David Prince
A. Wasanbon cubes; B. Wasanbon tea ceremony molded candy; C. Wasanbon tea ceremony molded candy; D. Wasanbon powder
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Rose's Sugar Bible

Rose Levy Beranbaum / April 2000

Wherein Rose Levy Beranbaum, the high priestess of pastry, answers all your questions and learns that the wide, wide world of sugar is, indeed, a very, very sweet place to live.

The dictionary definition of sugar is "any of a class of water-soluble crystalline carbohydrates...having a characteristically sweet taste." This would include fructose (fruit sugar), lactose (milk sugar), maltose (malt sugar), and dextrose (corn sugar). The sugar most commonly known and used in baking, however, is sucrose and is most easily obtained from sugarcane or sugar beets.

Sweet, the taste component derived from sugar, is pleasing to all humans and other mammals from the moment they're born. Alluring and gratifying, used judiciously, sugar can be a powerful culinary tool.

Yes, sugar is sweet. But there's a lot more to sugar than that. Sugar can offer subtle to intense overtones of butterscotch, toffee, caramel, wine, molasses, spice, and even bitterness. These qualities derive from both the variety of the sugar source and from the type and degree of refinement. Knowing the different varieties and granulations of sugar, and how they best perform, can add considerable depth, drama, and sparkle to both cooking and baking.

A molecule of sucrose is composed of one fructose and one glucose molecule joined together to form a single carbohydrate that's easy to digest and full of energy. Other plants are capable of making sugar, but both sugarcane and sugar beets make it in quantities large enough to support refining.

The initial processing of sucrose extracts the sugar juices from the plants and crystallizes them. The sugar juices, which would spoil very rapidly, are thereby converted to raw sugar, which has an indefinite shelf life. This process of creating crystallized sugar is thought to have begun in India before 3000 B.C.

The second and optional step in sugar production is refining to remove "impurities." This refers to anything that is not purely sucrose, such as molasses and minerals. Although there are certainly important culinary uses for pure refined white sugar, such as in meringues, fondants, and syrups, this is not to say that "impure" or less refined sugar is not highly desirable or even preferable and more exciting for many other uses, from cakes to stews. Also, in addition to removing impurities and color, the refining process produces an undesirable element of slight bitterness not present in partially refined sugar that contains a trace amount of natural molasses.

When it comes to light brown and dark brown sugar, however, refining results in flavor differences that are even more significant. Because partially refined brown sugar still contains some of its natural molasses, it has a bright, clear color and a rich taste with delicious underlying flavor components. Refined brown beet sugar—which mush have its molasses removed because it's not a fit for human consumption and has another molasses added back to flavor it—surrenders a considerable amount of flavor to processing. This is partially because the added sorghum or cane molasses merely coats the outside of the sugar crystal and is no longer part of the crystal itself. In some cases food color, which is flavorless, is used instead of molasses to recreate the original brown appearance. This process is known as "painting." A simple test to determine if the molasses has been removed is to add a spoonful of sugar to a glass of water. After just a few minutes, the water in the painted sugar will turn a pale brown and the sugar crystals will be clear. With partially refined sugar that still contains its natural molasses, the water will remain clear and the sugar crystals brown. (Note: all sugar and sugar syrups are considered kosher.)


The process of obtaining sugar from sugarcane begins with harvesting the raw product. After harvesting, the plants are shredded and pressed to remove the juices. Insoluble matter is removed and water is added. This syrup is boiled in large steam evaporators. The substance that remains is crystallized in heated vacuum pans, and the liquid, now called molasses, is separated from the crystals by spinning it in a centrifuge. At this stage, the sugar is known as raw sugar and contains 1 percent impurities. The raw sugar crystals are washed with steam and are called turbinado sugar, which is 99 percent pure sucrose. Although turbinado sugar closely resembles refined white sugar in sweetening ability and composition, it can't always be substituted for it in recipes. Its moisture content varies considerably, which, coupled with its molasses flavor and coarse granulation, can affect a recipe without careful adjustment.

Refined white sugar is processed from turbinado sugar. The turbinado sugar is heated again to a liquid state, centrifuged, clarified with lime or phosphoric acid, and then percolated through a column of activated carbon. This last process removes non-white material and all calcium and magnesium salts. Finally, the sugar is pumped back into vacuum pans, where it's heated until it crystallizes. It's centrifuged to remove syrup (marketed as refiner's syrup). It's not possible to crystallize and extract all the sugar in one operation, so this boiling process is repeated several times. The sugar is then dried. The resulted sugar is 99.95 percent sucrose. (Sugar that is refined anywhere other than the United States may be somewhat gray in color and the protein impurities may cause foaming when the sugar is added to the liquid in a given recipe.) The sugar is then sieved and sorted for the different granulations.

Granulation (size of crystal) and variety of sugar (amount of molasses)
All 99.95 percent refined sucrose has equal sweetening power despite the degree of granulation. The only difference in content is that powdered sugar has 3 percent cornstarch added to prevent lumping.

Regular granulated or fine granulated:
This is the all-purpose sugar found in most sugar bowls and available in all supermarkets. This granulation is suitable for making syrups, but for most other baking a finer granulation is preferable. The term "fine granulated" is not to be confused with "superfine," which is much finer.

