Sugar! Without it there would be no chocolate, no cakes and no diversion from the afternoon meltdown. Sugar is a wondrous ingredient that can be used in countless ways. But sugar is not without its mysteries.
How do the different types of sugars and syrups work in cooking? Can one be substituted for another? What is the difference between molasses, treacle, golden syrup and honey?
To understand sugars role in cooking it helps to take a small detour into science so we can break it down into its basic parts.
Sugars are the simplest forms of carbohydrates, also known as saccharides. Sugars can be monosaccharides (meaning a single sugar molecule) and disaccharides (double), which are simply two monosaccharides bonded together. Our body actually breaks down almost everything we eat into these sugars, which are then combined to form more complex carbohydrates like starch.
This means that natural sugars are present in many foods, including those we wouldnt recognise as sweet. It also means different forms of sugar vary in their level and type of sweetness. For example the sweetness of honey and golden syrup is quite different to the sweetness of brown sugar, because they differ in chemical composition. This difference in composition also causes different sugars to act differently when cooked or baked, and will result in different levels of sweetness or a finished product that may brown easily or have a crumbly texture.
Glucose is a monosaccharide and is less sweet than other sugars. Fructose, on the other hand, is the sweetest known monosaccharide. Sucrose, or common sugar, has 1 part glucose and 1 part fructose. Sometimes knowing what parts certain sugars or syrups break down into can help when choosing a substitute.
How is sugar made?
Making sugar is a process that begins with boiling juice from the plants with lime (calcium oxide), which partially purifies and clarifies the syrup. The syrup is evaporated, concentrated and placed in a centrifuge to draw off more liquid (molasses). The raw sugar is then dissolved again and stripped of colour, filtered and re-crystallised to granulated sugar. A further crystallisation occurs to produce granules of specific sizes.
White table sugar has a large variety of uses. Normal granulated sugar has a grain size of about 0.5mm across. You can also get larger grained sugars still considered common, such as hail sugar, which is popular for decorating cookies and other desserts.
Caster sugar is preferred in pastry and cake making as the granules are finer (around 0.35mm) and dissolve faster. With more sharp edges to cut through fat, batters become aerated more rapidly. Caster sugar also dissolves into beaten eggs for meringue with greater efficiency, and its worthwhile to know that table sugar will typically produce a cake with a speckled crust.
A small note on etymology, the term caster or castor sugar is a British term given to sugar fine enough to fit through a sugar caster or sprinkler. In the United States this sugar is also sold as superfine sugar.
Icing Sugar (or confectioners sugar)
This is crushed, powdered granulated sugar. It is used in icings, fillings and some pastries, such as friandes and sable. Its also one of the most important ingredients in cake decorating. This is because icing sugar is the basis of royal icing, which is used for decorating and writing, and its also used to make cake glue and to dust surfaces before rolling out icings.
There are a few different sorts of icing sugar and they are not interchangeable. Pure Icing Sugar is pure unmixed sugar with no additives. Pure icing sugar is quite lumpy and usually needs to be sifted. This is the sugar used for Royal icing. Icing Sugar Mixture is sugar that has been blended with a small amount of cornflour (around 4%). Its not so good for cake decorating work as the small amounts of flour present can start to form mold if there is any moisture in the cake or decorated items (and there usually is). Pure sugar will not grow mold. Icing sugar mixture, however, is fantastic for making simple glazes and icings, and fillings where a small amount of cornflour will not effect the result. It does not clump or lump and this is a definite advantage.
Snow Sugar is icing sugar with a mixture of cornflour and a touch of vegetable fat and dextrose. This mixture produces a sugar that doesnt melt when dusted onto cakes and tarts. This is its primary use, although some of our customers bake with it very successfully.
Palm sugar is extracted from a sugar-giving tree, of which there are several varieties. The most generous is the Asian sugar palm. The sap is collected from the flowers or from a tap in the trunk, then boiled down to syrup (called palm honey) or crystallised to a mass. The dark sugar is often called jaggery and has a distinct almost winey aroma. It is mostly used in Indian, Indonesian and some African cuisines. A lighter palm sugar is also used extensively in Thai cuisine. This lighter palm sugar is the most common palm sugar used in our kitchens in Australia.
Brown sugars are softer and moister than granulated sugars. Their crystals are coated with a molasses like syrup. Darker sugars are more intensely flavoured, as the colour relates to the molasses retention. Glucose and fructose are present in the molasses syrup coating the crystals. These attract and retain more moisture in the sugar itself, making brown sugars great for baking, as the products will retain more moisture and stay fresher for longer periods. Granulated sugars are 99% sucrose and brown sugars vary between 85-92%. If brown sugar is used instead of granulated sugar the result will be more flavourful and moist but the browning temperature will be lower.
