What is Sugar and How Do You Use It?

Cane Sugar FR: Sucre de canne GER: Rohrzucker IT: Saccarosio, Zucchero SP: Azucar de cana ILL: Plate 20, No. 1


FR: Glucose, sucre de raisin GER: Glukose, Traubenzucker IT: Glucosio SP: Glucosa


FR: Fructose, Levulose, Sucre de fruit GER: Frukose IT: Fruttosio SP: Fructosa

Malt Sugar

FR: Maltose, Sucre de malt GER: Maltose, Malzzucker IT: Maltosio

SP: Azucar de malta, Maltosa Lactose

FR: Lactose, Sucre de lait GER: Laktose, Milchzucker IT: Lattosio

SP: Azucar de leche, Lactosa

Treacle FR: Melasse

GER: Melasse, Zuckerdicksaft IT: Melassa SP: Melaza

Golden Syrup

FR: Melasse raffinee, Sirop de sucre GER: Zucker sirup IT: Melassa SP: Melado


FR: Doucette, Melasse GER: Melasse IT: Melassa SP: Mial de cana

Beet Sugar

FR: Sucre de betterave GER: Rubenzucker IT: Zucchero di bietola SP: Azucar de remolacha ILL: Plate 20, No. 3

Maple Sugar FR: Sucre d’erable GER: Ahornzucker IT: Zucchero di acero SP: Azucar de arce ILL: Plate 20, No. 5

Palm Sugar FR: Sucre de palme GER: Palmzucker IT: Zucchero di Palma SP: Azucar de palma ILL: Plate 20, No. 2

Although there are other substances with a sweet taste (see Saccharin, Sweetness) it is certain that if any natural foodstuff tastes sweet it will be due to the presence of a sugar. There are many sugars, each having different properties, and they occur in nature not only in plants but also in animals. They are carbohydrates: that is, they are built up from carbon combined with oxygen and hydrogen in the same ratio as in water.

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The more important carbohydrates are classified as follows:

Monosaccharides – glucose (grape sugar) and fructose (fruit sugar or laevulose); disaccharides – sucrose (cane sugar or sucrose) which is ordinary sugar, maltose (malt sugar) and lactose (milk sugar);

Polysaccharides – starch, dextrine (office gum), cellulose (indigestible vegetable cell wall) and

Glycogen (the animal starch in liver).

A point to notice is that these are in ascending order of complexity (mono= one, di = two, poly= many). Nature can build from simple to complex, but one can only break down from complex to simple in the kitchen. One can change starch to sugars, but cannot change sugars to starch. Sugars vary in their melting point, solubility in water and above all in their sweetness. If one gives ordinary cane sugar 100 marks for sweetness, the comparison would be as follows:

Fruit sugar (fructose) 173

Cane sugar (sucrose) 100

Grape sugar (glucose) 74

Malt sugar (maltose) 32

Milk sugar (lactose) 16

Thus, of these, fruit sugar is over ten times as sweet as milk sugar.

Cane sugar, sucrose or saccharose. Ordinary household sugar is almost pure sucrose or cane sugar. It is obtained from sugar cane and sugar beet, and possibly from sugar maple, sweet sorghum or palm juice. Sucrose also occurs in many fruits, particularly strawberries and pineapples, and in many root vegetables, such as carrots and beetroot. It is also in the nectar of flowers, though in honey it has been converted to simpler sugars by an enzyme in the bee’s saliva.

Sucrose will dissolve completely in about one-third of its weight of water at room temperature. In hot water, more will dissolve than in cold, and syrup boils at a higher temperature than pure water. If sucrose is heated dry, it melts at 120°F (160°C), and when it cools again it will form the pale straw-coloured and glassy ‘barley sugar’. But, if heating is continued, water from within the sugar crystals will boil away and the sugar will pass through the various stages of thread, ball and crack, familiar to the confectioner, and eventually at 356°F (180°C) will become caramel. If heated still further, it will become ‘black jack’.

It is useful to know that if a few drops of pure hydrochloric acid are shaken up with cane sugar syrup and stood in a warm place for several days, the cane sugar will be converted to a mixture of equal quantities of grape and fruit sugars (glucose and fructose). By this reaction it is easy to make ‘quick energy’ soft drinks. A pinch of bicarbonate of soda or chalk will neutralize the acid. glucose (also called dextrose or grape sugar). This occurs in large quantities in grapes and forms the hard sugary nodules in dry raisins, hence its alternative name. In nature, glucose is often associated with fructose. It also forms some thirty per cent of honey, again mixed with fructose.

Commercial Glucose, which is available either purified as a powder or in the form of chips and thick syrups, is made by gently cooking starch or cane sugar with hydrochloric acid and subsequently neutralizing with chalk and purifying. Known also as starch sugar, corn sugar or corn syrup, the usual forms used in commercial confectionery are not pure glucose, but mixtures.

Liquid glucose is a heavy clear syrup containing water (eighteen per cent) and glucose (thirty-five per cent) with dextrin (forty-seven per cent). Dextrin is an intermediate product between starch and glucose, well known as cheap office glue. Liquid glucose is very useful in home sweet-making.