Available commercially, this sugar is also known as fruit sugar because it is used in the preservation of fruits. Most professional bakers use this granulation as their all-purpose sugar if they can't find baker's special. When used in cakes, it results in a fine crumb and lighter texture because, with smaller crystals, more surface area is available to trap air. In the creaming process, the sharp and angular surfaces of the crystals catch air. If the surface were smooth, the grains would just clump together and not allow air in between. The more crystals there are, the more air will be incorporated. Cookies made with extra-fine sugar are smoother and have fewer cracks. Finer sugar also dissolves more easily and makes lighter, more delicate meringues.

Baker's special:
Available commercially, this sugar is slightly finer than extra-fine and almost as fine as superfine. This is the perfect granulation for all baking. A close approximation can be made in the food processor using a coarser granulation and processing for a few minutes, although the crystals won't be as uniform in size as in commercially produced finer grain sugars.

Castor sugar:
This is a term that appears in British cookbooks. The sugar, commonplace in Great Britain, is slightly finer than baker's special. Its name derives from the shaker container in which it often appears. If you are converting a British recipe, substitute baker's special or superfine sugar.

Bar sugar, superfine, or ultrafine:
This is the finest granulation of sugar and comes only in one-pound boxes. It's sometimes called bar sugar because it's used in bars to make drinks that require fast-dissolving sugar. For the same reason, it's ideal for making meringues and fillings.

Powdered, confectioners', or icing sugar:
While it's possible to achieve a very fine granulation in the food processor, it's not possible to make true powdered sugar. This can only be done commercially. At one time, powdered sugar was stone-ground, but now it is ground in a steel magnesium rotary that turns against varying degrees of screens, each one determining a different fineness of the grind. The coarser the granulation of the initial sugar, the more even will be the final grind. As might be expected, the finer the granulation, the greater the tendency of the sugar to lump, which explains why cornstarch is added to absorb any moister from the air before the sugar can. The cornstarch adds what is perceived as a floury taste and makes powdered sugar less suitable than granulated sugar for use with ingredients that are not to be cooked. Powdered sugar comes in four degrees of fineness: 10XX, the finest; 10X, available in supermarkets; and 6X and 4X, both of which are available commercially.

Nonmelting powdered sugar:
This sugar is coated with a fat that keeps it from melting when sprinkled on top of cake or fruit. It gives off a slight sensation of mouth coating, which I find unpleasant.

Loaf or cube sugar:
This is merely granulated sugar that has been pressed into molds when moist and then allowed to dry so it maintains the shape. Some recipes, particularly in confectionery, specify loaf sugar because at one time it was more refined. Today, this isn't the case.

Rock sugar and rock candy:
This confection of transparent clear or amber crystals, also available on string or swizzle sticks with which to stir coffee, results from further refining by crystallization of refined cane sugar. It's produced by dissolving sugar in water to which string or wooden swizzle sticks are added, causing the sugar to transmute into transparent crystals that cling to the string or stick. Documentation as far back as 1584 refers to rock candy as having medicinal properties. Among the remedies used to treat colds in the early part of the 20th century was a drink called "rock and rye": place 6 ounces of rock candy in a wide mouth 16-ounce jar; add orange or other fruit slices; fill with whiskey, let sit until the rock candy is completely dissolved (recipe from Dryden and Palmer Co., Branford, CT).

Medium coarse and coarse pearl sugar or sanding sugar:
Known as "strong" sugar because it resists color changes and inversion at high temperatures due to the absence of impurities, this type of sugar is ideal for confections and cordials and also for preparing caramel because impurities can cause crystallization. These large granules are sometimes used to sprinkle on cookies and pastries because they provide sparkle by catching and reflecting light. They're available in varying colors and finer granulation.

A new, colored, large sugar crystal made from Thai sugarcane. It's all-natural because the color comes from infusing the sugar with herbs. This process produces a dazzling jewellike hue. The crystals are flavor neutral except for the amber sugar variety, which has a faint butterscotch flavor. Gemsugar is made from large rock crystal chunks that are broken apart with hammers. The fragments, 3 to 5 millimeters in size, are the Gemsugar. It's used for decorative settings or presentation.

Vanilla sugar:
This sugar is made by burying two to three vanilla beans in about one pound of sugar. It is then covered and allowed to stand for at least one week. (This is a good use for used vanilla bean pods after they've dried.) Pastry chef Jean Philippe Maury of the Bellagio in Las Vegas recommends substituting vanilla sugar for 8 percent of the weight of the sugar used in a recipe.

Brown sugar:
Most brown sugar is ordinary refined sucrose with some of the molasses returned to it (3.5 percent for light brown sugar, 6.5 percent for dark brown). When a recipe calls for brown sugar, it refers to light brown sugar unless otherwise specified. Equal volume of either type of brown sugar compared to white sugar has the same sweetening power, but brown sugar must be measured by packing it into the cup. Dark brown sugar weighs the most because of the additional molasses. Molasses also adds moisture to the sugar. Brown sugar contains 2.1 percent water, while plain white sucrose only contains 0.5 percent. Store brown sugar in an airtight container, such as a canning jar, to keep it from losing moisture and solidifying. If this should happen, place a slice of apple on a small piece of waxed paper and cover the container tightly. After about 24 hours, the sugar will have absorbed enough moisture from the apple to soften. If you run out of brown sugar and have white sugar and molasses on hand, the recommended conversion is 1 cup packed light brown sugar (217 grams) = 1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar + 1/4 cup unsulfured light molasses; 1 cup packed dark brown sugar (239 grams) = 1 cup granulated sugar + 1/2 cup unsulfured light molasses.

