I left this out during sugar week, but a few readers out there asked if I’d mention it. I don’t really want to go down the slippery slope of non-sugar sweeteners since there are a lot of them. But stevia is extremely popular these days so…why not?

Stevia, as I mentioned, is not a sugar. It has nothing even sugar-like in it. It’s an extract from the sweetleaf plant that goes by the technical name of steviol glycoside. It’s incredible powerful stuff. The pure form clocks in at something like 300 times the sweetness of sugar, though packaged stevia is only about 50 times as sweet as an ingredient. Even so a mere teaspoon will replace an entire cup of sugar.

But to say a chemical compound is sweet doesn’t necessarily mean it performs like table sugar — especially in baking applications. Stevia is funny in that its sweet flavor comes on much slower than table sugar, so in that sense it’s not quite an equivalent. Then there’s the question of bulk. Sugar does a lot more than make, say, a muffin sweet. It acts as a moisture-retainer and its sheer weight provides a counterbalance to the leavening. So if you’re wanting to bake with stevia you need to take the various factors into account. Many people add apple sauce, yogurt or pulped fruit to compensate.


Panela Sugar

Panela is another of the paleo-sugars, which is to say those that are made the truly old-school way, by crystallizing reduced cane juice in pans, then draining it in conical molds. In that way it’s almost identical to jaggery sugar, except that it’s made in the Americas (in Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Guatemala, Panama, Peru, Venezuela and Mexico, where it’s called piloncillo) and is always made from cane juice. Like jaggery it has about 20% non-sugar content, and can run the gamut from very blonde to very dark. This right here


Jaggery Sugar

If refined — even minimally processed — sugars aren’t your thing, then a jaggery sugar may be right up your alley. Jaggery is the closest you can get to sugar as it was done thousands of years ago. It’s made the truly old-fashioned way: by boiling cane juice in broad pans until most of the water has evaporated, then allowing the syrup to cool and crystallize into a thick slurry of crystals. At that point it’s poured into a conical mold with a hole at the bottom so the molasses can run out. A week or so later you have…this!

Here it’s important to note that jaggery can be made from either cane or date palm sugar. This, I was very surprised to learn this morning, is palm sugar. I jimmied a piece off the side with a knife and sure enough it tasted like dates. I also thought the burlap sack was a nice touch. Jaggery sugars are made and sold all over southern and south eastern Asia. They can be light or dark and have a variety of flavors, from very mild to quite strong indeed.


Muscovado Sugar

Muscovado sugar is another so-called “raw” sugar that’s made not at a refinery but the original sugar mill. As opposed to lighter “turbinado” and Demerara sugar, muscovado has quite small crystals. It’s a product of later crystallizations — the second or even the third — which means the molasses that coats it is much thicker and darker. It’s also usually air-dried instead of being spun in a centrifuge.

In many ways muscovado is similar to a refinery brown sugar (though the muscovado pictured above isn’t especially dark as these sugars go). It’s soft and strong tasting with all the deep caramel, mineral and acetic acid vinegar-like notes. However like other raw sugars it retains some of the brighter vegetable or grass-like flavors that refinery brown sugars don’t have. It can be used in any application that calls for brown sugar.

Oh, and the name comes from an arcane Spanish word meaning “separated out” or “reduced” (makes sense when you consider how crystal sugar is made). Muscovado also goes by the name of “Barbados” sugar (where a similar product was originally made) and also “moist” or “molasses” sugar.


Demerara Sugar

Demerara is named for the region of Guyana where it was originally manufactured. These days, however, it’s mostly made in Mauritius (a small island off Madagascar in the Indian Ocean). Demerara is similar to turbinado in that it is a light, large-crystal “raw” sugar, produced from the first crystallization of the cane juice. The main difference is that the cane juice it comes from is evaporated using old-style open pans instead of the more modern vacuum pans. The longer, higher-heat cooking dulls some of the brighter flavors but accentuates the deeper caramel-like ones. Like turbinado sugar it’s about 98% sucrose, which makes it great for a crème brûlée crust.


Turbinado Sugar

Turbinado is a “raw” large-crystal sugar, which is to say it’s made and packed at a sugar mill close to the point of harvest, not at a refinery. It’s a product of the first crystallization that occurs at at mill. Like all crystal sugars it’s spun in a centrifuge to (mostly) rid it of molasses, but it’s the only sugar that I’m aware of that actually takes its name from the machinery (a centrifuge is also called a “turbine”). The processing removes nearly all of the original molasses (turbinado sugar is 98-99% sucrose) but it still has a more interesting flavor than white sugar since that original molasses often contains fresh grassy aromas and flavors from the cane plant. Because turbindo sugar has hints molasses flavor but is still mostly sucrose, it’s frequently used to top crème brûlée where it forms a flavorful — yet still quire hard — crust.


Brown Sugar (Dark)

“Dark” brown sugars are similar to light brown sugars in that they are refinery sugars, almost always produced by “painting”, i.e. the application of a very dark molasses. Dark brown sugar can contain as little as 85% sucrose. Up to 5% of it can be plant matter and long-chain sugars, and up to 2% various minerals and salts (the rest being water, glucose and fructose). That being the case, it has a similar flavor profile as light brown sugar, except that those flavors are stronger and are supplemented by bitter and even licorice notes. Its higher acetic acid content can make is almost tangy and/or vinegar-y tasting.


Brown Sugar (Light)

Mass-market American brown sugar is a refinery sugar, made by re-melting and re-crystallizing the sugar supplied by the original sugar miller. It may simply be a more uniform version of the raw sugar with its original molasses still on it. Alternately, it may be a white table sugar that has been “painted” with molasses. Either way, it’s a “wetter”, softer and denser sugar than most “raw” brown sugars. These brown sugars are about 90% sucrose, the remainder being glucose and fructose, minerals (including salts), water, begasse (browned bits of the sugarcane plant) and longer-chain sugars that don’t taste especially sweet on our tongues. All these combine to give brown sugar a variety of buttery, salty and caramel-like notes. Brown sugar is an acidic ingredient as the molasses it contains is high in acetic acid (which can give it some vinegar-like aromas as well).


Powdered Sugar

Powdered sugar has the smallest crystal size of any of the white sugars, as small as 0.01 millimeters. It’s also known as “confectioner’s” or “icing” sugar depending on where you live. The tiny crystals make it good for dusting and of course making frostings and icings. The only major drawback to powdered sugar is its flavor and texture which can be chalky. The reason for that is because powdered sugar contains up to about 3% corn starch which is there to absorb moisture and keep the tiny crystals from clumping.


Superfine Sugar

Known as “caster” sugar in much of the rest of the English-speaking world, the only real difference between this and standard table sugar is the particle size (about 0.2 millimeters). The smaller size means it has more surface area, so many bakers prefer it for creaming applications, where sugar is beaten with butter to create lots and lots of tiny holes (which will go on to become gas- and steam-trapping bubbles). Since smaller crystals melt faster, it’s often preferred for mousses and meringues. Added to cake batters it disperses in smaller pockets and can create a lighter crumb.