until the arrival of the European honey bee (Apis mellifera) in about 1625. New World bees live exclusively in tropical zones and collect liquid not only from flowers (like their well-mannered European cousins) but from fruits, resins, carrion, and even animal droppings, which must certainly result in some interesting tasting honeys.
The production of honey by honey bees is a complicated process which is not fully understood by scientists. Simply stated, the bees drink the nectar from flowering plants and store it in an organ they (the scientists, not the bees) call a honey sac. The nectar is acted upon by enzymes in the honey sac until the sugar level is 50 to 60 percent, and then the bees deposit the concentrated nectar in the hexagonal wax cells we (us, not the scientists) call honeycomb.
Don't go raiding the hive yet though because it still isn't honey. The nectar is further concentrated through evaporation in a process called "ripening" which takes about three weeks, depending on the surrounding temperature and humidity. This process is assisted by the beating of the bees' wings which agitates the air and hastens evaporation. Once the water content is reduced to about 17 percent, it's honey.
Commercially produced honey is usually centrifuged to separate the honey from the wax comb, and then heated to about 155F (68C) to destroy yeasts and bacteria, and then strained to remove impurities. Honey is frequently sold in the comb or with small bits of wax mixed in with the honey, and the wax is entirely edible.
The chemistry of honey is almost as complicated as its production, and I think I've already done all the complicated stuff I care to do in one day.
The actual chemical composition of honey varies because the chemistry of the nectar it is made from varies. Most of the nectar that honey bees process into honey is between 10 and 80 percent sugar, but the combination of sugars is unique to each species of plant. (We're going to talk about the different types of saccharides in a few days, I promise, but for the time being make a note that some flower nectars are mostly sucrose, some are mostly fructose, some have a healthy portion of glucose thrown in, and some don't.) This variability among nectars is what gives different honeys their unique flavors. The most common types of honey available in the USA are made from the nectar of clover, orange blossoms, linden trees, sunflowers, dandelions, and thistles. Many other types of honeys are available commercially, including eucalyptus, sage, thyme, tupelo, and buckwheat, and each has its own characteristic flavor. Some nectars are poisonous to humans and not to bees, and therefore the resulting honey is toxic. Unless you were raised in the woods by a family of friendly squirrels and are foraging for wild honey, this needn't be of concern to you.
So, who cares about the different saccharides found in honey anyway? I have to confess that I really don't care much either, but it does have to do with cooking with honey, so let's talk about it a little. After the bees have worked their magic on the nectar they have collected, the resulting honey is about 38 percent fructose, 31 percent glucose, and about 10 percent other sugars. The balance is mostly water with trace amounts of acids and minerals.
What is important to the cook is that some sugars are sweeter than others, and that some are more fond of water than others. Because fructose is sweeter than sucrose (white sugar), one measure of honey is considered the equivalent of one and a quarter measures of sugar, but honey also contains water so the amount of liquid added to a recipe must be reduced a little when substituting honey for sugar.
Substituting honey for sugar in baked goods not only gives them a distinctive flavor, but also improves their keeping qualities. This is because different sugars are more attracted to water than other sugars. As they say in the Land of People Who Like To Use Big Words, fructose is more hygroscopic than sucrose, so honey will keep breads, cakes, and cookies more moist than plain sugar will by holding on to the water they contain, and even swiping a few unsuspecting water molecules from the air on humid days if the opportunity arises.
Well, I think that's about all we need to know about honey for now, don't you? Tomorrow we'll begin an action-packed, suspense-filled look at other liquid sugars, so please stay tuned.
Before we move on to other liquid forms of sugar, let me squeeze in a few more words about honey. In spite of the claims of some "natural" food enthusiasts, there is little to recommend honey as a food substance other than its high concentration of sugars. It is virtually devoid of vitamins-in fact, the body uses more vitamin B, niacin, and thiamine to metabolize the sugars than the honey provides, so its vitamin benefit is actually negative.
Honey has long been esteemed for its antibacterial properties and has formed the basis of medicines, dressings for wounds, and folk remedies for thousands of years. Modern science now knows that honey contains trace amounts of hydrogen peroxide, and this is believed the be the component responsible for the alleged curative powers of honey.
Finally, children under the age of one year should never be given honey. It contains bacteria in small quantities that are harmless to bees and healthy humans, but the immune systems of infants are no match for them and even a small amount of honey can result in illness and even death. Please take note.
The next stop on the Sugarland Express is molasses. We have
already seen that it is the byproduct of the sugar refining process, but did you
know that the word itself comes from the Latin "mellaceus" meaning honey-like?
Well, now you know.
At the risk of alienating even more adherents to the macrobiotic school of food superstition, molasses does not provide any scientifically demonstrable health benefits. It is true that it contains large amounts of minerals and B vitamins, but unless one were to down blackstrap molasses by the glassful, these amounts are so small as to be negligible from a nutrition standpoint. Like all the sugars discussed in this little series of essays, we eat molasses because our bodies require glucose to fuel the furnaces burning in every cell of our bodies, and because it tastes good and we like it. With two such excellent reasons, I don't know why people keep trying to dream up imagined health and spiritual benefits for its consumption, but they do.
There are a couple more liquid forms of sugar of interest to the home cook, and my favorite of these is maple syrup. I don't need to tell you that this is the sap of the sugar maple tree (Acer saccharinum) that is collected by tapping the tree with a small metal spout. The sap is then boiled and reduced until it is thick and concentrated, and maple sugar can be made by further boiling in a process similar to that used to make white sugar. Maple syrup and sugar were the only source of concentrated sugar available to native Americans until the introduction of the European honey bee, and it was an important part of their diet.