Partially refined sugar production
Sugar that still contains some of its molasses and isn't clarified is often referred to as unrefined. Actually, it is partially refined because during the initial processing necessary to obtain crystals (boiling, centrifuging, and washing) some of the "impurities" are removed. Unlike refined sugar that's highly consistent in quality, batches of partially refined sugars may vary in color, flavor, and intensity.

Amber crystal and golden castor sugar are the result of the first crystallization, where there's a higher proportion of sucrose to impurities than in subsequent crystallizations. Raw sugar is from the second crystallization. Light and dark brown muscovado and molasses are the results of the third crystallization, when sugar is placed in a tall sugar-filtering bin where, by gravity, the molasses filters to the bottom. The light muscovado is taken from the upper middle, and the dark muscovado is taken from the lower middle of the bin. Muscovado sugars derive their name from Portuguese meaning "from the middle," referring to a traditional method of producing brown sugars before the invention of refined white sugar.

Partially refined sugar from the tropical island Mauritius in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa is considered to be the finest quality. The special flavor of the sugar is said to be derived from sugarcane grown on the volcanic ash. Sugar from Mauritius is imported from England.

Granulations and varieties of partially refined sugar
Golden castor:
Fine granulated from the first boiling or crystallization. I use this for all baking except meringues and fondants, where I prefer a pristine white color, and sugar syrups or caramel where more purity (refinement) helps to avoid crystallization (however, the addition of glucose powder makes it possible to produce a caramel that won't crystallize readily). Although the color and therefore amount of molasses varies, I find that the resulting product has a flavor ranging from somewhat purer to slightly more flavorful than refined sugar.

Amber crystal:
Coarse granulated sugar, also from the first crystallization. This is made by a long period of heating to produce a burnt caramelized sugar liquor that's evaporated and allowed to crystallize over a four-week period. These crystals are valued in Great Britain for their slow dissolving quality and are sometimes labeled as "coffee sugar."

This is a large granulation of brown sugar, lighter in color because it has less molasses than the muscovado sugars. It's also available as cubes.

Light muscovado (light brown). dark muscovado (dark brown):
I value these sugars for the complex flavors they offer to recipes where brown sugar is desired.

Molasses sugar:
This is nothing more that dark muscovado with extra molasses. This very moist sugar, available in Great Britain, is used in gingerbread, fruitcakes, mincemeat, and barbecue sauces to give them extra moisture/stickiness and to add flavor.

Organic sugar
Florida crystals:
This company produces excellent organic and milled cane sugars, similar in granulation to golden castor but consistently paler golden in color. The organic has a slightly milder, purer aroma, but there is no distinguishable difference in flavor. The organic sugar is "certified to be grown, milled, and packaged free of any petrochemicals in accordance with earth-friendly methods." This is the (not so) plain white bread of organic sugars, offering the pure taste of sweetness with no bitterness or hint of molasses. This is my basic baking sugar when I want to sweeten without flavoring.

This is a type of brown sugar in the form of irregularly shaped granules. It's a blend of blackstrap molasses and cane sugar and is a similar in color to light brown or muscovado sugar but has less moisture. (Nonorganic Sucanat is also available.)

A pale beige powder, this is a very pure artisanal sugar from a special variety of sugarcane that has been grown organically for the past 200 years only in a very small area on the island of Shikoku in the Tokushima area of Japan. It's very scarce and very expensive. Wasanbon is processed; however, it's not refined with any whitening agents. Partial refining is accomplished by hand by rinsing with water, kneading in a linen cloth, leaving it compressed for three days, and then placing it on trays to drain. Japanese food writer and pastry chef Reiko Akehi reports that it's the kneading process that reduces the sugar to its powdered form. Although the packaging may be identical, there's a variance in grades, some being lighter in color (containing less molasses) and slightly smoother in texture. Akehi says that the very finest quality is in such small supply that it's never exported. However, even the "lesser" quality samples tasted extraordinary. When heated, wasanbon loses its delicate aroma and flavor, so it's best used uncooked. It's said to enhance the flavor of fruit. It melts instantly on the tongue because it's powdered and contains no cornstarch or other anti-caking agent to prevent clumping. It must therefore be stored in an airtight container. Because it dissolves so instantly, it's particularly useful for sprinkling on berries to be consumed immediately because the berries keep all their juice instead of forming a syrup. Wasanbon is used in Japan for making wagashi sweets by combining it with potato starch and 10X powdered sugar and compressing it into decorative forms. This is the traditional sweet served during the tea ceremony. Darrell Corti, of Corti Brothers in Sacramento, California, is importing the famous Okada brand of wasanbon in very limited supply. In addition to using it with fruits, Corti also recommends using it to cure gravlax. Wasanbon is also available in irregularly shaped cubes for use in coffee, tea, or simply as a candy.

