I love to travel and frequently collect cookbooks from my destinations. However, sometimes I get into trouble when a recipe calls for ingredients and I have no idea of the American equivalent. Sugar is one ingredient that I’ve had this problem with frequently, so I decided to investigate the differences. I suspect part of the problem is that in America most sugar names are fairly self-explanatory: dark brown sugar, light brown sugar, and powdered sugar. Not so with a lot of the sugars specified in recipes- take jaggery for example, what do I use that for, or rapadura – what the heck is that? Well you get the idea. I was befuddled, so I set about identifying as many sugars as I could. I realize other types and forms of sugar exist such as liquid sugars, but chose to concentrate on the crystal form for this post.
Sugar comes from a variety of sources, the most common being sugar cane, but beet sugar and date sugar are a few alternatives. Along with the variety of sources, there are many different types of granulated sugar. Some are only used by the food industry and professional bakers and not available in the supermarket. Granulated sugars differ in crystal size, so that each crystal size provides unique functional characteristics appropriate for a specific food’s special need.
White sugar is most commonly used in baking, and comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. Each size offers different advantages and can alter the outcome of the recipe, so some consideration is required.
How did White Sugar become White?
To whiten cane sugar, it must be filtered; and the most common filters are made of bovine bone char. Although none of the char becomes a part of the sugar, the two make contact during processing, which can preclude strict vegans from consuming the sugar. Not all cane sugar is processed in this way, and since the method is not always identified on the package it is tricky to determine whether a brand of sugar was whitened with bone char. Beet sugar, which is produced in the midwestern United States, is not filtered using animal products, and requires less whitening than cane sugar.
Castor/caster sugar [United Kingdom] – It can be found with either spelling: “caster” and “castor”, and is a United Kingdom sugar that is very finely granulated (finer than U.S. granulated sugar) which allows it to dissolve almost instantly. It is named after the type of shaker in which it is frequently packaged. It is ideal for delicately textured cakes and meringues, as well as for sweetening fruits and iced-drinks since it dissolves easily. The US equivalent is superfine sugar, ultrafine, bar sugar or baker’s sugar. In British Columbia it is called “berry sugar”. The Baker’s sugar is more refined than fruit sugar and was developed especially for the baking industry for sugaring doughnuts and cookies. When added to some commercial cakes it creates a fine crumb texture.
Confectioners or powdered sugar [United States] – In Britain it is called icing sugar and in France sucre glace. This sugar is granulated sugar ground to a smooth powder and then sifted. It contains about 3% cornstarch, wheat flour or calcium phosphate to prevent caking. For this reason, it is not generally used to sweeten beverages. Powdered sugar is ground into three different degrees of fineness. The confectioners sugar available in supermarkets – 10X – is the finest of the three and is used in icings, confections and whipping cream. The other two types of powdered sugar are used by industrial bakers, and are XXX, XXXX. For the industrial grades, sugar without the additives is also available. According to David Lebovitz, some bakeries use a non-melting powdered sugar which does not dissolve when shifted over baked goods, such as white topping sugar by the King Arthur Company. Per David it offers a “slightly odd mouth feel.”
Hint: If you are in a pinch and need some powdered sugar, you can make your own by blending granulated sugar in a food processor.
Coarse sugar also known as pearl or decorating sugar is larger than that of “regular” sugar. Coarse sugar is recovered when molasses-rich, sugar syrups high in sucrose are allowed to crystallize. The large crystal size of coarse sugar makes it highly resistant to color change or inversion (natural breakdown to fructose and glucose) at cooking and baking temperatures. These characteristics are important in making fondants, confections and liquors.
Fruit Sugar is slightly finer than “regular” or granulated sugar with more uniform crystals. It is used in dry mixes such as gelatin and pudding desserts, and powdered drinks. Those more uniform small crystal size prevent separation or settling of larger crystals to the bottom of the box, an important quality in dry mixes.
Pearl Sugar looks very similar to the large pieces of salt you might find on a soft pretzel from a pretzel vendor. It is common in Scandinavian countries, found on many desserts and pastries. This type of sugar doesn’t really look like pearls, but its name may come for its color; pearly white, and it has more of an oval shape than round. It could be best described as “large” granulated sugar as in the manufacturing process, the sugar is pressed together to produce bigger grains ~ .07″ (2 mm). The distinct advantage to pearl sugar if you want to sugar on top of baked goods that withstands a higher heat before melting. Granulated sugar, in contrast, may melt, especially if the baking time on a dessert is long. In France, this type of sugar is called sucre en grains.
Granulated sugar has a few names including table sugar or white sugar. This is the sugar by far the most popular in the United States, and the form most commonly used in home food preparation. If you come across blanc pure canne or sucre mi blanc in a French cookbook, this would be the closest substitute. Note though, that the French versions are made from beet sugar as opposed to the cane sugar of their American counterparts.
Muku no seitoh or sucre fits d’etoiles is a sugar has been crystalized 3 times to produce a light, clear-cut sweetness. [Japan]
Oni zarame is a crystal sugar made over a longer time for coarse crystallization (zarame), which brings lighter sweetness and a nice aftertaste. [Japan]
Sanding sugar or coarse sugar is a large crystal sugar primarily used in the baking and confectionery industries as a sprinkle on top of baked goods. The large crystals reflect light and give the product a sparkling appearance.
