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 Cooking Terms Explained - Sugar

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Brown and White Sugar

Sugar cane plant
Picture of sugar cane.


Sugar is now made from both sugar cane and sugar beet but until the 1800s it was made exclusively from sugar cane. Sugar cane is a native plant of New Guinea and has been cultivated there for at least 3,000 years.
It spread by trade through the Pacific Islands and then to India. Around 800 B.C. it is recorded as being cultivated in China.

Sugar was introduced to Europe in the eight century by Moors. In 1747 Andreas Marggraf, a German scientist, discovered the existence of sucrose in beet root but this discovery was not fully understood until Franz Achard built a sugar beet processing factory in Silesia in 1801. Although unprofitable, this was the beginning of commercially extracting sugar from beet.

How Is Sugar Produced?
Sugar comes from two sources, sugar cane and sugar beet. Sugar cane is suited to warmer climates and therefore is not grown commercially in Northern Europe and northern parts of North America. Sugar beet is more suited to cooler climates and is therefore grown in areas where sugar cane would not survive.

Sugar cane is harvested, then crushed to extract the liquid from the plant. The liquid is treated with chemicals to purify it and then boiled. The boiling produces scum at the top and a sediment at the bottom which removed leaving a liquid which crystallises into a solid mass of sugar when left to cool. This produces brown sugar.

Sugar beet on the other hand is sliced first and then basically cooked in hot water to extract sugar from the beet. Impurities are chemically removed and the liquid is then boiled which removes most of the water by evaporation. The remaining liquid is then crystallised in a controlled manner and the crystals of sugar are removed by a centrifuge.

The 'waste' from this process is called molasses and is used in animal feeds.

Difference Between White Sugar and Brown Sugar
Raw sugar from sugar cane is produced with the minimum of chemical processing and typically range in colour from yellow to dark brown. These brown sugars come in various grades and are commonly known as Demerara, Muscovado, and Turbinado. The brown colour is caused by the molasses content which also gives brown sugar a stronger taste.

Note that if you buy sugar labelled as "Brown Sugar" (rather than Demerara or Muscovado) it will most likely be white sugar which has had molasses added to it.

At the other end of the scale of sugar is white refined sugar, the most common sugar in Europe and North America. Typically sold as granulated white sugar, it is the result of chemical processing of raw sugar. The raw sugar is first purified with phosphoric acid. It is then further processed with calcium hydroxide and and carbon dioxide. The final chemical process strips it of its natural colour by filtering it through activated carbon.

There are various grades of granulated sugar depending on their use. Granulated sugar is around 0.5mm in diameter,
superfine / caster sugar is around 0.35mm in diameter, confectioner's sugar is around 0.06 mm in diameter and icing sugar is 0.024 mm in diameter.

In between brown sugar and white sugar comes mill white sugar. This is simply brown sugar which has been bleached white by the use of sulphur dioxide. It is common to sugar cane growing areas but it less common elsewhere because it does not ship well.

Difference Between Beet Sugar and Cane Sugar
To the taste buds, there is no difference between refined beet sugar and cane sugar. Chemical analysis can detect the difference but this is used mainly to prevent fraudulent use of agricultural subsidies.

Caster / Castor / Superfine Sugar
Caster sugar (sold as superfine sugar in the United States) has smaller gains compared to standard granulated sugar but larger grains compared to confectioner's sugar. The finer grains of caster sugar allow it to dissolve more easily, especially in cool liquids.

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