Up close with sugar, honey and syrup
Here we run through a glossary of variations on the big natural sweeteners, from brown sugar to sorghum syrup with some interesting facts thrown in along the way.
Most of the sugar we consume today comes from two sources: the sugar cane grown in the tropics and the sugar beet grown mainly in temperate climates. Sugar is either refined or unrefined and either white or brown. A refined sugar has had all impurities removed and been separated from its molasses—residue of sticky syrup produced during the initial sugar extraction process.
All white sugar is refined, and there is no difference in taste between beet and cane. Unrefined sugar is only partly purified and contains some molasses; how much affects color, texture and taste. As beet molasses is inedible, all unrefined sugars come from cane. Traditionally brown sugars are unrefined but today many are made from refined white sugar lightly coated with cane molasses. Unrefined sugar does not have any “ingredients,” but for emphasis may have a label saying “raw” or “unrefined.” Unrefined sugars have the best flavor and aroma.
Sugar is pure carbohydrate, a simple carbohydrate that is quickly absorbed and metabolized by the body to produce an instant but brief energy boost. Refined sugar is 99.9 percent sucrose. Unrefined sugar contains a minute proportion of minerals, vitamins and proteins. But the amounts are so small that their nutritional value is negligible.
Brown: A range of fine grain, moist sugars, light or dark brown in color, depending on molasses content. It is made either from unrefined cane sugar or, more generally, from refined white sugar with molasses added.
Confectioners’: Very fine white sugar, made by grinding granulated into a powder, with an anti-caking agent such as cornstarch added. It dissolves instantly.
Cube: Made from white granulated sugar, moistened with water and molded into blocks then dried and cut into cubes. Brown varieties are also available.
Demerara: Golden brown with large sparkling crystals, a traditionally unrefined cane sugar. Has a relatively low molasses content, hence its pale color and mild flavor. Today some Demeraras are made from refined white sugar with molasses added. Less suitable for baking, but good for decorating cakes and cookies.
Fructose: Sweetest of all natural sugars, fructose is found in honey, fruit and vegetables, but for commercial purposes is extracted from sucrose. In the body, fructose metabolizes without insulin, which makes it suitable for diabetics. For cooking, use as sugar but reduce amounts by one third.
Golden granulated: Pale honey colored European granulated sugar, either refined cane with a slight residue of molasses or refined beet colored with molasses. A good general purpose sugar.
Granulated: The most common and inexpensive sugar, refined from cane or beet. It is white and free flowing with medium-sized crystals.
Molasses sugar: Soft, fine grain, dark brown, unrefined cane sugar available only in Europe. Has a very high molasses content, making it almost black and sticky with a strong caramelized sugar taste.
Muscovado: Soft, fine grain, European brown sugar, traditionally made from unrefined cane sugar; available light or dark.
Preserving: Not available in the United States, this European white sugar with large coarse crystals is designed for making jams, jellies and marmalade.
Raw: After boiling down cane sugar juice, the resultant gooey mixture is separated into molasses and raw sugar; this raw sugar is then either refined into white sugar or purified and sold as a brown sugar.
Rock: Not easy to find in the United States, this white sugar (produced in large crystals and often colored amber) is used in coffee.
Superfine: White free flowing sugar with very small crystals, particularly suitable for baking (it creams easily) and for sifting decoratively onto cakes and pastries. It is also quick dissolving, which makes it popular as a table sugar. Also available is golden caster sugar, made from finely crushed and sieved golden granulated sugar.
Vanilla sugar: Available in Europe, this is superfine sugar to which at least 10 percent pure vanilla extract or essence has been added.
How It's Used
As well as sweetening, sugar acts as a preserving agent, inhibiting the growth of bacteria, yeasts and molds. Fruits can be preserved in sugar syrup, and sugar is used to make jams, jellies and chutneys (it acts with the pectin and acid in fruit to set the jam or jelly). If you want fruit to keep its shape, cook it with sugar. If you want a soft pulpy mass, add the sugar when the fruit has been thoroughly cooked. Other flavors, even savory ones, are enhanced by sugar. A pinch can be added to bung out the flavor of a fresh tomato sauce if underage tomatoes are being used.
Sugar has a stabilizing effect on some frozen desserts: homemade sorbets with the smoothest texture have the most sugar in them. Reduced sugar sorbets have a fruity flavor, but are hard, granular and uneven. Sugar is also important in baking as it encourages rising and aerating. When using eggs in sauces, soufflés and custards, adding sugar retards thickening, helping to produce the correct texture.
Honey and Syrup
The world’s oldest sweetener, honey is made by bees from the nectar of flowers. What type of flower the nectar comes from affects color (from creamy white to dark brown) and flavor. Flavor is also influenced by season: springtime honeys are soft and sweet; summer honeys are richer. Syrups are normally less sweet than honey. Some, such as cane syrup, golden syrup and molasses, are byproducts of sugar refining. Others come from the sweet juices that occur naturally in certain trees and plants like the maple, palm and sorghum.
Types of Honey
Honey is divided into two categories: blended (the most common) and single flower. Jars labeled “honey” or “wildflower honey,” “meadow honey” or “mountain honey” are blends, often from more than one country. Single-flower honey is made mostly from the nectar of one flower variety. Here are the most important single-flower honeys:
Acacia: From Canada, China, France, Hungary, Italy and Romania, this is a very pale, clear liquid honey with a delicate scented flavor. One of the few honeys that does not crystallize with age.
Alfalfa: Very common in the United States; thick creamy yellow with an agreeably sweet taste.
Buckwheat: Reddish brown, strongly flavored; from North America and Europe, this is traditionally coarse and granulated.
Clover: Light in color, thick and full flavored; a good all-purpose honey.
Heather: From Europe, this is reddish brown with a crystallized, soft butter texture.
Hymettus: Not from a single flower but from a specific area: Mount Hymettus in Greece. One of the world’s most expensive honeys, it is dark brown, aromatic and has a lingering aftertaste.
Leatherwood: From Australia’s Tasmanian leatherwood tree; amber colored with a delicate flavor.
Lemon blossom: Fine, clear honey from Mexico. Pale gold in color, it has a light and delicate flavor.
Lime flower (Linden): From France and Eastern Europe, this is green gold with a rich soft flavor.
Manuka: From New Zealand’s manuka or “tea tree”; a clear, thick, deep golden honey with a rich flavor.
Orange blossom: From California, Florida and other orange-growing areas, this is a clear liquid honey with a pale eddish gold color, delicate flavor and light perfume.
Rosemary: Pale, clear with fragrant flavor that strengthens if mixed with thyme honey; mostly from France and Spain.
Cane molasses: Ranging in color from gold to black (often called West Indian).
Types of Syrup
Cane: Boiled down from the sugar cane refining process. Popular table syrup; often blended with maple syrup.
Corn: All-purpose syrup made from corn, available light or dark; the dark is less refined and has a stronger flavor.
Fruit: Blend of concentrated sugar syrup and fruit juice.
Golden: Light and sweet, with an amber color and butterscotch flavor; a byproduct of sugar refining which is then further refined in its own right.
Maple: From North American maple tree; reddish brown with a rich flavor. Often blended with corn or cane syrup.
Molasses: Dark, thick syrup left over when sugar cane is refined. Color ranges from mid brown to black.
Palm: From venous species of palm tree. Very dark and sticky.
Sorghum: Medium brown, extracted from sorghum.