I mentioned previously that one of the first steps I took toward overhauling my culinary pantry was getting rid of the white flour and white sugar. Many of my favorite treats and desserts recipes called for a base of white sugar and white flour. Since I let go of white sugar, a whole new world of sweetness has opened up–a variety of honeys, syrups, and earthy-toned sugar granules.
Similar to the other areas of my pantry, I look for sweeteners produced from crops that are farmed without chemicals and pesticides. I look for sweeteners that don’t contain additives and preservatives, and are as close to their original source ingredient in form and flavor as possible.
And as far as flavor goes, the good news is that many of the alternative sweeteners are amazing. They maintain the flavor and some of the qualities of their source, in contrast to white sugar that is stripped down to pure sweetness.
It is important to understand the roles that sweeteners play in cooking and baking before you embark on a journey like this. Beyond sweetness, they also bring moistness and tenderness to baked goods. They can lend body and volume to batters and doughs and often form the foundation for icings, frosting, and glazes. And it is sugar that gives you the dense, delicious crumb of your favorite coffee cake and the golden crust on a big muffin top. Granulated sugars can add a finishing texture and flavor to everything from a truffle to the rim of a cocktail glass, and this sort of use is one of the best ways to explore some of the more expensive sugars that are beginning to hit the market.
A few favorite sweeteners:
- Natural cane sugars: You can find a variety of natural cane sugars available. There is no standardization when it comes to labeling and not all naturally-labeled cane sugars are of equal quality. At one end of the spectrum are products like Sucanat (pure dehydrated sugarcane juice) and Rapadura, which are the least processed. The trade-off is that they are dry, irregular, and a bit dusty in texture. Beyond that there are the rich, delicious “raw” cane sugars like Muscovado or Barbados, Demerara, and Turbinado which unlike commercial brown sugars get their natural brown color from the local sugar cane juice. You then move on to a range of cane sugars that have gone through varying stages of processing until you come out the other end with a nearly white sugar–something like Florida Crystals or the organic cane sugar sold through Trader Joe’s. I generally look for cane sugars that are moist and similar in appearance to brown sugar with a fine grain echoing the size of standard white sugar grains. More often than not they’ll have some combination of the following words on the packaging: natural, raw, unrefined, whole, and/or unbleached. I’m happy to report that there’s a growing variety of cane sugars on the market now, and some are organically produced and fair trade certified.
- Honey:One of the things I love about honey is that is has flavor that reflects the blossoming flowers of the specific region in which it was produced. Some honeys are thick and dark; others are light in color with a bright flavor. Look for raw, unfiltered, unprocessed honey and be aware that darker honeys contain higher levels of antioxidants. Farmers’ markets are typically a great place to find honey producers who can talk you through the nuances of the different varietals. Many people have turned to bee keeping in their own backyards. Ask your friends if they have bees. One of the best cures for allergies is to eat honey from the area that you live, produced from plants in your own backyard! Ask around and check the labels in the store. Honey recipes.
- Maple syrup: The maple syrup market is swamped with artificially maple-flavored syrups with little to no maple content, so be sure to read labels. Pure maple syrup is rich in important minerals like zinc and manganese and comes from boiling down the sap of maple trees. Available in various grades depending on when the sap was harvested from the tree, syrup produced from tapping early in the season yields a lighter, finer syrup designated grade A. Buy pure 100 percent organic maple syrup. Now that we’ve moved to Maine we can find many local people who make maple syrup! It’s fantastic!
There are an arsenal of other sweeteners that fit my criteria but I haven’t tried personally such as: blackstrap molasses, brown rice syrup, date sugar, maple sugar and pomegranate molasses. As I try them I will add my thoughts to this page.