Brown sugar was for cookies. The white granulated stuff went on Cheerios, where it piled like a snow drift, and confectioners sugar was for the French toast my dad cut in strips on weekends.
This was the long and short of sugar for me. But not anymore. Because sugar is the foodstuff that, more than any other, reflects resilience, ingenuity, and creativity in humankind. The body demands it. We go to incredible (and horrific) lengths to obtain it. And it comes in more forms than you’d ever think possible.
Sugarcane, the crop responsible for 80% of the world’s sugar, is a perennial grass that grows in tropical and subtropical regions. In colder climes, sugar is derived from sugar beets, taproots with high concentrations of sucrose. And corn, the building block of perhaps the most maligned syrup the world has ever seen. But it can also be produced by tapping trees, from northern maples to equatorial palms.
It’s all just sucrose, but digging into the world of sugar reveals a doctoral program’s worth of biochemistry, human physiology, and global anthropology. Beyond the crops from which we refine it, how we refine that sugar and what we wind up doing with it speaks volumes about who we and our cultures are. If you want to understand the inventiveness and resilience of a cuisine, look to its sweeteners. Here is a beginner’s guide to help you do so.
Raw Granulated Sugars
All sugar is cooked and processed to some degree—the sweet sap or juice has to be reduced down into a concentrate or crystalline sludge. White sugar then goes a few extra steps, mainly a spin through a centrifuge to extract the brown molasses, leaving you with more or less white sugar that’s then further processed until pristine.
But raw granulated sugars are not refined after the reduction stage. These non-centrifugal cane sugars (NCS), also known as evaporated cane juice, are made by evaporating water out of sugarcane juice, and leave the natural molasses intact, which includes the nutrients, minerals, and deeper flavors of the original cane. Call it field to packet.
Big-brand brown sugar is refined white sugar with molasses added back in. For muscovado, they never take it out in the first place. Muscovado is darker than dark brown sugar with a moist, sandy texture. It’s also known as Barbados sugar, where it was once made in abundance and traded internationally to refineries in Europe. But today, Mauritius and the Philippines are the biggest producers of muscovado. Because of its deep color, bold flavor, and solubility, it works well as a sweetener in barbecue sauce and pairs nicely with gingerbread and spice cookies.
Demerara sugar is named after a historic region in Guyana, where the sugar was first produced in large quantities. To make it, producers reduce fresh sugarcane juice into a thick syrup and eventually a thick sludge, yielding a coarse, crystalline, golden brown sugar. Demerara is often used for its crunch on top of baked goods, but is also used to sweeten coffee and tea due to its nuanced molasses notes, usually less intense than muscovado.
Similar to brown sugar in taste and color (but with less twang), this is the stuff in those ubiquitous brown packets. It’s made from the first pressing of sugarcane and retains some natural molasses, giving it a subtle brown hue, but it has a lighter, more caramel-like flavor than muscovado or demerara and coarser texture, perfect for sprinkling atop baked goods for a sweet crunch.
Panela is unrefined whole cane sugar, boiled cane juice poured into molds shaped like little pylons, hence its other name: piloncillo. Like brown sugar, this Central and South American sweetener often comes in lighter (blanco) and darker (oscuro) versions. And the concept of raw brick cane sugar goes by many names around the world. It’s called rapadura in Brazil, dulce in Costa Rica, uluru dust in Australia, and kukuto in Japan.
Over in South America, Peruvians add it to a sweet sauce called chancaca that’s drizzled over picarones (Peruvian donuts). In Chile it’s used to make a sweet pastry called sopaipilla, and in Costa Rica, piloncillo is shaved and added to hot water for a sweet drink called agua dulce. (Folks in Yunnan Province, China do something similar with their brick sugar as a quasi-medicinal drink to raise blood sugar.)
Essentially the panela of India, jaggery is mostly made from cane, but some varieties are the reduced sap of date, coconut, and sago palms. No matter the source, the crop is harvested and pressed for its juice, which is then placed in large vats to allow sediment to collect on the bottom. It is then strained from the sediment, placed in large-diameter, shallow pans, and boiled to form a thick, doughy mass.
This paste, which retains all of its natural molasses and the nutrients therein, is then placed in molds and allowed to cool and dry. In India, jaggery (which is also called gur) extends into medicinal and religious practices, and jaggery-based sweets are often presented to the gods as offerings.
In Southeast Asia, sugar-producing palm trees grew long before cane, and palm sugars rule the sweet teeth of Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and beyond. The final product’s color and flavor varies depending on the tree and climate in which it’s harvested. The names also vary; Malaysian coconut sugar is gula Melaka; over in Indonesia, palm sugar is called gula jawa.
To make palm sugar, sap is first collected from the inflorescence (flower stalks) of the palm. From there it is boiled down into a syrup and can be sold as-is or whipped and poured into different molds of varying shapes and sizes, including bamboo and coconut shells, where it is allowed to cool and harden.
The sugar ranges from light and golden to black and smoky, and are used in all kinds of desserts, particularly those with coconut, pandan, and sticky rice. Palm sugar is also far less sweet than table sugar, which makes it a handy ingredient for savory dishes from the region.
Molasses and Liquid Sugars
Molasses is a byproduct of the sugar refining process, and can be made from sugarcane and sugar beets. To produce it, cane or beets are crushed, the juice is boiled down, and sugar crystals are removed. The remaining unctuous tar is molasses.
