Sugar, Honey and Other Sweeteners

There are a lot different types of sugars to be found.  Fructose is the primary sugar in fruit and honey; maltose is one of the sugars in malted grains; pimentose is found in olives, and sucrose is what we know as granulated or table sugar.  Sucrose is a highly-refined product made primarily from sugar cane though sugar beets still contribute a fair amount of the world supply.  Modern table sugar is now so highly refined as to be virtually 100% pure and nearly indestructible if protected from moisture.  Powdered sugar and brown sugar are simple variations on granulated sugar and share its long life.

Liquid sweeteners do not have quite the longevity of dry sugars.  Honey, cane syrup, molasses, corn syrup and maple syrup may crystallize or mold during long storage.  These syrups are chemically not as simple as table sugar and therefore lose flavor and otherwise break down over time.

GRANULATED SUGARS:

sugarsBuying refined sugar is a simple matter.  Select a brand you know you can trust, be certain the package is clean, dry and has no insect infestation.  There’s little that can go wrong with it.  Here is a list of different types of sugars.

GRANULATED:  Granulated sugar does not spoil, but if it gets damp it will grow lumpy or turn into a sugar rock.  If it does, it can be pulverized into smaller pieces and used.  Granulated sugar can be found in varying textures, coarser or finer.  “Castor/ caster sugar” is a finer granulation than what is commonly sold as table sugar in the U.S. and is more closely equivalent to our super fine or berry sugar.

POWDERED, CONFECTIONERS, ICING:  All names refer to the same kind of sugar, that is white granulated sugar very finely ground.  For commercial use, there is a range of textures from coarse to ultra-fine.  For home consumption, what is generally found is either Very Fine (6X) or Ultra-Fine (10X), but this can vary from nation to nation.  Not all manufacturers will indicate the grind on the package. Sugar refiners usually add a small amount of cornstarch to prevent caking which will make it undesirable for use in sugar syrups or solutions where clarity is needed.  Powdered sugar is as inert as granulated sugar, but it is even more hygroscopic and will adsorb any moisture present.  If it soaks up more than a little it will cake and become hard.  It’s difficult to reclaim hardened powdered sugar, but it can still be used like granulated sugar where clarity in solution (syrups) is not important.

BROWN, LIGHT & DARK:  In the United States brown sugar is generally refined white sugar that has had a bit of molasses or sugar syrup and caramel coloring added to it.  Dark brown sugar has more molasses which gives it a stronger flavor, a darker color and makes it damp.  Light brown sugar has less molasses which gives it a milder flavor, a blonder color and is slightly dryer than the dark variety.  Light brown sugar can be made by combining one fourth to one third white sugar to the remainder dark brown sugar and blend thoroughly.  Both varieties need to be protected from drying out, or they will become hard and difficult to deal with.  Nor do you want to allow them to become damper than what they already are.  There are dry granulated and liquid brown sugars available, but they don’t have the same cooking qualities as ordinary brown sugars.  They also don’t dry out and harden quite so readily either.

RAW, NATURAL, TURBINADO & OTHERS:  In recent years, refiners have realized there is a market forless processed forms of cane sugar in the U.S. so have begun to sell these under various names and packaging.  None of them are actually raw sugar as it is illegal to sell in the States due to the high impurities level in the truly raw product.  Everything will have been processed to some degree, perhaps to remove the sticky surface molasses or to lighten the color, but will not have been subjected to the full refining and whitening processes of ordinary white table sugar.  This leaves some of the natural hue and a strength of flavor that deepens with the color.  These less refined sugars may be stored and handled like brown sugar.

STORING GRANULATED SUGARS

All granulated sugars have basically the same storage requirements.  They need to be kept in air tight, insect and moisture proof containers.  For powdered, and granulated sugar you might want to consider using some desiccant in the storage container if your local climate is damp.  Since brown sugars and raw sugars are supposed to be moist, they do not need desiccants.  Shelf life is indefinite if kept dry, but anything you intend to eat really should be rotated.