Unrefined sugar
Blocks of highly flavorful unrefined sugar from India and Southeast Asia are called jaggery. The most highly prized jaggery is made by boiling down sugarcane syrup in enormous copper pans and then molding it into cakes. It's also made from various palm trees—palmyra, coconut, and date, for example—using either the sap or flower bud nectar. According to Food Arts contributing authority Suvir Saran, jaggery "can be as soft as honey or as firm as solid fudge." Madhur Jaffrey, the Indian cookbook author, actress, and also a Food Arts contributing authority, recalls attending a dinner party in Calcutta where jaggery, in 16 different degrees of firmness, was arrayed as if on a cheese platter. Saran also notes that gur, the Hindi name for jaggery, is sometimes available smoked. The Latin American equivalent of jaggery is called piloncillo and panelacactus. Jaggery made from the date palm is not to be confused with the date sugar made from the actual fruit that is dried and ground.

Maple sugar: Crystallized by the evaporation of maple sap from the sugar maple tree, it's finely granulated and can be substituted in equal weight (not volume) for all or part of plain granulated sugar in cake baking without affecting the texture. It consists mostly of sucrose with some invert sugar (sucrose broken down into glucose and fructose) and ash.

Beet sugar versus sugarcane sugar
Because both are sucrose and chemically identical, it's been thought that beet and cane sugars perform identically. But some bakers have reported what they suspect to be conflicting results and have concluded that cane sugar is superior. Miriam Morgan hypothesized in a San Francisco Chronicle article (March 31, 1999) that since both sugars are 99.95 sucrose, the difference lies in the remaining 0.05 percent, which is made up of trace differences in minerals and proteins. Caroline Weil of The Bake Shop in Berkeley, California, reports that her sugar syrups, when made with beet sugar, crystallized into large, chunky granules. Food writer and cookbook author Flo Braker experienced a similar problem when making sugar syrups in France, where beet sugar is prevalent, before finding that the addition of a small amount of cream of tartar as an interfering agent works well when using beet sugars for syrups. Food writer and cookbook author Marion Cunningham finds that cakes such as angel food and sponge develop a coarse texture with beet sugar. I haven't noticed any change in the outcome of my recipes using refined or partially refined fine granulated sugar and would hypothesize that there are many possible causes for variation. More extensive scientific investigation is required to come to a definitive conclusion.

Alternative sugars
This is produced by enzymatic rearrangement of sucrose in two stages. It's odorless, white, crystalline, and has low hygroscopicity (ability to attract water). It doesn't readily crystallize or caramelize and offers reduced calories and mild sweetness (about half the sweetness of sugar). It's useful for piped, pulled, and cast sugar pieces because it holds up so well, remaining dry and resistant to collapsing. Because Isomalt, like cooked sugar, is relatively rigid for pulling, piping, or shaping, it's recommended that a small amount of water and about 10 percent of its weight of glucose be added before boiling it to 340˚F.

Birch sugar:
This sugar, sold under the trade name The Ultimate Sweetener, is extracted from the bark of the birch tree (without destroying the tree). It's 100 percent birch sugar, also known as xylitol. One cup (100 grams) is half the weight of granulated sugar and half the calories. Directions say to use the same amount (volume) as white sugar. The company claims it can be used in place of refined sugar for all baking, including cakes and cookies. Though finely granulated, it disappears immediately on the tongue with an oddly cool sensation.

This is crystallized and powdered corn sugar (glucose) obtained by hydrolyzing cornstarch with acid. Its sweetening power is much lower than sucrose, and it doesn't dissolve as readily when sprinkled on whole berries or the surface of pie, making it ideal for stenciling designs. Pastry chef Andrew Shotts of the Russian Tea Room in New York City uses it instead of a jelly glaze to sprinkle on cut strawberries to keep them fresh. The sugar dissolves into a thin glossy film that keeps the berries from drying out.

Commercial fructose is made by an enzymatic conversion of dextrose. Sugar obtained from fruit and from most vegetables is fructose. Its sweetening power is almost double that of sucrose when consumed cold or at room temperature. Fructose is known to enhance fruit flavor.

Malt sugar or syrup:
Barley malt syrup or powdered malt is used in breads because it doesn't interfere with gluten development and because the diastatic variety contains enzymes to convert flour to yeast food. It contributes both flavor and color, although these enzymes require at least eight hours to work effectively in fermenting dough.

A sugar-derived alcohol from the skin of ripe berries, cherries, and plums. It comes in powder, flakes, or granules. It serves as an anti-crystallization agent and is used as a thickener in candies and a stabilizer and sweetener in frozen desserts.

General uses of sugar
Sugar has a wide range of applications in and beyond food preparation, including cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. In food, its uses are manifold. It contributes to sweetness, viscosity, and body and enhances flavor, appearance and texture. It brings out and softens the flavor of starch-containing vegetables such as peas and carrots and lends them sheen. It also tempers acidity in foods such as tomatoes. It aids in color development (baked goods) and promotes the caramelization of the natural sugar present in onions. It increases moisture retention (baked goods), increases the boiling point (custards), ad lowers the freezing point (ice creams). It assists in emulsification (chocolate, baked goods, and ice creams) and fermentation (bread, wine, and brewing). It provides stability (egg whites). It delays staling (baked goods), discoloration (fresh fruit), and coagulation (egg cookery). It helps to inhibit mold growth in preserves. It tenderizes baked goods such as bread, cookies, pie crusts, pastries, and cakes by combining with the two gluten-forming proteins in the flour to reduce gluten formation. Even if the gluten is already formed, when the sugar is added it'll still combine with the proteins and break up the gluten.

