October/November 2010

Getting to Know: Sugars & Syrups

Sweeteners do more than sweeten: They preserve, accelerate browning, activate yeast, promote tenderness in cakes and cookies, and stabilize whipped egg whites. In general, liquid sweeteners can replace white sugar in baked goods, but they may have distinctive flavors, plus they’ll brown faster. For each cup of liquid sweetener you use, reduce the other liquid in the recipe by one-quarter.

Granulated Sugar

The relatively fine crystals and neutral flavor of granulated (white) sugar make it the most versatile sweetener there is; we’d scarcely recognize cake and cookies without it. Granulated sugar is also used in savory cooking—for instance, to temper the acidity of tomato sauce. It’s refined from either sugar cane or sugar beets.

Brown Sugar

Whether light or dark, brown sugar is white sugar that has been flavored with molasses. Of the two, dark brown sugar contains more molasses, so it tastes stronger. When brown sugar is exposed to air, the moisture in the molasses evaporates, and the brown sugar dries out and hardens. To soften it, warm in a 250-degree oven for five minutes and cool before using.

Confectioners' Sugar

To produce powdered sugar, manufacturers grind granulated sugar 10 times (that’s why it’s also called 10X) and mix it with cornstarch, which prevents clumping. It’s used in icing and candy because it dissolves easily. To make it yourself, grind 1 cup of granulated sugar with 1 teaspoon of cornstarch in a blender—a food processor will not work—for a full 3 minutes.

Turbinado Sugar

Turbinado has a mild caramel-molasses flavor and large, rock candy–like crystals that do not readily dissolve, a reason to avoid it when making batters or doughs. Instead, we like to stir it into coffee or tea, where it will dissolve, or to sprinkle it on muffin batter and cookie dough for a nice crunch. As part of the manufacturing process, turbinado sugar is spun in a centrifuge or a turbine; thus the name.

Natural Cane Sugar

Look for this delicious unrefined sugar in Latin markets as piloncillo (sometimes panela) or in Indian markets as jaggery (or gur). Juice from sugar cane (or palm tree sap) is boiled and poured into molds, where it hardens into blocks. Tasters compared piloncillo to tart molasses, and found jaggery “buttery,” “citrusy,” and “smoky.” Melt a lump in your coffee or grate it over buttered toast. For baking, melt these sugars with a liquid ingredient.


Bees pollinate, thus indirectly giving us much of the food we eat. Directly, they give us honey, the world’s oldest sweetener. Its flavor varies greatly (from lavender to buckwheat to eucalyptus, to name a few), depending on which flowers and trees the honeybees have visited for nectar. To revive crystallized honey, put it in a microwave-safe bowl and heat in 10-second increments until liquefied. Don’t let it boil.

Corn Syrup

Although many people think of corn syrup as cloying, it’s actually only about 65 percent as sweet as white sugar. In fact, tasted by itself, it was “sort of savory,” our tasters found. Corn syrup—a byproduct of cornstarch—does not crystallize. As a result, it won’t turn frostings, candies, or pies grainy (it’s used most famously in pecan pie). Manufacturers turn light corn syrup into dark by adding caramel color and a molasses-like product.

Maple Syrup

To begin, pure maple syrup and pancake syrup are not the same. Real maple syrup is nothing but sap from the sugar maple tree that has been boiled down (from about 40 gallons to 1). In the process, the sap caramelizes and develops its characteristic flavor. We prefer stronger, less expensive Grade A Dark Amber to Grade A Light Amber; reserve the strongest syrup, Grade B for cooking. Maple Grove Farms Pure Maple Syrup is our favorite brand.

Cane Syrup

Cane syrup, a caramelized, concentrated version of pure cane juice, is one of the distinctive flavors of southern Louisiana, where about half the sugar cane in the United States is grown. Tasters described it as having a “boozy,” “burnt caramel” flavor, making it well suited for fruitcake. In Louisiana, it’s drizzled over biscuits and boudin rouge sausages and used in a spice cake called gâteau de sirop.

Sorghum Syrup

Slaves probably brought sweet sorghum—a native African grass—to the United States. The juice of the grass is extracted and concentrated into syrup. Made today in very small batches in southeastern and Gulf states, no two brands are exactly alike. Those we tasted ranged from “lemony” to “tar-like and molasses-y.” All had a slight “malty” flavor suited to barbecue sauce and baked beans.

Golden Syrup

Golden syrup is available almost exclusively from the British brand Lyle’s, and the British use it, among other things, in the flapjack, their beloved bar cookie. The syrup, which is also called treacle, is about 25 percent sweeter than sugar. It’s made from cane sugar and won over our tasters for its “butterscotch,” “toffee” flavors. We like it with pancakes as an alternative to maple syrup.

Agave Nectar

Blue agave, a large, spiky succulent that grows mostly in Mexico, gives us both agave nectar and tequila. The mild syrup is extracted and filtered from the core of the plant. In recent years, it has gained popularity as a natural alternative to white sugar, particularly in baking, possibly because unlike many other liquid sugars, it has a relatively neutral taste.