- Jun 08, 2013
For me, a well-stocked, gluten free pantry means being able whip up a snack, treat or dinner without having to run to the grocery every time I want to cook. That is a momentum killer, the grocery, I mean. I get all excited to make something new and then realize I have to go shopping first. By keeping a good assortment of staples on hand, I am more able to have fun in the kitchen and cook things when I am inspired. Sweeteners play a large role in both the sweet and savory kitchen and I have numerous varieties at my disposal.
Obviously, the primary function of sugar and other sweeteners is to add sweetness. However, sweeteners are marvelous role players, often serving a myriad of functions in a recipe. They don't just impact flavor, they impact color, texture, moisture, aeration, stability...I could go on. In addition, they all have a different level of sweetness and other characteristics that may make them more or less appropriate for different applications.
Before I continue, I need to give a nod to one of my favorite baking cookbooks, In the Sweet Kitchen. I have used this book for years and lent my copy to many a culinary student. It is approachable, concise and packed full of useful information and recipes. This post is representative of the information I first discovered in that cookbook.
White Granulated Sugar is the most common form of sugar used today. It can be derived from sugar cane or sugar beets and unless the package specifically states "Pure Cane sugar", it is probably made from sugar beets. White sugar is 99.9% sucrose and has very little flavor when raw. But when caramelized, on its own or in baked goods, it takes on a whole new dimension. This is truly an all-purpose sugar.
Powdered Sugar or Confectioner's Sugar is simply granulated sugar that has been powdered. Because sugar in this state tends to attract too much moisture, an anti-caking agent is regularly added - most often cornstarch. Corn allergies beware! It is not a great substitute for any other sugar and should be used only when specifically called for.
Brown Sugar comes in light and dark varieties and both are almost as sweet as white sugar. They can be used interchangeably based on your preference. Originally, brown sugar was semi-refined white sugar in which some of the natural molasses remained. However, this is not the case these days and the molasses is often added back in at the end of the process. Brown sugar has a moist, cakey texture and smaller granule size then white sugar. This inherent moisture will produce chewier cookies and softer, more moist baked goods then those made white sugar. Substituting some or all of the white sugar for brown sugar can make subtle changes in the flavor and texture of your baked goods.
Corn Syrup is not a naturally occurring sugar and is artificially engineered by adding an enzyme to cornstarch to convert that starch to sugar. It is widely available in both light and dark varieties, and many cooks find it indispensable in some baking, confectionery and candy making. Although corn syrup has a bit of a bad rap these days, I feel that is due to its prevalence in our food system, not an inherently evil nature. I use corn syrup on a limited basis and believe it has a place in my pantry.
Honey, oh sweet, sweet nectar! I love honey on everything and this is the sweetener I use most in both sweet and savory dishes. Honey is not a pure sweetener and has about 80% the sweetening power of white sugar. It contains about 18% water as well as trace vitamins and minerals. It is made by bees of course, from the nectar of millions of different flowers around the world. Each honey has a unique flavor profile and there are countless styles, types and varieties. Besides the standard clover or wildflower honey, there is the intensely sweet and floral lavender honey from France, the resinous, pungent leatherwood honey from Tasmania, the earthy almost bitter chestnut honey from Italy and the truly unique Greek honey made from wild thyme. Becoming a honey connoisseur can be fun all its own.
Molasses is a by-product of the sugar refining process and comes in several varieties. You may see light molasses, dark molasses or blackstrap molasses for sale at your grocery. I love its bitter, acidic sweetness and it definitely adds a distinct flavor and color to baked goods. However, I almost always use molasses in conjunction with other sweeteners when baking.
Agave nectar has certainly become more mainstream these days, being used in everything from baked goods to margaritas. Agave is a sweetener commercially produced from several species of the agave plant. Agave nectar is actually about 1.5 times sweeter than sugar and is certainly sweeter then honey. So be cautious when using agave to replace other sweeteners in recipes. It can also be a nice vegan alternative to honey for those who choose to exclude animal products from their diets.
Maple Syrup, not to be confused with pancake syrup, is a sweet, dark, amber colored liquid that can taste of wood, earth, caramel and flowers. If you have never had real maple syrup, I encourage you to splurge and buy a bottle. To explain it simply, maple syrup is the sap of the sugar maple tree with most of the water evaporated/cooked out. True maple syrup comes in a variety of grades and can be quite costly, but it is definitely worth the price. Read labels carefully to ensure you are buying 100% pure maple syrup.
Artificial sweeteners have seen a large rise in popularity over the last two decades, especially in commercially made sugar-free foods and beverages. In addition, many folks love to add them to their coffee or tea and every restaurant carries the pink, white and blue packets on the table. Although I personally choose not to use these sweeteners, if you must bake with them, I would look to each of the different manufacturers to obtain recipes and replacement guidelines. Aspartame is also known as NutraSweet and Equal. This is 160 times sweeter then sugar and has a very distinct, bitter aftertaste. Sucralose, more popularly known as Splenda, has 600 times the sweetening power of sugar with a more subtle flavor then Aspartame. Finally, saccharin, sold under the Sweet'n Low brand, is said to be about 300 times sweeter then sugar. Saccharin's aspirin like aftertaste is particularly noticeable when food sweetened with it is heated.
Stevia is sold under the brand name Truvia in most grocery stores. This sweetener is derived from the a plant commonly known as sweetleaf or sugarleaf that has been widely grown for its, well, sweet leaves. It has gained popularity as a sweetener and sugar substitute because stevia has a negligible effect on blood glucose making it attractive to people on carbohydrate-controlled diets. Stevia is 300 times sweeter then sugar and I find it is has a slight licorice-like flavor when used in large quantities.
Each person I talk to has their own predilections and opinions on which sweeteners they use and why. There are so many choices available that I tried to touch on the ones most commonly found in the grocery. If you have a question about a particular sweetener, just ask! We are here to help.