Giving White Sugar the Boot

Motivated in part by a medical condition, a top pastry chef explores alternatives to refined white sugar.

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(This article appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)

The war on sugar might not be as loud and public as the war on fat once was, but we’re seeing a slow and steady increase in awareness of the negative impacts of traditional refined white sugar on our health.

As pastry chefs, whose passion and livelihood is based around sugar, our responsibility is to listen, be aware and be leaders of change. To that, some may say “you’re not my doctor, you’re just here to make me my birthday cake and favorite treats.” Sure, pastry chefs are not doctors, but trust me, most doctors may not be more qualified themselves, since they receive little or no formal training about nutrition and the role food plays in our health. Plus, the average American visits their doctor four times a year, but eats out, on average, four times PER WEEK. So chefs and food professionals are definitely a part of people’s lives way more than their doctors are! Knowing this, it’s almost a responsibility and a requirement for us chefs to not just make food delicious and free from food-borne illnesses, but to stay informed and make the right choices when it comes to the ingredients we put in front of our customers.

Much of our reliance on standardized, commercial ingredients is driven by an idea of perfection. Light, fluffy cakes and ivory white icings are the industry standard. And that perfection is in turn strongly influenced by industrial and manufacturing giants with vested interests. Sure these ingredients will reveal a consistent product that most people have been conditioned to like and expect, but they have no flavor, barely any nutritional value and are pumped full of chemicals and pesticides that are destructive to the environment.

Consider pure sucrose or common white sugar – the most widely used form of sugar in professional and home kitchens across the world. By the time sugar is packaged, it has been stripped of all its flavor components and engineered to be just one-dimensionally sweet. Just like all the other ingredients typically used in Western baking and desserts – such as flour, butter and eggs – all standardized, homogenized and essentially flavorless. No wonder we are constantly reaching for things like vanilla beans and extracts to add flavor and aroma to our creations. But with vanilla beans prices up to a whopping $500 per pound, we no longer have the luxury and budget to blindly reach for it as a flavor fallback. I think it’s time to reevaluate our choices and look for flavor in other ingredients. And why not start with the star ingredient of pastry kitchens: sugar?

Alternative sugars have a vast array of flavors, colors and textures, ranging from dry, powdery and camel-colored to thick, syrupy burnished liquids. They also contain some essential trace minerals and, most importantly, employ organic farming methods that are inarguably way, way better for the planet and people than pesticide-ridden practices. Look, organic and alternative sugars are not a magical potion. They are in no way healthier than regular white sugar, as all sugar is essentially a carbohydrate and must be consumed in moderation. They also have their own challenges. These sugars vary in color, flavor and intensity, from batch to batch and producer to producer. So pastry chefs will have to start thinking more like our savory counterparts and rely on intuition more, not just recipes and rules. But I would argue that this makes our daily job more exciting and interesting.

Switching to a refined white sugar-free kitchen at Gramercy Tavern and at home was in part driven by a personal motive when I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2015. Since then I’ve become more and more invested in moving away from industrialized ingredients, and sugar in particular has been my great interest. Here are some favorite sugars of mine:

Organic, Granulated and/or Powdered Cane Sugar

The easiest substitute for refined white sugar and my go-to all-purpose option. This partially refined sugar is certified to be “grown, milled and packaged free of any petrochemicals in accordance with earth-friendly methods.” Most major brands like Wholesome do not use chemicals or animal by-products typically used in sugar refining, making organic sugars ideal for vegans and those following kosher or halal diets. Organic sugar contains trace elements of molasses, which give it wonderfully buttery and caramel-y notes. It also has a pale golden hue that will darken some products.

A good example is simple syrup. When made with organic sugar, the syrup will be clearly darker, with a straw-like color. The molasses content will also make for a chewier product, particularly noticeable in things like the marshmallowy middle of a Pavlova (a fully dehydrated meringue, however, has no noticeable texture difference). Substitute 1:1 in place of refined white sugar. At Gramercy Tavern we use Wholesome brand of organic cane sugar (granulated and powdered), but at home I use Costco brand, which has finer crystals and dissolves quicker. Crystal size is one major difference between brands. If the sugar crystals are on the larger side, it is preferable to grind them down in a food processor so they can better dissolve for products like cake batter or meringues. When used in things like ice cream bases or pastry creams, crystal size is less relevant.

Non-Centrifugal Cane Sugar (NCS)

The technical name given to sugars produced by simply evaporating water from sugarcane juice. Aside from sucrose and other types of sugars like fructose or glucose, NCS contains traces of water and minerals like zinc, magnesium and copper. It can also contain proteins, particles of wood ash and bagasse fibers from the cooking process. Most sugarcane growing regions of the world produce some form of NCS under different local names like jaggery or gur in Southeast Asia and panela or rapadura in Latin America. NCS is usually sold in blocks, but is increasingly available in granulated form as well, which makes it much easier to use and store. My favorite is jaggery from India, which has a tan caramel color with a mild sweetness and fruity, brown butter flavor. It can contain up to 20% water and invert sugar, which makes it more hygroscopic (holds on to moisture better). It can be used in place of brown sugar, or even granulated sugar. It will produce chewier cookies and more moist, fine-crumbed cakes and creamier ice cream. Most Indian grocery stores carry jaggery. Muscovado sugar can also fall under this category if produced through traditional methods (mainly sourced from India). Muscovado sugar from the Philippines and Africa is generally more likely to be made with modern processes including centrifuges.