Variations of molasses include light, dark, and blackstrap—produced from the first, second, and third boiling (respectively) of cane. Light molasses, the most commonly sold, is the sweetest and mildest in flavor. Dark molasses is a concentrated version of light, in that it’s slightly darker, more bitter, and less sweet. Blackstrap molasses, made from the third and final boiling of molasses, is the thickest and darkest of the three. It’s also the least sweet, which makes it best for savory dishes like baked beans and barbecue sauce. Sulfured and un-sulfured are further molasses distinctions, referring to the addition (or not) of sulfur dioxide, which is added as a preservative.
Effectively the British version of molasses. Black treacle is comparable to blackstrap, while golden treacle is a thick, caramelly sugar syrup. Both make their way into a bevy of British tarts and gingerbreads.
Similar to molasses but more primal, cane syrup is made by boiling cane juice down but not extracting sugar crystals. It’s sweeter and less intense than molasses, with a deep golden verve like British golden treacle. A must on pancakes in parts of the American South.
Sorghum grass thrives in hot climates, and most of the high-sugar sorghum plants in the grass family Poaceae are native to Australia and West Africa. But it’s also popular in the American South, where its grassy, tangy flavor is put to work drizzled over biscuits or stirred into grits.
Fruit molasses is produced in a similar fashion to maple syrup, and the most common fruits used to make fruit molasses are pomegranate, date, and grape. These fruits are juiced and the juice is boiled down to create a concentrate. Sugar is sometimes added to bolster the yield and make a sweet product, and these syrups can be drizzled over ice cream, used in salad dressings, and mixed into cocktails.
Fruit molasses originates in regions where access to sugar was prohibitive due to price or climate, and it is prized as a far healthier sugar alternative high in antioxidants and minerals.
Agave nectar is the most commercially sold plant nectar, but other nectar plants include Black-Eyed Susan, Marigold, Petunia, Sunflower, and Violet. Plant nectars like agave are made mechanically, whereby the leaves are manually cut off and the juice is harvested. It is then filtered and heated so it concentrates into a dense liquid. The nectars retain less of their origin plants’ flavors than cane syrup or honey varietals, and come in a range of intensities depending on the amount of refinement.
Honey is the purest form of sugar found in nature, and the most natural form of sugar on this list. It starts as flower nectar, which is collected by certain social hymenopterans, or winged insects. Once those bees and other insects collect the nectar, their bodies break it down into simple sugars, then deposit that syrup in honeycomb.
The comb’s unique structure, coupled with the constant fanning of the insects’ wings, evaporates off moisture until the honey’s water content is a mere 20%. There are over 300 distinct types of honey, with varying hues, consistencies, and flavors based on the type of flowers from which the nectar is harvested. Since honey contains a high proportion of fructose, it’s sweeter than table sugar, pound for pound.
The sap from maple trees—namely sugar, red, and black maples—produces both maple syrup and maple sugar. The former is made through a process of boiling maple tree sap to evaporate liquids and leave behind a dense concentration of sugary sap; the latter is reduced further into a moist, crystalline substance like muscovado.
Trees are tapped in late winter and early spring, after starches have converted to sugars that then run throughout the tree via sap. Though maple trees are the most commonly tapped trees for syrup, they’re far from the only ones that produced sap. Black birch is commonly used for birch syrup (and birch beer), and walnut trees yield a syrup with a delicately nutty flavor.
Sugars live in starch as well, but starches are not soluble in water and, in order to be digested, must be catalyzed by enzymes called amylases. Humans have amylases in our saliva, which explains why chewing foods high in starch often take on a sweet taste before the food is swallowed—the enzymes convert starch to sugar as we chew.
The process can also be done mechanically, to produce sweeteners, or syrups, from starch. In the case of rice or barley, the starches are converted to sugar with amylase. This process yields a sweet liquid that is then strained off and heated to allow evaporation to a prefered consistency and sweetness. RIce syrup is often used as a sweetener in rice milk and other beverages.
The ubiquitous sweetener most people think of when they think of sugar, made from sugarcane or sugar beets that goes through a double-crystallization process to remove all the molasses and minerals. It’s also the end result of centuries of sugar obsessions and, as some put it, the instigator of the greatest health crises the Western world has ever seen.
Under the white sugar umbrella you’ll find caster (or superfine) sugar, which is granulated sugar that is milled more and further refined to produce a finer crystal. This sugar melts quicker, though it lacks the ability to incorporate air into baked goods as the bigger, coarser crystals of white sugar do. Confectioners’ sugar uses the same superfine base, but is cut with cornstarch to prevent clumping.
Decorating sugars are used at the end of the baking or cooking process to add sweetness and color.
Pearl sugar, a.k.a. nib sugar and hail sugar, consists of large opaque flakes and is available in an array of colors. Sanding sugar is similar to pearl sugar, though it is translucent and has a brighter, more pronounced shimmer. Decorating sugars have a high melting point, so they keep their form even after baking. Find them sprinkled over Scandinavian pastries, German Christmas cookies, Belgian Liege waffles, and French chouquettes.
Caramel is a category all its own, the result of sugar molecules decomposing under extreme heat into hundreds of aromatic compounds. The higher you heat a caramel, the bolder, more savory, and less sweet the result will taste.
There’s a bit of science behind every kid’s favorite tooth-cracking candy. Rock sugar, or rock candy, is formed with a solution of sugar and water through a process called nucleation, whereby the sweet sugary solution forms large sugar crystals as it cools and adheres to a suitable surface. You’re supposed to treat rock candy like a lollipop, and let it dissolve. But kids and patience rarely go together.
Rock candy originated in India and Persia and is used to sweeten tea, as is tradition in Iran, where the sweet drink is called nabat. The candy is also used in the Netherlands, where it’s baked into bread, and in China it’s used to sweeten grain-fermented baijiu and in the slow-braise technique known as red cooking.