How sugar affects texture in baking is especially apparent in cakes. In addition to facilitating the incorporation of air during the creaming of the sugar and the fat and minimizing the formation of gluten. It also creates tenderness because it elevates the temperature at which egg protein coagulates and the starch granules gelatinize, enabling the gas cells to expand more before the batter sets. This creates a more open texture, weakening the cake's structure and making it melt faster in the mouth. Although a cake high in sugar is more tender, i.e., will fall apart more easily, it won't have as soft a mouthfeel.

Sugar syrups
Sucrose syrups
Refiner's syrup:
Containing 15 to 18 percent water, this is a delicious by-product of sugar refining. When syrup, after many boilings, ceases to yield crystals, it's filtered and concentrated into this golden-colored syrup. The sugars consist of one part sucrose to two parts invert, which can lead to slightly higher hygroscopicity and also to slightly more rapid coloring when heated. The syrup has an ash content of 1.3 percent, which has a very significant effect on inhibiting crystallization. In most instances it can be used interchangeably with light corn syrup, offering a more mellow and intriguing flavor. In the industry, it's used to flavor dark corn syrup. Tate and Lyle, a British company, packages it as Lyle's Golden Syrup.

Containing 24 percent water, unsulfured molasses has the best flavor because it's refined from the concentrated juice of sugarcane. The sulfured variety is usually a by-product of sugar making and tastes of the residues of sulfur dioxide introduced during the sugar making process (sulfured molasses is not produced in the United States). Molasses has a sweetness equivalency to sugar that ranges from 79 to 110 percent. Blackstrap molasses is the most concentrated form of molasses; it's produced during the third and final centrifuging of the raw sugar crystals. Therefore, it's the darkest and most bitter. The color is partially due to the caramelization of the remaining sugars during repeated reboilings of the syrup.

Black treacle:
Containing 18 percent water, this dark, thick liquid is obtained from the residual molasses that's drained from the molds used in the sugar refining process. The flavor of treacle varies considerably, depending on the source and origin of the raw sugar. It's generally considered too bitter or pronounced for culinary use. However, when blended with other intermediate refinery liquor and then evaporated and filtered, it's valued by the British for baking and confectionery when a rich flavor, dark color, and moist texture are required, such as in gingerbread, fruit cakes, and licorice, which contain 20 percent or more treacle for flavor, moisture, and sheen. As it contains only about 65 percent sugars and 4 to 9 percent minerals, it's far less sweet than sugar. It's considered a step up in quality from molasses. It's also a good source of iron, calcium, and potassium.

Other syrups
Corn syrup:
Containing 24 percent water, corn syrup is obtained by partial hydrolysis of cornstarch by acid, alkaline, or enzymatic catalysts. Fructose is added to prevent crystallization. It's susceptible to fermentation if contaminated, so care should be taken not to return any unused portion to the bottle. Fermented corn syrup has a sour taste and should be discarded. If used in low concentration, corn syrup has, by volume, half the sweetening power of sucrose, but in high concentration is about equal. It can be used interchangeably with refiner's syrup but is more flavor neutral.

Containing 15 to 19.7 percent water, this is an invert sugar found in many plants and in great abundance in corn. It's also susceptible to fermentation if contaminated. Glucose browns at a lower temperature than other sugars and contains a high amount of dextrins (which break down starch). Glucose is highly effective in preventing crystallization and is also useful in increasing the pliability of molten sugar mixtures for pulling and shaping without cracking and breaking. It's also available as a powder, containing 95 percent solids but is half as sweet as granulated sugar and is effective in preventing crystallization in ice cream and reducing sweetness by replacing some of the sugar. It prevents crystallization in caramel syrups when about 4 percent the weight of the sugar is added.

Grape syrup:
This import from Italy is pure fructose in liquid form. It works well to sweeten fruit, particularly for fruit salad.

Invented in Alsace, trimoline, produced from beets, contains about 25 percent water. It's made up of 22 percent invert sugar. It's used in sponges, ganache, ice cream, and anything high in fat because it emulsifies the fat by breaking it down into smaller particles. It's 28 percent sweeter than granulated sugar.

Sorghum syrup:
Containing 23 percent water, this syrup is obtained by concentrating sorghum sugar juice.

Maple syrup:
Containing 23 percent water, this all-American favorite is made by concentrating the sap of the sugar maple tree.

Agave syrup:
This neutral golden syrup, containing 23 to 25 percent water, is produced from organically grown blue agave cactus. The golden variety has a slight taste of mescal. Because it's fructose, its sweetening power is higher than sucrose when not heated above 120˚F, at which point it also begins to color. unlike fructose sweeteners that are produced chemically, the fructose is separated by an enzymatic process and then evaporated to the desired consistency. it's used to make beverages such as Tequila and soft drinks, and it may be more tolerable for some diabetics.

Produced from the Stevia plant, this syrup is also available in powdered form. It's approximately double the sweetness of sucrose. It's also tolerated by some diabetics. Available in health food stores.

Containing 17.2 percent water, this common ingredient is the nectar of plants gathered, modified, stored, and concentrated by the honey bees. It's made up of levulose (fructose) and dextrose (glucose). Honey has many sources, such as borage, buckwheat, avocado, thyme, clover, and its flavor varies accordingly.