HONEY

honey-507147_960_720Honey may be the oldest sweetener known to man – its use predates recorded history.  Remains of honey have been found in the Egyptian pyramids.  This product of honeybees is typically sweeter than granulated sugar by a factor of 25%-40% depending upon the specific flowers from which the bees gathered their nectar.  This means a smaller amount of honey can give the same amount of sweetening as sugar.  The source flowers also dictate the flavor and the color as well.  Honey color can range from very dark (nearly black) to almost colorless.  Generally, the lighter the color and the more delicate the flavor, the greater the price the honey will bring.  As you might expect, since honey is sweeter than table sugar, it also has more calories as well — an average of twenty-two per teaspoon compared to granulated sugar’s sixteen.  There are also trivial amounts of minerals and vitamins in the bee product while white sugar has none.  Honey is not a direct substitute for table sugar however, its use in recipes may call for a bit of alteration to make them to turn out right.

Although the chance is remote, raw honey may also contain minute quantities of Clostridium botulinum spores so should not be fed to children under one year of age.  Raw honey is OK for older children and adults.

Honey comes in several forms in the retail market and all with somewhat different storage characteristics:

WHOLE-COMB:  This is the bee product straight from the hive.  It is the most unprocessed form of honey, being large pieces of waxy comb floating in raw honey.  The comb itself will contain many unopened honey cells.

RAW:  This is unheated honey that has been removed from the comb.  It may contain bits of wax and other small particles.

FILTERED:  This is raw honey that has been warmed slightly to make it easier to filter out small particles and impurities.  Other than being somewhat cleaner than raw honey it is essentially the same.  Most of the trace amounts of nutrients remain intact.

LIQUID/PURE:  This is honey that has been heated to higher temperatures to allow for easier filtering and to kill any microorganisms.  Usually lighter in color, this form is milder in flavor, resists crystallization and generally clearer.  It stores the best of the various forms of honey.  Much of the trace amounts of vitamins, however, are lost.

SPUN, CRYSTALLIZED or CREAMED:  This honey has had some of its moisture content removed to make a creamy spread.  It is the most processed form of honey.  It keeps quite well.  Also, available in various flavors.

BUYING HONEY

honeycomb-347558_960_720Much of the honey sold in supermarkets has been blended from a variety of different honeys and some may have even had other sweeteners added as well.  Like anything involving humans, buying honey can be a tricky business.  It pays to deal with individuals and brands you know you can trust. In the United States, you should buy products labeled U.S. GRADE A or U.S. FANCY if buying in retail outlets.  However, be aware there are no federal labeling laws governing the sale of honey, so only honey labeled pure is entirely honey and not blended with other sweeteners.  Honey grading is a matter of voluntary compliance which means some producers may be lax in their practices.  Some may also use words like “organic”, “raw”, “uncooked” and “unfiltered” on their labels, possibly to mislead.  Fortunately, most honey producers are quite honest in their product labeling so if you’re not certain of who to deal with, it is worthwhile to ask around to find out who produces a good product.

Honey may also contain trace amounts of drugs used in treating various bee ailments, including antibiotics.  If this is a concern to you, then it would be wise to investigate with your local honey producer what they may have used.

STORING HONEY

Honey is much easier to store than to select and buy.  Pure honey won’t mold, but may crystallize over time.  Exposure to air and moisture may cause color to darken, flavor to intensify and may speed crystallization as well.  Comb honey doesn’t store as well liquid honey so you should not expect it to last as long.

Storage temperature is not as important for honey, but it should not be allowed to freeze or exposed to high temperatures if possible.  Either can cause crystallization and heat may cause flavor to strengthen undesirably.

Filtered liquid honey will last the longest in storage.  Storage containers should be opaque, airtight, moisture and odor-proof.  Like any other stored food, honey should be rotated through the storage cycle and replaced with fresh product.

