What are the different types of sugar and where would you use them? Sugar is obviously one of the most important ingredients in everything related to a kitchen’s pastry section. Knowing which type to use and when will transform the flavours and finishes on all your products.
The first thing you need to know is what the different types are and what options you have. In other blogs we will also get deeper into the properties and uses for each one.
A brief history of sugar
Sugar cane is a tall reed like grass that was first cultivated eight thousand years ago in the south pacific. It then found it’s way to India, China and the middle east. These regions have used sugar for two or three thousand years.
Europeans wide use of sugar came a lot later with the colonisation of the West Indies by Spain. By the 1600’s it was widely available in Europe but still expensive. The slave trade was then introduced to increase production and the development of more efficient refining methods brought down the price in the 1800’s, making sugar accessible to the middle class.
In the 1700’s sugar beets started to be processed into sugar. This is less labour intensive and can be cultivated in milder climates, the anti slavery movement also fuelled the use of sugar beets as a method for producing sugar.
Sugar beets have been refined over centuries and now contain about 17% sucrose, which is slightly more than sugar cane. Beets are now the predominant source of European sugar.
How is it made?
Producing sugar involves two steps, milling and refining.
Milling involves taking raw sugar from beets or cane and refining is the process of turning this molasses covered raw sugar into pure white sugar or it’s less refined alternatives such as brown sugar.
The first step is to crush the fresh sugar cane and extract the juice with water. Calcium hydroxide and carbon dioxide are then added to the cloudy juice to trap impurities (fat, fibre and debris) which sink to the bottom and are drained off from the clear juice. Water is then evaporated to reduce it to a thick golden syrup. This is then divided into wide heated vacuum pans which concentrate it further. Once the syrup is concentrated enough, sugar crystals start to form. The crystallised mixture is then spun in a centrifuge to separate the crystals from the remaining liquid (molasses). This process is repeated a few times to get as much sugar separated as possible
The sugar comes out of this process as light brown raw sugar, which then can be further refined to white sugar.
To get pure white sugar the light brown sugar is then sent to a sugar refinery where it goes through a process of washing and centrifuging to remove the last of the impurities. It is also passed through a carbon filter to decolourise and further purify the sugar, just the same as filtering water.
Some sugar can producers still use bone char from cattle for this purpose, so can be a problem when producing vegetarian or vegan products.
The sugar is then crystallised once more, dried and packed.
The syrup left behind is called refiners syrup, however it is usually sold as molasses (the name refiners syrup just differentiates this molasses from the molasses produced during the milling process).
Named after the small container used to serve sugar in Britain. This is the most common sugar used in baking. It is great for sponges since it dissolves quickly and allow the incorporation of smaller air pockets in sponges and meringues.
Usually used for syrups, sprinkling on fruit or the top of baked goods for a crunchy effect. Since the larger crystals are harder to dissolve it can cause grittiness, so it is not used as much in mixes.
Also known as confectioners’ sugar, this is a fine powder made from refined white sugar. If needed, this can easily be made by placing caster or granulated sugar in a grinder/ blender and grinding to a fine powder.
Icing sugar made from corn starch. This is designed not to melt in humidity like regular icing sugar so is a favourite with pastry chefs for dusting products that are moist or hot.
Pearl sugar is white rounded granules that don’t dissolve easily. this is used to create a crunchy topping on products like cinnamon buns. It can also be called sugar nibs, sanding sugar or decorative sugar
Coarse sugar is a little bigger than granulated sugar. However they are sometimes polished with carnauba wax (wax from a type of Brazilian palm tree) to make them shiny and also stop them from dissolving.
These sugars are the purest of all sugars, making them perfect for syrups and confections, but also the most expensive.
Soft and light brown sugars are found a lot in baking. Brown sugar usually refers to fine granulated sugar that has had a small amount of molasses added to it for better colour and flavour. The strength and amount of molasses used will determine the different grades of colour and how soft and sticky the sugar is.
