Sugar: brown v white
As a home baker my question concerns the seemingly high quantity of white sugar in many cake, biscuit and slice recipes. In aiming for a healthier option, would you recommend using raw sugar instead of white? In what way would this alter the finished product in terms of taste and appearance?
Sugar — it’s the ingredient, along with salt, that causes so much anguish in people. Though an excessive amount is neither good for health nor the waistline, sugar is also one of the pantry’s most fabulous and indispensible ingredients. I have to admit to a sweet tooth (but luckily I also have a very savoury one) and I guess that’s the appeal for me of Southeast Asian cuisines — their combination of sweet and sour, along with spicy and aromatic characteristics, makes their food very appealing.
Patisserie, gelato and candy, jams and preserves, fruit cordials and the likes would all be much less interesting if sugar wasn’t used — but as you know there are many types of sugar to choose from. A young chef in one of my London kitchens thought he knew all about Thai food and tried to tell me that they only sweeten foods with palm sugar, and that the use of granulated sugar wasn’t known. I had to tell him that I remember many times throughout my travels in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand seeing roadside cooks and restaurant chefs sweetening their food with granulated sugars coloured white through to golden, and that in many ways these give almost the same character as the more traditional palm and coconut sugars that you’ll find for sale in many Asian food stores.
He believed that palm sugar = good, and granulated = bad (and the cause of tooth decay — clearly he hadn’t spoken to many of the old toothless vendors in the markets). The truth is that too much of most things will likely do you no good— although kissing luckily doesn’t fall into this category!
These days palm sugar and coconut sugar are relatively easy to find and both are made in a similar fashion — both being tapped from a particular palm tree. The former is made by collecting sap which weeps out from cuts made by harvesters in the stem of a variety of palms. Coconut sugar on the other hand is collected from the sap given off by cut flower buds from the coconut palm. The liquids collected are cooked down into a thick syrup, which crystallises into sugar.
The first time I saw it being made was in Bali. There were thousands and thousands of little unglazed ceramic dishes laying in the sun and a boiling thick syrup was being poured into them from a huge "kettle". The sugar began to set and was then dried out in the sun until firm, eventually finding its way into spicy satay sauces and black rice puddings for those lucky enough to be feasting on Bali’s delicious food.
If you think this all sounds quite complicated, bear in mind that maple syrup is collected in pretty much the same way, but from the maple trees of Canada and the northern states of the USA.
Sugar, on the other hand, is made by crushing sugar cane, or sugar beet in Europe where sugar cane won’t grow (too cold — and I tell you, this UK spring so far is enough to drive all plants away!). The syrup is boiled down and cooked until it also crystallises and at this point you’d have what would be called brown sugar — a sugar rich in molasses. The more molasses the richer, darker and slightly bitter the sugar will be — such as muscovado. If all the molasses is removed then you have white sugar — either large crystals which is what often ends up in coffee and tea, or crushed even smaller into caster sugar, used primarily for baking. Crushed even finer, and usually with a caking agent added, you end up with icing sugar.
As for your question, raw sugar will add character but it’s not always so simple to just substitute a brown sugar for a white one — making meringues with brown sugar gives a wetter base than when using caster sugar — but you can cook them longer and you’ll end up with something chewy and delicious. The best answer is to play around with substitution and if you feel too much sugar is being used, reel it back 10-20 per cent. I can’t imagine you’ll destroy the integrity of most recipes.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you’re stumped over something food-related, send your question to email@example.com and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.