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Sugar, Honey and Other Sweeteners

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  • Sugar, Honey and Other Sweeteners

    Sugar, Honey and Other Sweeteners
    By Alan T. Hagan

    There are a wide number of sugars to be found for purposes of sweetening foods. Fructose is the primary sugar in fruit; 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 mostly from sugar cane and sugar beets. Modern table sugar is now so highly refined as to be 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 long lives of dry sugars. Honey, 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 a long period of time.

    Buying and Storing Granulated, Powdered, Brown and Raw Sugar

    Buying granulated sugar and its close cousins is really a very simple matter. Buy a brand that you know you can trust and be certain that the package is clean, dry and has no insect infestation. There's very little that can go wrong with it.

    Granulated Sugar
    Granulated sugar does not spoil, but if it gets damp it will likely cake up or get lumpy. If it does, it can simply be pulverized again until it regains its granulated texture.
    Powedered Sugar and Confectioner's Sugar
    Both names refer to the same kind of sugar, that is white granulated sugar that has been 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). Not all manufacturers will indicate the grind on the package though. Sugar refiners usually add a small amount of corn starch to prevent caking.
    Powdered sugar is as inert as granulated sugar, but it is even more hygroscopic and will absorb the least amount of moisture present. If it absorbs more than a little it may cake up and get hard. It's difficult to reclaim hardened powdered sugar, but it can still be used like granulated sugar.

    Brown Sugar
    In the United States brown sugar is basically just refined white sugar that has had a bit of molasses 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.
    Both varieties need to be protected from drying out, or they will become very hard and difficult to deal with. Nor do you want to allow them to become damper than what they already are.

    There are 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 or Turnibado Sugar
    In recent years, sugar refiners have realized that there is a market for less refined forms of cane sugar here in the U.S. and have begun to sell this kind of sugar under various names and packagings. None of it is really "raw" sugar since it is illegal to sell it in this country due to the high impurities level in truly raw sugar. All of it has been processed in some form or fashion to clean it, but it has not been subjected to the full refining and whitening processes of ordinary white table sugar. This leaves some of the natural color and a mild flavor in the sweetener. All of these less refined sugars should be stored and handled like brown sugar.
    All granulated sugars have basically the same storage requirements. They need to be kept in air tight, insect and moisture proof containers. For powdered, granulated and raw sugar you might want to consider using some desiccant in the storage container if your local climate is damp. Since brown sugars are supposed to be moist, they do not need desiccants. Shelf life is indefinite if kept dry, but anything that you intend to eat really should be rotated over time. Time has a way of affecting even the most durable of foods.

    I've used brown sugar that was six years old at the time it was removed from storage and other than the molasses settling somewhat towards the bottom it was just fine.

    Selecting and Buying Honey

    Honey is probably the oldest sweetener known to man, predating recorded history and has been found in the Egyptian pyramids. It's typically sweeter than granulated sugar by a factor of 25%-40% depending upon the specific flowers from which the bees gathered nectar. This means that a smaller amount of honey can give the same amount of sweetening as sugar. Those flowers also dictate the flavor and the color of the sweetener as well. Honey color can range from very dark (nearly black) to almost colorless. As a general rule, 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 -- 22 per teaspoon compared to granulated sugar's 16 per teaspoon. There are also trivial amounts of minerals and vitamins in the bee product while sugar has virtually none. It may also contain minute quantities of botulinum spores and should not be fed to children under one year of age. Raw honey is generally considered to be OK for older children and adults. Honey is not a direct substitute for table sugar however, it's use in recipes may call for a bit of alteration to get it to turn out right.