Making sugar syrups
When making sugar syrup for Italian meringue or classic buttercream, for example, the sugar is concentrated to produce a supersaturated solution from a saturated one. A saturated sugar solution contains the maximum amount of sugar possible at room temperature without precipitating out into crystals. A supersaturated sugar solution contains more sugar than the water can dissolve at room temperature. Heating the solution enables the sugar to dissolve. Cold water is capable of holding double its weight in sugar, but by heating the solution, more sugar can dissolve in the same amount of water. A sugar solution begins with sugar, partially dissolved in at least one-third its weight of cold water. it's stirred continuously until boiling, at which time all the sugar is dissolved. If sugar crystals remain on the sides of the pan, they should be washed down with a wet pastry brush. The solution is now considered supersaturated and, to avoid crystallization, must no longer be stirred.

As the water evaporates, the temperature of the solution rises and the density increases. Concentration of the syrup is dependent on the amount of water left after evaporation. The temperature of the syrup indicates the concentration. As long as there is a lot of water in the syrup, the temperature won't rise much above the boiling point of water. but when most of the water has evaporated, the temperature can rise dramatically, passing through various stages (see chart) and eventually rising to the temperature of melted sugar (320˚F) when all the water is gone.

Concentration can also be measured by density using a saccharometer or Baumé sugar weight scale. A Baumé sugar weight scale is graduated from 0˚ to 44˚ and corresponds in a direct relationship to the degrees in Fahrenheit or Centigrade. The degree of evaporation can also be measured by consistency by dropping a small amount of the syrup into ice water.

Supersaturated solutions are highly unstable and recrystallization can occur from agitation or even just by allowing them to stand unless the solution was properly heated in the first place. The use of an "interfering agent" such as invert sugar (a little more than one-fourth the weight of the granulated sugar), butter, cream of tartar, or citric acid helps keep the solution stable by interfering with the crystalline structure formation. This is useful when the solution will be used in a way that will involve repeatedly dipping into it, such as for making spun sugar.

As melted sugar reaches higher temperatures, many chemical changes begin to occur. The sugar cannot begin to caramelize until all the water is evaporated. As it starts to caramelize, its sweetening power decreases. At this point, when all the water has evaporated, stirring won't cause the sugar to crystallize. The addition of a significant amount of an ingredient such as nuts can lower the temperature considerably; this will cause crystallization to occur instantly if no interfering agent was used.

Caramel is extremely difficult to make in humid weather because sugar is highly hygroscopic. The moisture in the air will make the caramel sticky. One-half cup sugar makes a quarter cup of caramel (plus the residue that clings to the pot). If made in a non-stick pan and then pulverized, it returns to its original volume.

When sugar syrup has been prepared in advance, it's sometimes necessary to check the exact quantity of sugar and water it contains. It is important to know that the Baumé reading of a cold solution measures slightly higher than a hot one.

Another variant that affects density reading is altitude. Because water boils at a lower temperature as altitude increases (there is less air pressure weighing on top of the water to prevent it from changing from liquid into vapor), there'll be a different temperature for the same concentration of sugar syrup at different altitudes. For each increase of 500 feet in elevation, syrup will be cooked to a temperature 1˚F lower than the temperature called for at sea level. If readings are taken in Celsius, for each 900 feet of elevations cook the syrup to a temperature 1˚C lower than called for at sea level. These adjustments should be made up to 320˚F, the melting point of sugar. Altitude does not change this.

Over the years, when emptying a 100-pound bag of sugar into a storage bin, I've noticed an unpleasant odor and wondered how a refined substance—which we think of as the pure essence and very definition of sweetness, one that adds such a lovely flavor and balances bitterness in other ingredients—could have such an odd smell on its own. I eventually came to the conclusion that perhaps refining, the very process of removing the "impurities" in the sugar, may itself be responsible for introducing off-flavors. It was only after completing this article that I had the chance to experiment with some of my newly discovered sugars.

In a recipe for caramelized onions, I threw caution to the wind and replaced all of the refined sugar with the more intensely flavored palm jaggery. In the past, I would've imagined that the molasses in this unrefined sugar would add undesirable bitterness, but with my new awareness I suspected that instead it would add a desirable flavor dimension. In any case, I wasn't sure how noticeable this substitution would be in this particular recipe, which contains several other intense ingredients such as grenadine and red wine vinegar. To my delight, I found the resulting caramelized onions more delicious than ever. But more significantly, my husband, totally unaware of the sugar switch, and who in the past had found the dish to be unpleasantly bitter, announced that he noticed a change and much preferred it because it tasted far less bitter. My hypothesis about the bitterness in refined sugar was proven to my satisfaction!

Over the past several years, I've been using partially refined sugars in baking, replacing refined light and dark brown sugars with their less refined counterparts, and replacing refined granulated sugar with the partially refined castor sugar.

Chris Broberg (pastry chef, Lespinasse, NYC) associates the more flavorful unrefined and partially refined sugars with the more intense desserts of fall and winter. He use light muscovado in shortbread and dark muscovado for pear tarts. In the summer, Broberg infuses Roman mint or nepitella (Calamintha nepeta) into a sugar syrup and then drizzles the syrup over chopped roasted strawberries. He serves them topped with a strawberry tuile filled with strawberry sorbet and topped with a sprig of nepitella. On the side are more sliced strawberries carrying an ornament of crème brûlée-topped pistachio shortbread.