Shunsetsu “yukidoke” tou or “spring snow sugar” is a blend of pure Okinawa brown sugar and Ohtori’s original sugar, with strong brown sugar aftertaste. [Japan]
Sugar cubes are made from moist granulated sugar that is pressed into molds and then dried. In France, sucre en morceaux would be a good substitute, although they come in various shapes. Bakers will crush them on top of their baked goods to provide a crackly finish. The French version are available in white or brown sugar.
Wasanbon toh sugar is manufactured using sugar cane called “Chikutoh”(also called “Hoso-kibi (thin sugar cane)”). Machines are not used in the manufacturing process. It is produced in the Japanese Tokushima prefecture along the southern slope of the Asan mountains. They first started growing sugar cane in this area more than two hundred years ago. Before the war it was produced in large quantities as an ordinary domestic sugar, but was gradually replaced by cheaper imported refined sugar from abroad. Today, wasanbon toh is mainly used for making Japanese sweets, but has found its way into some Western style baking. Wasanbon toh is prized as much for its taste as sweetness, there is a touch of molasses on the sugar despite its white appearance. Its special flavor and taste are quite rare in the world, the reasons why it has continued to be produced even in a climate that is not necessarily suited for producing sugar cane. The closest description I could find is hand ground powdered sugar.
What’s the Difference between Brown and White Sugar?
The more molasses in the sugar the browner it is, so dark brown sugar has more molasses than light brown sugar which has molasses and white sugar has none. Brown sugar retains some of the surface molasses syrup, which imparts a characteristic pleasurable flavor. Dark brown sugar has a deeper color and stronger molasses flavor than light brown sugar. Lighter types are generally used in baking and making butterscotch, condiments and glazes. The rich, full flavor of dark brown sugar makes it good for gingerbread, mincemeat, baked beans, and other full flavored foods. Also brown sugar tends to clump because that molasses leads to a higher moisture content in the sugar. Brown sugar is made by either “painting” white graulated sugar with molasses, or boiling the two together. Brown sugar is also most likely to come from sugar cane rather than beets.
Black Sugar is common in Asian countries. It is unprocessed sugar and contains a lot of additional minerals which give it a healthy perspective. This picture is of black sugar was purchased at a Japanese market. The sugar is called Kuro Sato on the package. Black sugar is made from the first boil of the sugar, so it has the highest concentration of molasses – it is like a very dark brown sugar. A ginger and black sugar tea is popular in China as an energy drink, and on the package it encourages drinking said tea to address a woman’s “monthly issues”. We nibbled on it like candy (in fact it was almost like rock candy) and it was delicious, like molasses, but with a more complex taste. We also added it to hibiscus tea from Egypt to give it a truly international feel, and it worked very well. A good substitute would be sugar vergeoise brune, or piloncillo.
Chu-Zara Tou Sugar is another form of Japanese brown sugar with ~ 1/8″ crystals – larger crystals but similar to Demerara sugar, except it is not dark brown, but lighter in color as it contains less molasses.
Raw sugar is the product at the point before the molasses is removed (what’s left after sugarcane has been processed and refined).
Cassonade is slightly refined and ranges from the large crystal version to the moist, softer varieties. It can be either cuivrée (light or ambrée (dark). Regular brown sugar can substitute for the moist version, and if available free-flowing brown sugar would be a good replacement for the large crystal variety. Its closest equivalent is Demerara sugar. Cassonade is derived from the word “casson”, which comes from the French verb casser, to break. In sixteenth-century French, casson was a crumbly type of sugar that was easy to break and reduced to powder. [France] [source: sugarontheweb.com]
Turbinado sugar, although a form of granulated cane sugar, is not processed with bone char. Rather, it is “washed” with steam, and is therefore vegan acceptable. Turbinado sugar is not decolourised, and retains the look and taste of raw sugar with its light molasses flavor and tan color. In a recipe either white or brown sugar can be substituted with a 1:1 ratio. If it replaces white sugar in the recipe, the final product will have a golden tinge with a faint hint of molasses, and be a bit moister. If it is used to replace brown sugar, the final product will be lighter in color and a milder molasses flavor.
Demerara sugar is a light brown sugar with large golden crystals, which are slightly sticky from the adhering molasses. It is commonly used in tea, coffee, or added to hot cereals. [United Kingdom]
Muscovado or Barbados sugar is very dark brown and has a particularly strong molasses flavor. The crystals are slightly coarser and stickier in texture than “regular” brown sugar. [United Kingdom]
Namasatoh is a Japanese raw sugar from sugarcane grown in the Saltsunan Islands of Kyushu. The unique liquid extraction removal process leaves molasses in the sugar.