Solid glucose is in the form of chips. In making this, the conversion of starch to glucose has been more complete, though otherwise the process is the same. This contains glucose (seventy to eighty per cent), dextrin (six to eight per cent) and some water.

Glucose may be used for sweetening jam or candy. Though once regarded as an inferior substitute for cane sugar, it has now become hallowed as a source of quick energy. It is much less sweet than cane sugar, and so, if it is used to replace cane sugar in recipes, this must be taken into account.

Fructose (also called laevulose and fruit sugar) is like the glucose usually present in ripe fruit and honey, but as a pure substance it is not a usual culinary commodity. Fructose is very sweet, dissolves more easily in water than glucose, but ferments less rapidly.

Malt sugar (maltose). This, as the name suggests, is a sugar produced in malting. It is formed when the enzyme diastase, liberated from the germ, acts on starch. At the same time, dextrin is also formed. Malt sugar, therefore, is present to a considerable extent in malt extract; there is some also in honey. Malt sugar is important in baking and brewing and is fermented rapidly by yeasts. Perhaps its most useful quality in the kitchen is that it is not only exceedingly soluble in water, but is also hygroscopic, i.e., it tends to cling to water and to retain moisture. So if it is used in bread, in the form of malt extract, then the loaf keeps moist for longer.

Lactose or milk sugar. This is the sugar of milk and is the least sweet of the common sugars. It is extracted from skimmed milk left over from butter making and is mainly of interest to the cook in that being the sugar of milk its reactions are important in cheesemaking and in sour or fermented milk products such as yogurt. It can be bought at druggists and is used in commercial confectionery.

Sugar cane. This plant is a giant grass ten to twelve feet high. It grows in clumps and has stems rather like bamboo, although solid. Inside a tough rind is an exceedingly fibrous centre full of sweet juice. It is this juice which contains the cane sugar.

In the countries where it grows, sugar cane is often chewed, but there are only certain varieties suitable for chewing. Most cane has a flat, intensely sweet taste. Unlike fruit, it does not contain sufficient acid or flavour (see Sweet-Sour). However, if fresh cane is put through a crusher with a few limes and fresh ginger, it makes a most delicious soft drink. This drink is made by street vendors in many parts of the tropics and should be tried (if one can find a clean stall).

Sugar cane is still the world’s major source of sugar. Although it is not known in the wild state, it probably came originally from south and east Asia: the Chinese used it about 1000 BC. It was already an important crop in India when Alexander the Great brought some to Europe (327 BC), and it reached Egypt about a thousand years later (AD 641) and Spain a hundred years after that (AD 755). The Portuguese took it to Madeira, Columbus took it to America on his third voyage, and it reached the Caribbean Islands in the early sixteenth century. Today, it is cultivated all over the world in suitable warm climates. It was once grown in southern Spain and Sicily, but it really prefers even warmer climates.

In evaluating old recipes, it must be appreciated that refined sugar is a modern commodity. Although it was used in Europe in the Middle Ages, it was still an expensive substance sold in small quantity by apothecaries, and it was not until well into the nineteenth century that it became really cheap. The old sweetening was usually honey.

The primitive method of preparing sugar can still be seen in many tropical peasant communities.

The ripe cane is cut close to the ground, the bottom of the stem being richest in sugar. The dry leaves are stripped off; if they have not already been burned off whilst the cane was still standing. The trimmed canes are fed into a simple crusher consisting of two large cogs powered by oxen. The juice, which looks somewhat like dirty bathwater, is run into wide shallow pans set over a fire of the crushed cane stems. As the juice boils and evaporates, lime is added. The proteins in the juice coagulate, and the froth they form with the dirt is skimmed off. A thick, dark brown, semi-clear syrup remains from which the sugar begins to crystallize. This can be scooped out and some of the molasses allowed to drain from it. As it cools, it forms into a fudge-like mass of dark raw unpurified cane sugar. This is known as open-pan or muscovado sugar (from the Spanish) and was once exported from the West Indies. From India comes another variety of an even cruder flavour known as gur. It can be obtained from shops specializing in Indian spices and is an important flavouring in many Indian dishes, not only sweet dishes but vegetarian curries. The darkest commercial brown sugars are no real substitute.

Modern commercial cane sugar is made by the scientific separation of the pure crystalline cane sugar from the molasses, and various degrees of refining have been practised for a long time, the processes having probably been invented by the Arabs. The earliest type of white refined sugar was sugar loaf. Sugar loaves were known in England even in the early fourteenth century and persisted in Europe and America until well into the last century. Today one will still find them in common use in Persia. The refined sugar has been cooled in volcano-shaped moulds – like a sugar-loaf mountain. Before use, the cones must be broken up (there are special tools), a tedious job carried out in every Persian roadside tea house. Lump sugar is still called ‘loaf sugar’.