Sorghum is a grass (Holcus sorghum) that is grown for its grain and as forage for livestock. The stalks of this plant also contain high levels of sugars, and it is pressed and processed just like cane juice to produce sorghum molasses, which is also called sorghum syrup, or simply sorghum. As with honey and maple syrup, it can be substituted in recipes at the ratio of 1 cup honey (or maple syrup or sorghum molasses) to 1 1/4 cups sugar plus 1/4 cup water. All of these liquid sweeteners contain higher levels of fructose than white sugar (which contains practically none) and, as I'm sure you remember, fructose is sweeter than glucose, so you need to adjust the amount accordingly when making substitutions.
Speaking of fructose, that leads me to the last of our liquid sugars. This is going to get a little bit technical, so I think I'll save that stuff for tomorrow.
It's time to take a look at the last of our liquid sugars-corn syrup. Its history goes back to 1811 when a Russian scientist discovered he could make a sweet syrup by mixing up a batch of potato starch and sulfuric acid and heating it. What he had done was to break down the complex starch molecules into simpler sugar molecules, and further inquiry revealed that the same process can be performed by certain enzymes found in plants and animals, thus dealing a crushing blow to the culinary sulfuric acid industry. The same process, using fungi of the Aspergillus genus, has been performed on cornstarch in the United States since the middle of the 19th century, and the result is corn syrup. Nowadays corn syrup is available in light (similar to golden syrup for my UK readers) and dark varieties, the only difference being the amount of refining and filtering that goes on before being bottled, and they can be used interchangeably.
Unlike most of the sugars we have already looked at (which are mostly sucrose), corn syrup is mostly fructose, and this gives it some properties of interest to the home cook. We have already seen how fructose is sweeter than glucose, and that it attracts water from the atmosphere or from nearly anything in its immediate vicinity, thus keeping baked goods more moist. What we haven't talked about is its ability to stop other sugars (most notably glucose) from forming crystals.
This is especially important to candy makers who know that a little bit of corn syrup (or fructose in other forms) added to their sugar mix results in smoother confections. This is because of the glucose molecule's innate desire to get together with other glucose molecules in a nice, orderly, symmetrical fashion, forming what we lovingly refer to as "sugar crystals" or the bane of the candy maker's existence. The reason for this is pretty technical and I will keep it relatively simple because, frankly, that's all my little monkey brain can cope with.
What happens is, as the glucose molecules are running around forming bonds indiscriminately with glucose molecules they haven't even met before, the fructose molecules are trying to get in on the action too. They also bond with the glucose molecules, but since they are shaped differently from their kissing cousin glucose molecules, the other glucose molecules swimming around in this sugar singles bar can't attach to the fructose molecules, and so crystals can't form. All it takes is a small percentage of fructose to break up this glucose mating frenzy, and this is why many recipes for chocolate and candies call for a tablespoon or so of corn syrup along with the other sugars. Think of fructose as the party-pooping chaperone in the sugar disco of love.
I think this has been a fairly comprehensive examination of the various forms of sugar used in cooking and I hope you've enjoyed it, but we aren't finished yet. We still need to take a look at the chemistry of sugars and other carbohydrates, so please stay tuned.
I have hinted at the complicated chemistry of sugars and other
carbohydrates, and even used two-dollar words like "monosaccharides" and
"disaccharides" and talked about glucose and sucrose and fructose and who knows
what other -oses, but what does all this reveal beyond the fact that I like to
dress up in a white lab coat and pretend to be a scientist once in a while?
"But Chef," I can hear you thinking. "Now you tell us that there are all sorts of simple sugars like glucose and fructose and galactose, yet you insist that all this talk about sugar boils down to one word-glucose. What's that all about?" Well, my curious young reader, it is true that glucose is only one of many monosaccharides, but it's still the only one that matters to us (at least for the limited purposes of this essay) because it's the only fuel needed as an energy source for all the little cells in our bodies. I'll get to that in a minute, but first I want to know what's wrong with dressing up in a white lab coat and pretending to be a scientist once in a while.
OK, let's try to wrap this all up. As I have already said many
times, it all boils down to glucose. Every sugar we eat is either made up of
glucose to begin with, or is converted to glucose by enzymes in our bodies, and
then it is carried in our blood to every cell in our bodies. These hungry little
cells gobble up the glucose as if it were the only thing they can eat... because
It is true that the only fuel our cells are capable of burning is glucose, but I don't want to give the impression that glucose is the mythical "perfect food." A person who ate nothing but glucose would die a lonely, toothless death from malnutrition because our bodies also need all sorts of other things, such as fats, proteins, vitamins, and minerals, to carry on all the other business of the body like digestion, growth, cell reproduction, and other trivial stuff like that.
As for the misinformed dietary zealots who insist that refined sugar is somehow bad for us, well, now you know better and I hope you'll set them straight the next time the subject comes up. Refined sugar is nothing more than the sucrose with all the other stuff that isn't sucrose removed-remind them of the meaning of the word "refined" if you think this will help. Or look at it this way: if someone told you that only unfiltered water is good for you, and that filtered, purified water is bad for you because it has had all the "good" stuff removed, would you believe it? I didn't think so. But then, you have the advantage of subscribing to the best darned recipezine in the whole darned universe, so maybe I'm asking the wrong people.
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