Date Palm Sugar/ Date Jaggery

Made from sap extracted from date palm trees and minimally processed by boiling it down to evaporate almost all moisture until it crystallizes. This is my favorite alternative sugar due to its robust and complex taste reminiscent of prunes and dried cherries. Most of the date sugar in America, commonly found in Indian grocery stores, comes from Bangladesh. This sugar is soft and crumbly and is the perfect substitute for dark brown sugar. It makes the best sticky toffee date cake when combined with fresh Medjool dates and date syrup.

Date Sugar

Not sugar at all, but dried and ground-up dates. I do not suggest using it in baking unless you are subbing it in a recipe in place of dates themselves. Date sugar absorbs too much liquid, doesn’t dissolve since it’s not a true sugar, and has a resulting grainy texture with comparatively less sweetness. I use this at home in smoothies or to top my yogurt.

Coconut Palm Sugar

Made from sap extracted from coconut palm flowers and minimally processed by evaporating water from it. It has a faint smell to it that disappears once cooked. Due to its lower glycemic index, it has grown in popularity recently among certain consumers. I like to use it in the fall and winter months as it has beautiful caramel and toffee overtones that go well with cold weather fruit like pears and apples.

Maple Sugar

Made by boiling maple tree sap past the point needed to create maple syrup, taffy or butter. Almost all the water is evaporated. What’s left is mostly sucrose with a minimal amount of fructose and glucose. It is the one alternative sugar that can be substituted in equal measure, 1:1 (by weight) for granulated sugar without a noticeable difference in texture. The taste, of course, will be greatly affected, with the final product having a very strong and predominantly maple taste. I like to use this sugar in sugar cookies and pecan pies.

Sucanat

A trademarked brand name of minimally processed cane sugar introduced by the company Pronatec in 1978. Similar to jaggery or panela, but much more drier. Due to its irregular granules, it requires grinding in a spice grinder if used in baking. I like to use it to add texture on top of baked goods like quick breads, coffee cakes and other breakfast pastries. It adds a great crunch similar to raw sugar, but with a more complex, honey-like taste.

Honey

A viscous liquid made by honey bees from flower nectar, usually processed to remove impurities like beeswax and flower pollen. The flavor and color of the honey depends on the bee’s diet and can vary greatly from mild flavored and light colored acacia to strong and dark buckwheat honey. One of the hardest sugars to work with, not just due to the strong taste, but because of its chemical composition, as well. It’s made up of mainly fructose and glucose, some water and a little sucrose. As fructose is the most hygroscopic of all sugars, baked goods made with honey will hold onto more water. That’s why cakes made with honey can have a denser, almost gummy texture when too much honey is used. Also, since honey is more acidic, it will affect the formation of gluten in bread and cakes. But in small quantities, honey can add the perfect amount of moisture and a nice floral scent.

Date Syrup

My favorite liquid sugar with its dark wine-y color and fruity notes. Date syrup can replace any liquid sugar in your recipe, like honey, molasses or corn syrup. Not all date syrups are created equal. Look for those that are 100% date syrup, not diluted with a mixture of corn syrup and/or molasses, as many brands are. My go-to is from a company called The Date Lady. I like date syrup in caramel sauces, cakes, ice creams and also love to finish dishes with it, even some savory ones, as the taste is just so good. It works well with berries, plums, and cherries.

Maple Syrup

Made from the sap extracted from a maple tree. The sap is reduced just enough so the final product is thick and dark, but still liquid. It’s mostly sucrose with about 25% water and some invert sugar. Syrup produced early in the season tends to be lighter in color with a subtle taste and becomes darker and more robust as the season progresses. I love maple syrup with sweet cherries and oats.

Sorghum Syrup

Made from the juice of the sorghum plant, a tall grass that resembles corn with a cone-shaped head filled with tiny seeds. Sorghum juice is extracted in a similar manner as sugar cane juice and boiled to make the syrup. Consistency varies between brands, and it can be as thick as molasses or as thin as maple syrup. It has a clean, fruity taste and its color ranges from light and murky to toasty dark. I particularly love this syrup in sauces and in combination with chocolate or dried fruit.

Carob Molasses

A thick, robust, dark syrup made by soaking crushed carob pods in water and boiling down the resulting liquid. It’s produced mainly in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions. It has a fruity taste with a strong, bitter note similar to coffee. It should be used in small quantities, just like honey.