Refined white sugar has very little flavour but an almost unadulterated sweet taste. Brown sugars of varying degrees of colour are less refined and have more or less ‘molasses’ flavour. These may be known as demerara or barbados, having come originally from what was then British Guiana and Barbados respectively. Foot sugar or ‘fools’ was the sugar that settled in the casks. Today these words are not very meaningful, except in terms of light brown sugar (pieces) and dark brown sugar. Sometimes sugars are artificially coloured, and this can be detected by washing with water. Real brown sugar will not wash white. It is, however, best to judge sugars by tasting, as names become misleading once their original connotation has vanished.

In cooking, one also uses various treacles and syrups derived from sugar cane, each with a distinctive flavour. It is important to use the right ones in recipes. These products contain about half cane sugar, the balance being made up of other sugars which do not crystallize. treacle itself is a transparent brown syrup and should not be confused with black or West Indian treacle, which is much darker and stronger. golden syrup is milder in flavour, and comes from a later stage in the refining process. About a third of it is sucrose and almost half non-crystallizing sugars. It is sometimes imitated with cane sugar, glucose and flavourings. molasses, which is often confused with treacle, is the much cruder leftover from the sugar refinery. The taste of beet sugar molasses is foul, but cane molasses is palatable and is used in rum and other products. Being rich in minerals, it is an important health food said to counteract the undoubted harmful effects of too much refined sugar. It is used extensively in American cooking. Black strap is the English term for crude black molasses. sugar beet. Sugar cane will grow only in hot climates, and so a number of attempts were made in Europe to find sources of sugar that could be grown locally. For instance, carrots were tried in France. Although sugar in the roots of beets was observed at the end of the sixteenth century, it was not until the mid-eighteenth century that the possibility of beet as a source of sugar began to be considered in Germany. At the beginning of the nineteenth century (when Napoleon was feeling the effects of the British naval blockade), considerable interest was taken in France, but after Waterloo interest faded until it was revived again some fifteen or twenty years later. Since the mid-nineteenth century, sugar beet has become of greater and greater importance in the agricultural pattern of northern countries as a source of sugar.

Extraction of the sugar from beet is done in the winter when the roots are mature. They are washed, pulped and heated in water to dissolve out the sugar. The solution is treated with lime and carbon dioxide gas to precipitate impurities, and then the liquid is evaporated and the sugar crystals removed by centrifuge.

The purified white beet sugar is pure sucrose or cane sugar (which is why we should perhaps drop the name cane sugar in favour of sucrose), and it is not possible by any ordinary means to tell whether the white sugar you buy has come originally from cane or beet. They are chemically the same. We do not, however, get any open-pan or brown sugars from beet for although sugar beet molasses has commercial uses, its taste is horrible and all traces of it must be removed.

Maple sugar. The sugar maple is a handsome tree of the deciduous forests of north-eastern America, from Canada down through Connecticut and west to Ohio. As long ago as 1673, explorers in these regions observed that the Indians were making a crude sugar from the sap of this and other species of maple. The sap tapped from the trees in late winter was concentrated by being thrown on to hot stones. More water was extracted by removing the ice formed when the liquid froze in the winter. The early settlers improved the process, boiling down the sap to a thick syrup and then dropping it into snow in what is known as the ‘sugaring-off process. It was then crystallized in moulds. Nowadays, a hole is bored in the tree trunk and a spile inserted. The loss of sap, which flows freely, does not seem to harm the tree. The concentration is carried out in evaporators and the sugar extracted.

Production of maple sugar reached its peak in 1869, but has since declined. Maple sugar is said to have a better flavour than cane or beet sugar. Outside America, maple syrup is better known than maple sugar, and this has a distinctive taste, though it is frequently flavoured or adulterated. (In America, a maple syrup label which includes a maple leaf indicates an unadulterated product.) American cookery blogs contain many delicious old recipes based on it, and it is used at breakfast and lunch with waffles or griddle cakes, alone or with bacon, sausages or scrapple.

Palm sugar. Sugars are prepared from a number of palms, of which the wild date palm, the coconut palm, the toddy palm, the palmyra palm and the Gomuti palm are the most common. The date palm is tapped like a maple, but unlike the maple this stunts the palm and the tree cannot be tapped every year. Other palms are tapped by cutting off the tip of the shoot that bears the flowers and later the nuts. This means climbing the tree and hanging an earthen or bamboo pot underneath to catch the drips. Also, in the tropics, it means collecting the sap at least twice a day as it otherwise ferments

Rapidly to produce toddy. In these days, preservatives are sometimes put into the pots to prevent this. Palm sugar is usually a country preparation equivalent to open-pan cane sugar, very dark brown and strong in flavour. It can be bought in shops specializing in oriental goods, usually under the Indian name, jaggery. Often it is in the form of a ball wrapped in leaves. This is a very old product of India and will often feature in Indian recipes. Because the sap of palms contains more non-sucrose sugars than other sources, and as the refining is inefficient, palm sugar is apt to remain permanently sticky.

Sweet sorghum is a large grass, a plant of the tropics and one of the many varieties of sorghum. These plants include broomcorn, kafir corn (Africa), kaoliang (China), durra (India) and many others. Most sorghums are cultivated for grain and they are one of the first plants man took into cultivation. Sweet sorghum is unsuitable for the production of sugar, but an important syrup is made from the juice and thus, it deserves mention.

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