Mary Cech (pastry chef/instructor, The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, St. Helena, CA) prefers granular to superfine sugar for decorative work such as rolling truffles or making candied rose petals because it has less of a tendency to melt and is more visual. Cech has used brown rice syrup (converted starch from rice made from ground rice, cooked to a slurry) in place of honey, molasses, or other syrups because it's less sweet and has a mild flavor. It's an invert sugar so it makes desserts somewhat denser and keeps them moister.

Claudia Fleming (pastry chef, Gramercy Tavern, NYC) uses mostly refined sugar for baking but enjoys the earthy, rich, and complex flavors of muscovado sugar for cold-weather desserts such as gingerbread ice cream. She finds that the molasses in the sugar produces a creamier texture because it lowers the freezing point.

Andreas Galliker (executive pastry chef, Albert Uster Imports, Gaithersburg, MD) uses glucose for sugar boiling and show pieces because of its strength. Galliker says it doesn't have a tendency to crystallize so he doesn't have to pull it as much to get the shine. He also says it's cleaner so there are fewer residues to skim off. He helped develop Albert Uster's brand of glucose, produced from all potato starch and containing 45 percent dextrose. Glucose made from potatoes tends not to foam or boil over.

Michelle Gayer (former pastry chef, Charlie Trotter's, Chicago) finds molasses and partially refined sugars have more character and depth, and are more full-bodied than refined sugar. She likes to make a molasses spice cake for fall because the colder weather and warmer flavors go well together.

Pierre Hermé (pastry chef/owner, Pierre Hermé Pâtissier, Tokyo, and SOCREPA, Paris and NYC) loves working with different sugars, especially muscovado, which he uses in an up-side-down fresh and dried apricot tart with muscovado sugar. He's also partial to palm jaggery.

Raji Jallepalli (chef/owner, Restaurant Raji, Memphis, TN) feels that jaggery is to refined sugar what red wine is to white. She values jaggery for its more interesting flavor dimension, which she describes as dirty/murky. She incorporates it into a glaze for salmon and a blue cheese crème brûlée flavored with rose water.

Steve Klc (pastry chef, Pastryarts.com, Washington, D.C.) treats sugar as a spice equal in weight to vanilla in importance. He also likes the flavors of jaggery, equating them to rum. Klc also uses raw sugarcane juice for granité intermezzos but cautions that it ferments quickly, giving it a short shelf life. He uses jaggery in Indian desserts based on French techniques. He also uses it in dessert soups, finding it adds more depth of flavor. Klc makes a gelée of tamarind and jaggery, cuts it into cubes, and places it in cool soups such as tomato and coconut cream soup. He enjoys the nice surprise of flavor intensity and sweetness. He also reports that drying out jaggery or brown sugar for about 10 minutes at 350˚F, or until they attain the texture of granulated sugar, allows them to caramelize beautifully. He grinds the jaggery in a spice mill, sprinkles it on custard, and brûlées it under a salamander. He employs this technique for his signature dessert—a milk chocolate chai crème brûlée. Klc likes the tan color and granule size of date sugar for coating pâte de fruits, especially mango, apricot, and passion fruit.

Jay McCarthy (chef/restaurant consultant) favors agave syrup for sauces that are not heated so as to retain its subtle floral quality. He also uses piloncillo to great advantage as a flavor accent in a sauce made with morita chiles.

Andrew McLaughlin (pastry chef, Charlie Trotter's, Chicago) feels that sugar alone is not very delicious so it's critical that it's used as a counterpoint with acid. He believes that sugar is one element of the flavor profile, not the whole one. McLaughlin uses 50/50 dark/refined sugar for caramel. He takes the caramel to different degrees (shades) for different flavor effects; for example, for apricot tart Tatin he uses a lighter caramel to complement the acidity of the apricots. In the fall, he uses maple sugar for a maple crème brûlée made in a baby pumpkin shell, using dried brown sugar for the caramel crust. He substitutes molasses for egg in short dough. He also makes a molasses sorbet. McLaughlin uses glucose in ice creams with a high water content, such as strawberry or peach, to prevent crystallization without excessive sweetening. He cooks the fruit with the glucose.

Mark Miller (chef/owner, Coyote Cafe, Santa Fe and Las Vegas, and Red Sage, Washington, D.C.) uses piloncillo for desserts, sweet tamales, dry rubs, marinades, and fruit-laden moles. He states that it has more affinity for stronger flavors, offering more flavor dimensions rather than just more sweetness. If fruit isn't ripe enough and you add more sugar to accentuate its flavor, refined sugar causes it to separate out from the main flavor, and the sugar is tasted first. The cruder types of sugar give more flavor compression and better integration. Miller also appreciates agave, explaining that at high altitude it's invaluable for its ability to hold moisture in baked goods such as muffins, breads, brownies, and cookies. He also uses agave in cocktails. He suggests the more flavorful golden variety for use with corn.

Wayne Nish (chef/owner, March, NYC) never uses refined sugar except for baking. He uses palm jaggery and other partially refined sugars in chutneys and savories because he feels that refined sugar is "in-your-face sweetness," whereas unrefined sugar has a roundness of flavor to balance acidic or astringent elements. This makes it possible to add less than when using refined sugar. To sear meat for a braised dish, Nish first heats oil and dry spices until they're smoking. The spices are removed, and the oil is heated in a clean pan with palm sugar. Meat is then added to brown, before vegetables and a liquid are added to build the stew's flavors.

