Hello, and welcome to Natural Baking 101! Grab a cup of tea, a cookie or two, and take a seat, because today we’re going to have a little chat about ingredients. Specifically, natural versus unnatural.
In this short series, I plan to reveal and clarify the processes behind the ingredients used in commercial baked goods. I will also highlight more natural alternatives to these refined and processed ingredients and show you how easy it is to bake more natural goods.
Today, we’re talkin’ sugar!
Break it Down: The Basics
Sugar’s chemical name is sucrose. Sucrose is a carbohydrate that naturally forms in plants and plant parts. It serves as a way for plants to store energy to perform photosynthesis, which you probably learned about in grade school science. In its natural form – think fruit, honey, and cane juice – sucrose is actually pretty good for you.
Problems arose with the age of industrialization and modern refinement processes. Before the 18th century, sugar was considered a luxury. Only well-to-do folks could afford it because the sucrose was difficult to extract and mass produce. With the development of steam and mechanical engineering during the Industrial Revolution, we were able to more effectively extract the sucrose from its natural sources and create a solid form.
The Refinement Process
Culinary sugar can be divided into several categories, but the main three are:
- Mill White. This sugar is also known as Plantation White, and it is sugar that is normally only acquired through local means. It’s less refined than table sugar, because it doesn’t travel as far; however, this sugar is still exposed to sulfur dioxide to obtain its white colouring.
- White Refined (Table Sugar). This is sugar that has undergone a rigorous refinement process. It is available in different grains, such as coarse-grain, granulated, castor, and powdered/icing.
- Brown Sugar. This is white refined sugar that has had molasses added to it. Nothing more. Nothing less.
For the purposes of this article, we’re going to focus on white refined sugar.
Almost 90 percent of our refined sugar comes from sugar cane; the other 10 percent is extracted from beets. To create sugar, there is a two step process of milling and refining.
Milling is simply a means of extracting the liquid (juice) from the sugar cane plant. The plants are crushed through a series of rollers which squeeze out the sugar cane juice. This juice is collected, boiled to kill off any dirt and bacteria, and sent to be refined.
Refining the sugar cane juice into table sugar gets a bit technical and sciencey, but stay with me. To create table sugar, the juice is put through a four step process.
The first stage is known as affination. During this step, the cane sugar juice is mixed with a more concentrated, higher purity version of itself (read: boiled down to thicken.) The mixture is then spun in a high-powered centrifuge (think: clothes dryer) to separate the juice into two parts: crystals and surrounding liquid.
After this surrounding liquid has been boiled down, it is sold to consumers as molasses. The sugar crystals are given a second spin in the centrifuge, dissolved in water, and filtered to remove any remaining impurities. Once these crystals harden, they are sold as raw cane sugar.
The raw sugar is then put through carbonation. During this stage, the sugar is combined with calcium hydroxide (also known as “slaked lime,” which is an FDA approved acidity regulator and firming agent) to form rock hard sugar crystals. Carbonation also removes more of the impurities and some colour.
The third step is decolourisation where – you guessed it! – the sugar crystals are washed of their natural colour. This is done by melting the sugar with activated carbon, which is also known as “bone char.” The carbon reacts with sucrose to create a lighter colour.
Finally, this liquid is boiled, washed with water, and spun again several times to create the granulated sugar crystals we know as table sugar.
Conventional baking is all about combining ingredients and adding heat to make something new. Therefore, I have no problem using cane sugar juice, molasses, or even raw cane sugar in my baking. All three of these products are created by adding nothing more than heat and a spin cycle to the natural version.
What I do not agree with is adding chemicals or other ingredients to my sugar to achieve a more desirable colour or texture. I do not use refined white sugar (or brown sugar) in my baking.
What Can We Use Instead?
The following are some completely natural alternatives for refined sugar, and all of them work well as substitutes in baking. I want to be clear that I am not promoting these ingredients as healthier alternatives. Some of them contain the exact same sucrose levels as refined sugar, which doesn’t place them any lower on the glycemic index. I am suggesting these ingredients as natural alternatives, meaning they are less processed, unrefined, and truer to their natural form.
