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What Is Sugar?
Sugars are a class of simple carbohydrate that includes glucose and fructose, which are found in fruit and honey, and lactose, which comes from milk, but the most common sugar in cooking is sucrose, aka table sugar. Sucrose is produced by green plants during photosynthesis and contains one glucose and one fructose joined together. It has a moderate level of sweetness, forms crystals easily, and has a strong affinity for water, making sucrose ideal for cooking and baking.
Where Does Sugar Come From?
Most commercially available sucrose comes from sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum), a grass from New Guinea that can grow up to 20 feet tall and whose fluids contain about 15% sucrose. About 30% of the world’s refined sugar comes from sugar beets (Beta vulgaris), which are 8-22% sugar by weight and were cultivated as a garden vegetable long before the technique of distilling sugar from beets was developed. Since refined sugar is about 99.85% sucrose, manufacturers rarely advertise whether their sugar originates from beets or sugarcane. (Or both!) Other sources of sugar include palm trees, which produce sap that can be up to 12% sucrose, and maple trees, which produce significantly less sucrose but are prized for their complex flavor.
How Is Sugar Made?
The technique of pressing sugarcane juice into raw sugar crystals is very old: It was first developed in India around 500 BCE; a few centuries later, Indians produced the first refined white sugar by using gravity to wash away its dark brown coating. Beet sugar, on the other hand, was not developed until the 18th century, when Europeans started using Brandy to distill the juice of the white beet. Today, cane and beet sugars are made using the same process, with the main difference being that sugarcane, which is highly perishable, is typically processed into raw sugar immediately after harvest and then further refined at a separate facility, whereas storable beets can be processed all in one go.
To make refined sugar, sugarcane or beets are first juiced, then boiled to evaporate the water. The resulting raw sugar is then clarified in centrifuges that spin the sugar at high speeds to remove the sticky brown syrup that coats sugar crystals, known as molasses, or treacle. Once the sugar has been refined, it’s further “decolorized” by granular carbon, a material similar to activated charcoal.
5 Types of White Sugar
- Granulated sugar, aka table sugar, is a white sugar with mid-size crystals that has had all its molasses removed, making it 99.85% sucrose. It’s the most common type of sugar used in baking, and as a sweetener for tea and coffee. Use granulated sugar in Chef Dominique Ansel’s mini madeleines recipe.
- Powdered sugar, aka confectioner’s sugar, icing sugar, or fondant sugar, is an extremely fine-ground white sugar with a texture that’s soft and powdery, not granular. Powdered sugar contains around 3% starch (to prevent clumping) and is used to making frosting, and sifted over souffles and crepes. Use powdered sugar in Chef Thomas Keller’s Swiss meringues recipe.
- Coarse sugar, aka sanding sugar, has large crystals and is used for decorating baked goods. It’s made from the purest white sugar and sometimes even washed with alcohol to further refine. The larger crystals are more heat-resistant, so they’ll keep their texture and color after baking. White sugar with the largest granules is called pearl sugar and is used as a crunchy coating for soft buns and Liege waffles
- Superfine sugar, aka ultrafine sugar, extra-fine sugar, baker’s sugar, bar sugar, or caster sugar, is white sugar with the very small crystals. It’s used in meringues and other delicate desserts because its crystalline surface helps aerate fat and eggs during whipping and creaming
- Simple syrup is made from granulated sugar boiled with water to make a pourable liquid ideal for cocktails and iced coffee. Simple syrup tends to have yellow tinge from the small amount of impurities—that 0.15% that’s not pure sucrose—in table sugar. Try simple syrup in Chef Wolfgang Puck’s Bloody Mary recipe.
What Is Brown Sugar?
Factory brown sugars traditionally come from an intermediate step along the process of turning cane juice into raw sugar. They are:
- Demerara sugar, a gold-color raw sugar with large crystals and a slightly sticky texture produced from the first stage of crystallization of light sugarcane juice
- Turbinado sugar, aka sugar in the raw or evaporated cane juice, a partially processed raw sugar with just the surface molasses removed. It’s less sticky then demerara and has a mild brown sugar flavor.
- Muscovado sugar, which is produced from final crystallization of cane juice. It’s dark brown with a strong molasses flavor and coarse, sticky texture.
Today, these names can refer to sugar that comes from raw sugar, rather than cane juice, with molasses added back in to mimic the flavor of the original semi-processed sugars. Today’s common brown sugar is made by either dissolving raw sugar in a syrup and then recrystallizing it, or by coating refined white sugar with syrup or molasses. Brown sugar is clumpy because it’s covered in molasses, which contains water, and often comes in two forms: Dark brown sugar, which contains more molasses, is darker, stickier, and more flavorful than light brown sugar, which has a mild caramel flavor.
4 Other Types of Sugar
- Piloncillo, panela, and jaggery are all names for dried sugarcane juice, typically sold in bricks. The flavor of this unrefined, whole sugar varies from mild to strong and molasses-like.
- Palm sugar, aka coconut sugar, is made from tapping palm trees. Although it can be processed into white sugar, palm sugar is more commonly left in its minimally processed state, when it’s grainy and crumbly with and light gold to brown in color. Unrefined palm sugar adds a wine-like flavor to South Asian cuisine.
- Maple sugar, which comes from maple trees, has been used by Native Americans for thousands of years. Like palm sugar, it’s typically left in an unrefined state that highlight its complex flavor.
- High fructose corn syrup was developed in the 1960s as a cheaper alternative to table sugar. It contains 53% glucose and 42% fructose and is the main sugar source for most processed foods and beverages.