Satsunan niontoh is a raw processed sugarcane from the Satsunan islands of Japan. “Ni-on” means “cooked twice” in the refining process. This minimally refined sugar contains more minerals than sugars that are processed for longer.
sucre de canne complet is most similar to the most version of cassonade and can be substituted for American brown sugar. Options in varieties include free flowing or slightly sticky. [France]
Sucanat (a contraction of “Sugar Cane Natural”) is a type of raw cane sugar. It retains its molasses content, and is essentially pure dried sugar cane juice. The juice is extracted by mechanical processes, heated and cooled at which point the small brown grainy crystals are formed. Sucanat is a good substitute for brown sugar, however, unlike regular brown sugar, sucanat is grainy instead of crystalline. Of all major sugars derived from sugar cane, Sucanat ranks the highest in nutritional value, containing a smaller proportion of sucrose than white cane sugar. However, Sucanat is not a significant source of any nutrient apart from simple carbohydrates. Sometimes confused with turbinado sugar, the two sugars do have some fundamental differences. Turbinado sugar contains only a trace amount of its original molasses content, aligning it closer to refined sugar except but with a golden color and a hint of molasses flavor. Sucanat, on the other hand, retains its full molasses content and flavor. Its grainy form also differentiates it from the clear, crystalline form of turbinado.
Free-flowing brown sugars are specialty products produced by a co-crystallization process. The process yields fine, powder-like brown sugar that is less moist than “regular” brown sugar. Because it is less moist, it does not clump and is free-flowing like white sugar, it can substitute for regular sugar but will give a hint of molasses taste.
Rapadura is the pure juice extracted from the sugar cane (using a press), which is then evaporated to dry it into granules [Brazil]. It has a grainy texture as it has not been heated or spun to convert it to crystal form. Because Rapadura is not heated, the vitamins and minerals are retained, along with the natural balance of sucrose, glucose, and fructose. It is also known as panela or jaggery is the Indian equivalent (which traditionally was made from sugar cane or date palms, but now is also made from the sap of coconut or sago palms). Columbia is the largest producer of panela, nor is it a coincidence that they are also the largest consumers. Other Spanish names include: chancaca, papelón, piloncillo, panocha, rapadura, atado dulce or empanizao.
Palm Sugar was originally made from the sugary sap of the date palm, but can now also be made from the sap of the sago and coconut palms and may also be found by the name “coconut sugar”. The taste is similar to brown sugar but with bonus caramel and butterscotch notes with no metallic ending like brown sugar can have. [source: wikipedia]. This sugar is mostly found in Southeast Asian countries. In Thai markets, this sugar may be found as a mix with white cane sugar and malt sugar. In Indonesia, sugar made from the Borassus (Palmyra palm) is known as Gula Jawa (“Javanese sugar”) or gula merah (red sugar). In Thailand, palm and “coconut sugar” (nahm dtahn bik and nahm dtahn maprao) are used interchangeably, but they are not the same. Also remember that “coconut sugar” is not derived from the coconut fruit itself. This sugar is attractive because it has an extremely low glycemic index. Other names include [source Wikipedia]:
- Burma: jaggery, tanyet
- Cambodia: skor tnot
- Kerala: karippatti, karipp otti
- Bangladesh: jaggery (cane or palm sugar), gur (date palm sugar);
- Tamilnadu: panam karkandu, karuppatti
- Indonesia: gula jawa, gula aren, gula merah
- Philippines: pakaskas
- Malaysia: gula melaka, gula anau
- Sri Lanka: jaggery, kitul-hakuru, tal-hakuru, pol pani
- Laos: num taan
- Thailand: น้ำตาลปีป (nam taan pep), น้ำตาลปึก (nam taan bik), น้ำตาลมะพร้าว (nam taan mapraow)
- Vietnam: đường thốt nốt
Piloncillo is a type of brown sugar found in Mexico that was shaped into cones that are about an 1″ in diameter at their widest point. Dark brown sugar can be substituted in a pinch. I usually add a bit of molasses too, as the density and moisture content is high. The black Japanese sugar might be a good substitute, but its moisture content is less than the piloncillo.
Sugar vergeoise is a French brown sugar made from beets as opposed to sugar cane and like the brown sugar family with American’s it can be found in light or dark versions. In this case blonde (light) or brune (dark). It is an easy substitute for the brown sugar found in American grocery stores. Its flavor and color depend on how many times its been boiled – the more times the darker the sugar and more intense the flavor. Vergeoise gets its name from an old form of sugar, dating back to when women who poured sugar into bug sugar loaf molds were known as “vergeoises”. This type of sugar is most common in Northern France and Belgium.
I am confident that I missed many varieties, so if you know of one that is not listed, please let me know and I’ll add it to my list. For me, this post represents one of the joys of traveling, discovering new ingredients and how they can be the same or very different at the same time.
Finally, this post is actually meant to compliment another post by Elizabeth Stelling AKA Chef E – an extremely talented chef, author, poet, instructor who lives in Princeton, NJ. Her sugar post focuses on the nutrition aspects and can be found here. If you are not familiar with her writing, I urge you to check her blog out – CooksAppeal.Blogspot
Note: Lori at FakeFreeFood, provided further information on sugar’s nutritional side. Definitely worth a look. We both agreed a lot of contradictory and misleading information is out there. As a nutritionist, she makes some great points.