Demerara sugar is also considered to be in this category, as it often comes from the first crystallisation of cane juice, producing yellow gold crystals that are frequently washed with alcohol to make them shiny and clear. Muscavado sugars are the crystallisation of the dark mother syrup forming very small, sticky, intensely flavoured sugars.
Invert sugar is made from a sucrose water solution (basic sugar syrup) that is heated with the addition of acid. Although invert sugar naturally occurs in honey, molasses and corn syrup, to name a few, it can also be purchased as a paste or syrup. It doesnt crystallise and it retains moisture. It is sweeter than sucrose (standard sugar), and when added to baked goods it will keep them moist longer. It also helps prevent ice formation in ice creams and sorbets. Therefore, it is used extensively in ice cream, sorbet, glazes and sauces, fondant and candy making. Fudge and caramel sauce are two more examples where the non-grainy texture afforded by invert sugar is important.
Molasses (also known as treacle)
There are a number of grades of molasses. The darker the molasses, the more bitter it is. Blackstrap molasses is usually the last extracted and is very dark as its sugars have been caramelised over and over and an effort to extract as much sucrose as possible. Most of the syrups available as molasses (or treacle) are a blend of molasses in various stages of caramelisation and sugar syrups. This is so the molasses can be sold in an almost uniform condition.
Molasses is generally added to a recipe for colour, flavour and moisture, rather than sweetness. This is why many recipes use molasses or treacle with sugar also added, such as gingerbread. Molasses is common in liquorice, baked beans, and barbecue sauce. Molasses are variably acidic, which makes them work well with bi-carbonate of soda as a leavening agent.
This is refinery syrup made from raw sugar filtered through charcoal to give it a clear appearance and delicate flavour.
Honey is great for longevity in baked goods. It is very high in fructose and glucose, and quite similar to invert sugar. It is approximately 1 ¼ times as sweet as granulated sugar. Heating honey makes it less liable to crystallise. The sweetness of the fructose in honey is registered almost immediately on the tongue, and fades very quickly. This quick action is said to enhance the flavours in some foods, especially fruitiness, tartness and spiciness without the sweetness lingering long enough to mask the flavour of the other ingredients. This is why honey and lemon work so well, and why honey is often used in a spicy marinade.
Maple Syrup and Maple Sugar
Maple syrup originates from the sap of the maple tree. The season for harvesting maple sap is very short (approximately six weeks). The water in the sap is separated from the sugars and boiled down, leaving heavily flavoured syrup. It takes about 40 parts sap to make 1 part syrup.
Maple syrup is graded by colour, flavour and sugar content, grade A being the highest grade. The lower, darker grade syrups are used in baked goods and glazes. Cheap maple flavoured syrups are usually not maple at all, theyre usually corn syrup with maple flavour added. Maple sugar is made by concentrating (boiling) the sap down for much longer than is needed to make the syrup until all thats left is a solid sugar.
Glucose (also known as dextrose)
Glucose is the building block of sugars, the chemical place from which sugar chains are started. It is found in fruits and honey, amongst other things. Glucose is less sweet than granulated sugar. It is less water soluble, producing a thinner solution. It melts and starts to caramelise at 150°C, where granulated sugar will caramelise at around 170°C. Used in toffees, candies and ice creams, it can keep the product soft and gooey while still caramelising and setting.
Corn is the second largest sugar producing crop. Corn syrup begins as a starchy liquid that is converted into sugars by the addition of acid. The thickness of corn syrup is due to the large number of carbohydrate molecules that are tangled up with each other. This results in a syrup that is much thicker than a standard sugar can produce.
Due to the tangled nature of its molecular composition, corn syrup has the valuable effect of preventing other sugars from crystallising and producing a grainy texture. This means that it helps minimise the size of ice crystals in ice cream encouraging a creamy consistency. Its viscosity helps impart a thick chewy texture to foods. It is less sweet than sugar because it contains a lot of glucose, preventing moisture loss without being overbearingly sweet. Corn syrup is acidic, due to the way it is produced; therefore, it works well with baking soda.
Light corn syrup is a mixture of regular and high fructose corn syrup with the addition of vanilla. It contains around 75% fructose plus glucose making the sweetness similar to table sugar. The combination enhances the moisture and develops colour in baked goods. Dark Corn Syrup is a mixture of corn syrup and refiners syrup, used for colour and flavour.
This is made from date solids in a solution of sugar. Brands vary but can be a mix of approximately 37% solids with the remaining 63% being a mixture of glucose, fructose, and water.
A lovely syrup made from concentrated grape juice containing fructose and glucose, not unlike date syrup.
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