François Payard (chef/owner, Payard Pâtisserie & Bistro, NYC) uses refined sugar, both granulated and confectioners', for most of his baking, and Isomalt for pulled sugar and display pieces because it is so resistant to humidity. He uses a coarser granulation of sugar for his fruit jellies because it doesn't melt as easily. He also uses trimoline for fondant, truffles, and praline filling, because it keeps them very moist without adding ingredients containing excess sugar or richness such as cocoa butter.

Jacquy Pfeiffer (chef/co-owner, The French Pastry School, Chicago) values turbinado for brûlées because it has more flavor and larger crystals, and Isomalt for display pieces. He uses trimoline, glucose, and sorbital to prevent crystallization. He adds a small amount of sorbital into soft caramel to help thicken it, lecithin to emulsify it, baking soda to help mix all the ingredients, and salt to bring out flavor and cut down the sweetness. He uses glucose powder to prevent crystallization and cut sweetness in ice cream (6 percent of the total weight).

Julie Sahni (Indian cookbook author) never uses refined sugar because "nothing on this planet comes close to jaggery." In India, it's used as a fragrant flavor and not just a sweetener. Its flavor is subtle and floral with a delicate lingering taste akin to very high quality vanilla. It becomes almost fudgelike when cooked with milk. Sahni's rice pudding relies only on jaggery and a hint of cardamom for flavor.

When I agreed to write this story for Food Arts, I thought it would be easy and delightful to compile and share my knowledge of sugar resulting from years of work in pastry and as president of the former sugar committee for the International Association of Culinary Professionals. But I soon discovered that what I knew was merely the tip of a giant sugar cube. Not a day went by without some fascinating new fact or discovery of some new and unlikely sugar source that compelled me to contact Food Arts staff just to share the excitement. For months, it became my primary fascination and focus.

There is far more information in this piece than I had ever anticipated. I now realize that using only refined and partially refined sugars was like being color blind. Sugar, the one ingredient that defines dessert, was being treated like just a pretty face, overlooking its mind and character. I had been missing out on an extraordinary spectrum of flavors. A new world has opened to me and will affect my future baking and cooking profoundly. It will take years to test and investigate all the possibilities. I hope that you also will be inspired to try some of these different sugars and that the information offered will make better bakers and cooks of us all.

Sweetening the Pot

Percentage of Water Contained in Sugar and Sugar Syrups

  • white sugar: 0.5%
  • brown sugar: 2.1%
  • malt powder: 5.2%
  • maple sugar: 8%
  • refiner's syrup: 15 to 18%
  • glucose: 15 to 19.7%
  • honey: 17.2%
  • black treacle: 18%
  • maple syrup: 23%
  • sorghum: 23%
  • agave syrup: 24%
  • corn syrup: 24%
  • molasses: 24%

Temperatures and tests for sugar syrup

Thread: 215˚F
The sugar may be pulled into brittle threads between the fingers. This is used for candy, fruit liqueur making, and some icings.

Pearl: 220˚F to 222˚F
The thread formed by pulling the liquid sugar may be stretched. When a cool metal spoon is dipped into the syrup and then raised, the syrup runs off in drops that merge to form a sheet. This is used for making jelly.

Soft Ball: 234˚F to 240˚F
Syrup dropped into ice water may be formed into a ball that flattens on removal from the water. This is used for extra-light Italian meringue, fondant, fudge, peppermint creams, and classic buttercream.

Firm Ball: 244˚F to 250˚F
Syrup dropped into ice water may be formed into a firm ball that doesn't flatten on removal from the water. This is used for light Italian meringue, caramels, nougats, and soft toffees.

Hard Ball: 250˚F to 266˚F
Syrup dropped into ice water may be formed into a hard ball that holds its shape on removal from the water but is still plastic. This is used for toffee, divinity, marshmallows, and popcorn balls.

Soft Crack: 270˚F to 290˚F
Syrup dropped into ice water separates into threads that are hard but not brittle. This is used for Italian meringue for piping elaborate designs, butterscotch, and taffy.

Hard Crack: 300˚F to 310˚F
Syrup dropped into ice water separates into hard, brittle threads. This is used for brittle and glacéed fruits.

Clear Liquid: 320˚F
The sugar liquifies (all moisture is removed) and can start browning. This is used for making barley sugar (a candy).

Brown Liquid: 338˚F
The liquified sugar turns brown. This is used for light caramel.

Medium Brown Liquid: 356˚F
The liquefied sugar darkens further. This is used for intensely flavored caramel cream sauce and as a coloring agent for sauces.

Black Jet: 410˚F
The liquefied sugar turns black and then decomposes.


Different temperatures, ranging from 350˚F to 380˚F, are suitable for different types of caramel. When making spun sugar, for example, too light a color would produce a ghostly effect and too dark a color would produce a brassy color when spun. When making a caramel sauce, however, 380˚F will offer a deeper, more intense flavor. Over 380˚F and the caramel becomes unpleasantly bitter.

Recommended temperatures for caramel:

  • 350˚F to 360˚F, pale amber, for a caramel cage.
  • 360˚F to 370˚F, medium amber for spun sugar.
  • 370˚F to 380˚F, deep amber, for praline powder, caramels, or caramel sauce. If using partially refined sugar, 360˚ F.