This can be done by boiling the sugar with molasses and allowing to re crystallise or simply by “painting” where the two are blended together until the molasses is evenly blended through the sugar.
Derived from the Spanish word meaning ‘unrefined’ it is sometimes called Barbados sugar. Muscovado is made by the same method as light and dark brown sugars, however the concentration of molasses is slightly higher. (6% for light and 18% for dark)
Used mostly for its colour and flavour.
Demerara is a type of Turbinado sugar, with large light brown crystals. Made from cane sugar it retains only about 2% of the molasses content so is free flowing and not as sticky as other brown sugars. The name comes from the Demerara region in Guyana where it was first produced, however the majority today is produced in Mauritius.
The trademarked name for an organic, free flowing and unrefined brown sugar. It is made by concentrating sugar cane juice to a thick syrup (molasses) and then stirred as it cools and dries. It is referred to as whole cane sugar since nothing is added or removed
Often called Gur, this is an unrefined sugar from India. It is made by boiling and stiring sugar cane juice until it reduces to a thick crystallised syrup. After that it is then packed into moulds and left to harden. Then it is then grated to produce what is know as shakkar (Hindi for sugar)
Turbinado sugar is similar in taste and colour to light brown sugar but is dry and free flowing instead of sticky (also called washed raw or unrefined sugar, but these are misleading). Turbinado is semirefined, crude sugar is steamed first to clean it. It is then washed and centrifuged to remove the molasses from the surface before being crystallised and dried. These leaves a golden brown sugar that still contains about 2% molasses.
The name Turbinado refers to the use of a centrifuge (turbine) so many sugars fall into this category, such as Demerara and Florida crystals.
This is the most common type of sugar in nature and is present is almost all fruit. It’s presence in grapes is essential for wine making, providing the sugar for fermentation, so can sometimes be called grape sugar. It is normally made from cornstarch. In nature, glucose is the product made by plants during photosynthesis.
Natural glucose can also be found in honey, molasses and invert sugar.
A name for any syrup that has equal amounts of fructose and glucose. It is produced by adding acids to a sugar (sucrose) syrup, heating it and then concentrating it. The acid breaks down the sugar molecules which is called “inversion” This leaves equal parts of glucose and fructose with some residual water and acid. The acid helps with extending shelf life and keeping products soft and moist for longer, which is why it is used a lot in bakeries and pastry shops in place of sugar.
A crystalline powder that is made from chemically modifying sucrose. The big difference with isomalt is that it is a lot less hydroscopic than other sugars, which is why it is used a lot for sugar work and sculptures.
The concentrated juice of sugar cane, it is used mostly for colouring and flavouring different sugars or for rich fruitcakes
Golden syrup is cane sugar syrup that is a bi- product of the cane sugar refining process. It can also be made by boiling sugar cane and lightly concentrating the juice.
Treacle is a name for concentrated sugar cane syrups, also known as molasses
Flower nectar, collected and processed by honey bees. It was the sweetener used throughout history up until sugars mass production started in the 1700’s. The main reason we still widely use honey is for it’s unique flavour. After it is removed from the hives it is separated from the waxy honeycomb. It is then heated to kill any yeasts and dissolve the crystals.
Sometimes called natural invert sugar because enzymes in the honeybee invert the sucrose in the nectar to fructose and glucose.
Maple syrup is made by reducing the sap of the sugar maple tree. 80% of the worlds supply is produced in south-eastern Canada and north-eastern united states. Maple syrup is boiled in open vats, but because the sap contains only about 2-3% sugar 150 litres are needed just to make one litre, this is why real maple syrup is so expensive.
Agave syrup is made from the sap of Agave plants which look a little like Aloe Vera. It is native to the hot, dry regions of the southern United States and Mexico.
To make the syrup, the core of the planted is heated up and the sap is pressed out. They are available in different shades, but this is just an indicator of how processed/ refined they are.
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