Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Brown Sugar

After several recent conversations about brown sugar, I was happy to see a discussion about sugars today in a New York Times article about cane syrup and its use in southern baked goods and other treats: Secret of Holiday Treats (by Julia Moskin and Kim Severson, Dec. 13, 2006, New York Times). I also checked McGee's On Food and Cooking, out of curiosity to get a better understanding about what makes all these different sugars have such interesting flavors and textures.

My first conversation was with my friend Erin in Prague, for whom I put in the recipe for blondies. I have been aware for a long time that in standard European grocery sources, one does not find American-style brown sugar. Erin says she makes it out of
sugar and Czech molasses. Maybe she learned from McGee: "Brown sugar is soft and clingy because its molasses film -- whose glucose and fructose are more hygroscopic than sucrose -- contains about 35 times as much water as ordinary white sugar." The process for making brown sugar that he describes is more complex than Erin's simple mixing. McGee says brown sugar results from: "adding special syrups that have undergone the ideal amount of browning to refined, redissolved sucrose," followed by further processing that leaves a molasses coating. But for small-scale use her version evidently works -- I hope she makes some blondies and chocolate chip cookies!

In conversations with other friends, I have discussed the differences between the soft, clingy American brown sugar and the more crystalline varieties of "raw" sugar found elsewhere, such as Demarara sugar in England, turbinado sugar in the Caribbean, and cassonade or sucre roux in France. As we ate a delicious flan, we discussed the more classic method of making the brown syrup -- actually carmelizing sugar in a pan -- as opposed to the less risky short cut of melting brown sugar.

The process description in the NYT article today claimed that all brown sugars were originally a direct by-product of one of the repeated steps of centrifuging and boiling down syrup in the process of making white crystalline sugar. To quote:
Brown sugars now come in a range of flavors: Demerara, turbinado and raw sugars are like the “first pressing” of the sugar: they are first to rise to the top during processing and have the lightest molasses flavor. Muscovado, a loamy, crumbly dark brown sugar, has the most. Most commercial brown sugars are not naturally brown from cane solids, but are a late-stage mixture of refined white sugar and molasses.
This confirms what I've heard in the past: that various brown sugars occurred during the refining process. When sugar refining was done on a smaller scale, for various reasons the less-fully-refined sugars were used, though less valued. Eventually sugar refining became totally industrial, and suddenly the brown sugars, once considered crude, became valued for the greater variety of flavors. And a new process was invented to produce these versions in a consistent, efficient way. Like bitter greens and potatoes, a food of poor rural people is elevated to a different status.


Anonymous said...


Thanks for the blog.

We're an expat American family living in Wroclaw, Poland. We read your entry about Erin from Prague using Czech molasses to make brown sugar. We're desperate to learn her ratio (2 t. to 1 c.?), what the Czech's call molasses, and where she finds it. We haven't fount molasses in Poland, yet. Any help?

Mae Travels said...

Here is Erin's answer about Czech molasses:

The Czech molasses (or what I like to think of as molasses, anyway) is called "cerny zazrak" (black miracle), and it's sold in a can with a scene on it of people in a cane sugar field.

Here, I think my father-in-law gets it at the pharmacy... I haven't seen it in any markets, but it could be that I'm not looking hard enough. (On the other hand, the older generation regards it primarily as a cure-all rather than a baking necessity, so that explains why it's found in the pharmacy / health stores.)

I have to admit that I wing it, when it comes to the cerny zazrak-sugar ratio. I've tried just drizzling about two tablespoons into a cup of sugar, but it's impossible to blend that way. The best method I've got (so far) is to mix the sugar with eggs--assuming this is for a cookie / cake recipe that calls for brown sugar and eggs--and then add the molasses. (You can also drizzle it into melted butter, or melted butter with sugar, etc.) The trick is to get the viscosity of the mixture you're adding the molasses to as close to molasses as possible...but that's just a guess.

And then I just taste and eyeball how much it approximates brown sugar, and adjust as necessary.