Honey is sourced directly from beehives and the bees who make it. It is one of my preferred natural sugar substitutes – I love the mild taste and its thicker consistency. However, you have to be careful about which honey you buy. Most honey that is readily available in the breakfast aisle of your local supermarket is pasteurized, which means the honey has been heated to excessive temperatures (170 F plus) to destroy yeast cells, delay crystallization, and kill bacteria. Pasteurization is thought to reduce product deterioration as well, but it actually destroys the nutrients and creates a product that is just as nutritionally deficient as refined sugar.
Although it can cost a pretty penny if you don’t live near a beehive, try to purchase raw honey. Raw honey is how it exists in the beehive; you will notice that it’s quite cloudy and will contain some pollen and beeswax. If you cannot afford raw honey, you can also purchase strained honey or filtered/unpasteurized honey. Strained honey has been passed through a mesh sieve to remove the debris you find in raw honey, but it doesn’t remove the pollen, minerals or valuable enzymes. Filtered or unpasteurized honey is heated to 150 F or below and then passed through a filter to remove extra particles.
Agave syrup comes from the sap of the agave plant. The sap is collected, extracted, filtered, and heated to thicken it. Agave has a similar taste to honey, but I find it much more mild, and it is also thinner in consistency. The difference between the light and dark syrups depends on the filtration and heating processes. Light agave syrup is heated at a lower temperature and filtered multiple times to produce a milder flavour. Dark agave syrup is filtered less and heated at higher temperatures for a stronger flavour. Both varieties are also available in raw, which means they haven’t been heated past 118 F and retain their natural enzymes.
Maple syrup is another of my preferred sugars and is obtained from maple trees. We collect the sap from the trees and then boil it down to thicken it, producing an amber syrup. Maple sugar results from over boiling maple syrup to the point of crystallisation – similar to raw cane sugar.
Molasses is a great natural alternative, although it can be hard to bake with because of its distinctive flavour and scent. If you plan to buy molasses, make sure you purchase unsulphured molasses. Sulphured molasses has been treated with sulphur dioxide in order to kill bacteria and lighten its colour. In high doses, sulphur dioxide can be lethal. Recent studies have concluded that there is no reason to be using sulphur dioxide in the creation of molasses, and most supermarkets have removed it from their shelves, but just be aware that it exists.
Deciphering the grades of molasses is simple. Its colour is dependent on how many times the molasses has been boiled to thicken. Light molasses is created from the first boil; it is usually lightest in colour, thinnest in consistency, and sold as commercial molasses. Dark molasses is created from the second boil; it is slightly darker than light molasses, a bit thicker, stronger in flavour, and is sold as full or robust molasses. Blackstrap molasses is created from the third and final boil; it is the darkest and thickest molasses available on the market, tastes much more bitter than the other two (making it better for savoury dishes rather than sweet), and is sold as blackstrap molasses.
Coconut sugar is produced similarly to maple sugar. Coconut sugar is made from the sap of the coconut palm tree flowers, not coconuts. The sap is placed over a low boil to evaporate the water, and what is left is crystallised coconut sugar.
Date sugar is relatively new on the market as a natural substitute and is created from grinding up dehydrated dates. Both coconut sugar and date sugar work well as substitutes for brown sugar in baking; however, I find they do give a distinctive coconut or date flavour to the baked good. Homemade natural brown sugar is also a great substitute if you cannot afford or obtain date or coconut sugar or want a more neutral taste.
Do you have any questions, concerns, or quandaries regarding this article? Be sure to leave it in the comment section below, and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.
Did you like this article? Check out all the other articles in this series: Flour & Grains
Disclaimer: I am not a nutrition expert, nor do I have a degree in food science. This article is the result of a baker who was curious about how her ingredients were made and thought she would share her findings.
“Coconut Sugar: Is it Healthier than White Sugar, or Just Hype?” Globe and Mail. 2014. Available Online.
“Everything You Need to Know about Molasses.” The Kitchn. 2014. Available Online.
“FAQ: National Honey Board.” National Honey Board. 2016. Available Online.
“How Maple Syrup is Made.” Pure Canadian Maple Syrup, Federation of Quebec. nd. Available Online.
“How Sugar is Refined.” Sugar Knowledge International. nd. Available Online.
“Sugar: Chemical Compound.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2016. Available Online.
“The Sweet Subtly of Date Sugar.” The Kitchn. 2012. Available Online.
“What is Agave Nectar?” All About Agave. nd. Available Online.
Header photo courtesy of Unsplash.com.