If crystallization does occur, honey can be re-liquified by placing the container in a larger container of hot water until it has melted.  Avoid adding water to honey you intend to keep in storage or it may ferment.

Avoid storing honey near heat sources or petroleum products (including gasoline/diesel engines), chemicals or any other odor-producing products which may infuse through plastic packaging.

CANE SYRUPS

MOLASSES:

bottle_of_molassesA by-product of sugar refining, molasses is generally composed of sugars such as glucose that are resistant to crystallization, browning reaction products resulting from the syrup reduction process, and small amounts of minerals.  Flavor can vary between brands, but is usually strong and the color dark and opaque.  Sulfured molasses can sometimes be found but its intense flavor is unappealing to most.  Brands labeled as ‘blackstrap molasses’ are intensely flavored.

TREACLE:

This sweetener comes in varying colors from a rather dark version, similar to, but not quite the same as blackstrap molasses, to paler versions more similar to golden syrup.  If you cannot find it in your store’s syrup area check in their imported foods section.

All the above syrups are generally dark with a rich, heavy flavor.

GOLDEN SYRUP:

lylesgoldensyrupThis syrup is both lighter and paler in color than any of the above four, more like what we would call a table syrup here in the U.S. Can usually be found in the same areas as treacle above.

TABLE SYRUP:

There are many table syrups sold in supermarkets, some with flavorings of one sort or another such as maple, various fruits, butter, etc.  A close examination of the ingredients list will reveal mixtures usually of cane syrup, cane sugar syrup or corn syrup along with preservatives, coloring and other additives.  Table syrup usually has a much less pronounced flavor than molasses, cane or sorghum syrup or the darker treacle.  Any syrup containing corn syrup should be stored as corn syrup.

STORING CANE SYRUPS

All the above syrups, except for those having corn syrup in their makeup, have the same storage characteristics.  They can be stored on the shelf for about two years and up to a year after opening.  Once they are opened, they are best kept in the refrigerator to retard mold growth.  If mold growth does occur, the syrup should be discarded.  The outside of the bottle should be cleaned of drips after each use.  Molasses or other sugar refining by-products won’t usually crystallize, but will dry into an unmanageable tar unless kept sealed.

CORN SYRUP

karo_dark_pint_label_revision_finalCorn syrup is a liquid sweetener made by breaking down cornstarch into its constituent sugars through an enzyme reaction.  Available in both a light and a dark form, the darker variety has a flavor like molasses and contains refiners syrup (a by-product of sugar refining).  Both types often contain flavorings and preservatives.  It is commonly used in baking and candy making because it does not crystallize when heated.

Corn syrup stores poorly compared to other sweeteners and because of this it often has a best if used by date on the bottle.  It should be stored in its original bottle, tightly capped, in a cool, dry place.  New unopened bottles can be expected to keep about six months past the date on the label and sometimes longer.

After opening, keep the corn syrup four to six months.  These syrups are prone to mold and to fermentation so be on the lookout for bubbling or a mold haze.  If these present themselves, throw the syrup out. You should wipe off any drips from the bottle after every use.

MAPLE SYRUP

maple-sapMaple syrup is produced by boiling down the sap of the maple tree (and a lot of it too) collected at certain times in the early Spring until it reaches a syrup consistency.  This native American sweetener is slightly sweeter than table sugar and is judged by much the same criteria as honey:  Lightness of color, clarity and taste.  Making the syrup is energy and labor intensive so pure maple is generally expensive. Maple flavored pancake syrups are usually mixtures of corn and cane sugar syrups with either natural or artificial flavorings and should be kept and stored as corn syrups.

New unopened bottles of maple syrup may be kept on a cool, dark, shelf for up to two years.  The sweetener may darken and the flavor get stronger, but it is still usable.  After the bottle has been opened, it should be refrigerated. It will last about a year. Be careful to look out for mold growth. If mold occurs, discard the syrup.

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