Our pantry staples series sees us take a look at the ingredients that most people usually have in their kitchens – chickpeas, beans, noodles and the like. This time we're focusing on sugar.
The history of sugar is marred with conflict, complications and controversy. Having originated in the Indian subcontinent, sugar started to spread throughout the world around 2,500 years ago thanks to travelling monks who brought processing methods to China. Around the 12th century, the Crusaders brought sugar to Europe, after which coloniser Christopher Columbus brought the crop to the Americas during his invasion.
Sugar is one of the most valuable agricultural commodities in the world. In 2013, the global export of sugar was worth around $42 billion making it a major source of income for many global communities.
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What Is Sugar?
In its basic form, sugar is crystallised sucrose, a disaccharide, made from either sugarcane or sugarbeet. In many different forms, sugar is found in a variety of foods, including fruits, dairy and more.
It is a source of sweetness and energy, so it is added to a variety of different foods to add flavour. Part of its chemical make-up causes browning when cooked, which helps to give food, particularly baked goods, a brown colour; this is known as the Maillard reaction.
Sugar is hygroscopic which means it attracts water. This property helps fresh goods to retain moisture so that they don't go stale too quickly. As well as this, sugar is an important food source for yeast; when the yeast feeds off sugar, it releases gases that cause doughs to rise, which is why you might see a small amount of sugar added to bread recipes.
Different Types of Sugar
Sugar comes in a variety of different forms, which is due to the processes it undergoes when harvested. While white sugar is most commonly used, even that comes in several different varieties.
If a recipe calls for sugar, it is usually referring to granulated white sugar unless a different form is specified. The sugar grains are not particularly fine, but dissolve quite well. As well as baked goods, white sugar is commonly added to many products, such as sauces, drinks, marinades and more.
White sugar can be processed further to create fine particles. Finely ground sugar is known as caster sugar, or superfine sugar across the pond, and is used frequently used in baking and sugar work because the fine texture doesn't crystallise as easily as other sugars.
Icing sugar, also known as confectioners' sugar or powdered sugar, is ground even more finely, producing a powdery sugar that dissolves very easily. It often has cornflour added to it, which creates a smooth mouthfeel, however it shouldn't be used to replace other sugars in baking or cooking.
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Brown sugar is less refined than ordinary sugar. Because of this, it contains residual molasses, giving the sugar its brown colour. Brown sugar is classified as light or dark depending on the level of molasses it contains. Light brown sugar is soft and has a mild flavour, while dark brown sugar has a richer flavour.
Sugar also comes in a variety of liquid forms. The most common are corn syrup, honey and molasses. Honey is a sweet substance made by bees from the secretions of plants or other insects. Honey bees are the most common variety of bees that produce honey, but there are several others known for their honey-making skills. Honey is a bit sweeter than regular sugar, which means that if you're using it in place of baking, you should reduce the quantity by about a third. Honey is also mostly liquid, so make sure to reduce the amount of liquid in your baked goods too. This sweet liquid helps to retain moisture when used in baking, so it is a good addition in anything that may need a longer shelf life than usual.
Corn syrup is made from corn (maize) starch, containing different levels of maltose. It is known as glucose syrup by candy makers and bakers and is used to prevent crystallisation and to add extra flavour. Its use is quite controversial as many think that it is detrimental to health, however this has not been explicitly proven.
Molasses, also known as treacle, is a dark syrup that is a by-product of the sugar refining process. It is used in a lot of American baking.
As you might imagine, sugar is used in many of our recipes, especially baking and desserts. However, we especially love using sugar to make caramel and toffee. This Edward Hayden sea salt caramel square recipe is one of our absolute favourite caramel recipes.