    Honey comes in a number of forms in the retail market and they all have different storage characteristics:

    This is the bee product straight from the hive. This is the most unprocessed form in which honey comes, being found as large pieces of waxy comb floating in honey. The comb itself will contain many unopened honey cells.
    This is unheated honey that has been removed from the comb. It may contain bits of wax, insect parts and other small detritus.
    This is raw honey that has been warmed slightly to make it more easy to filter out small particles and impurities. Other than being somewhat cleaner than raw honey it is essentially the same. Most of nutrients remain intact.
    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.
    Crystallized or Spun
    This honey has had some of its moisture content removed to make a creamy, spread. It is the most processed form of honey.
    Much 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 that you know you can trust. You should buy and store honey labeled U.S. GRADE A or U.S. FANCY if buying in retail outlets. However, be aware that 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 that some producers may be lax and sloppy about it. This can be a real nuisance when producers use words like "organic", "raw", "uncooked" and "unfiltered" on their labels, possibly to mislead. However, 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 has been used.

    Honey Storage *

    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 can cause color to darken and 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 be kept from freezing and not exposed to high temperatures if possible. Either extreme can cause crystallization and heat may cause flavor to strengthen.

    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 reliquified by placing the container in a larger container of hot water until it has melted.

    Avoid storing honey near heat sources and if using plastic pails then don't keep them near petroleum products (including gasoline engines), chemicals or any other odor-producing products.

    Molasses, Cane, Sorghum and Table Syrups

    Molasses and cane syrup are not precisely the same thing. Molasses is a by product of sugar refining and cane syrup is simply cane juice that has been boiled down to a syrup, much like maple syrup is produced. Non-southerners may know it better as "unsulphured molasses" even if that is not completely correct. Sorghum syrup is produced in the same manner, but sorghum cane rather than sugar cane is used. Sorghum tends to have a thinner, slightly sourer taste than cane syrup. All of these syrups tend to be dark with a rich, heavy flavor. There are many "table syrups" sold in supermarkets, but close examination of the ingredient lists will reveal mixtures of cane syrup, cane sugar syrup and corn syrup. They tend to have a much less pronounced flavor.

    All of 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. Some pure cane and sorghum syrups may crystallize in storage, but this causes no harm and can be reliquified using the same method as with honey.

    Corn Syrup

    Corn syrup is a liquid sweetener made by an enzyme reaction with corn starch. Available in both a light and a dark form, the darker variety has a flavor similar to molasses and contains refiners syrups (a byproduct of sugar refining). Both types often contain flavorings and preservatives. They are commonly used in baking and candy making because they do not crystallize when heated.

    Corn syrup is a poor storer compared to the other common sweeteners and because of this they often have a "best if sold by" dating code on the bottle. It should be stored in its original bottle, tightly capped, in a cool, dry place. New unopened bottles keep about six months from the date on the label. After opening, keep the corn syrup four to six months. These syrups are very prone to mold and to fermentation so be on the lookout for bubbling or a mold haze. If these present themselves then throw the syrup out. You should always be certain to wipe off any drips from the bottle with every use.

    I don't recommend corn syrup as a storage food since it stores so poorly.

    Maple Syrup

    Maple syrup is probably the only sweetener that has developed a cult-like following. Produced by boiling down maple sap until it reaches a syrup consistency, it is slightly sweeter than table sugar. Maple syrup is judged by much the same criteria as honey: lightness of color, clarity and taste. Pure maple is generally expensive and most pancake syrups are corn and cane sugar syrups with either natural or artificial flavorings.

    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 it does, discard the syrup.

    Flavored pancake syrups should be kept and stored as corn syrups.

    Copyright 1996 Alan T. Hagan. All rights reserved
    Classic Southern defense: "But your Honor, he just NEEDED killin!

  • #2
    Good stuff (literally). Thanks!


    • #3
      Wow you are really digging up some gems today, aren't ya?

      Outstanding post! We love our local honey and maple syrup here in VT, even the smallest backwoods towns have folks selling both products year-round by the side of the road.

      And for those of you who have never had it, nothing, and I mean nothing beats fresh maple syrup right out of the vat! I drink it, some folks put it on shaved ice, or dip a pickle in it. The taste difference of drinking pure, warm, just-made maple syrup, and the crap you buy in a grocery store is literally like the difference between drinking plain tap water and a $100 bottle of champagne.