I mentioned previously that one of the first steps I took toward overhauling my culinary pantry was getting rid of the white flour and white sugar. Many of my favorite treats and desserts called for a base of white sugar and white flour, so I found myself trying to create new recipes by experimenting with a whole new cast of characters. Aside from the occasional cake or tart that just didn't turn out, I can't say this has been anything but positive. I mean, even when I have a failure on my hands, I learn something new about the ingredients I'm using. Since I let go of white sugar, a whole new world of sweetness has opened up--a kaleidoscope of honeys, ribbons of caramel-hued syrups, and earthy-toned spoonfuls of fragrant sugar granules.
Similar to the other areas of my pantry that were in need of an overhaul, I was on the lookout for sweeteners produced from crops that had been farmed without chemicals and pesticides. I was looking for sweeteners that didn't contain additives and preservatives, and were as close to their original source ingredient in form and flavor as possible. I want to spend my money supporting sustainably minded producers, working in concert with the environment and giving a fair shake to their workers in fields and factories to produce great tasting products and ingredients.
And as far as flavor goes, the good news is that many of the alternative sweeteners are amazing. They maintain the flavor and some of the qualities of their source, in contrast to white sugar that is stripped down to pure sweetness.
It is important to understand the roles that sweeteners play in cooking and baking before you embark on a journey like this. Beyond sweetness, they also bring moistness and tenderness to baked goods. They can lend body and volume to batters and doughs and often form the foundation for icings, frosting, and glazes. In the case of caramel corn, they act as the binding agent, and it is sugar that gives you the dense, delicious crumb of your favorite coffee cake and the golden crust on a big muffin top. Granulated sugars can add a finishing texture and flavor to everything from a truffle to the rim of a cocktail glass, and this sort of use is one of the best ways to explore some of the more expensive artisanal sugars that are beginning to hit the market.
A few favorite sweeteners:
Blackstrap molasses is a full-bodied sweetener that runs thick and black as tar. It is made from successive boilings of sugarcane, and because many of the minerals and nutrients are preserved throughout the process, it is rich in potassium and a good source of calcium, vitamin B6, and iron. Like maple syrup, molasses is sold in grades having to do with whether it is from the first, second, third, or fourth boiling of the sugarcane, blackstrap coming from the last. Again because this sweetener is a concentrate, buying organic is important. Molasses recipes.
Brown rice syrup is beautiful syrup is a thick, slow-moving, silky slug of butterscotch-colored goodness made by cooking sprouted brown rice in water that is then evaporated. What remains is luminescent, not-too-sweet syrup that retains some of its antioxidant properties. Look for organic or sustainably produced brands. My favorite power bars are made with brown rice syrup.
Date sugar is made by reducing dried zahidi dates to a cooked paste, dehydrating the paste, and then breaking it into granules. I use it more as a seasoning-type sweetener, to shape the flavor of a recipe than as a foundation and volume-building sweetener, in part because it is quite expensive and temperamental (it burns at a lower temperature than white sugar.
Natural cane sugars: There is a spectrum of natural cane sugars available, the big hurdle is figuring out which ones to buy. There is no standardization when it comes to labeling and not all naturally-labeled cane sugars are of equal quality or integrity. At one end of the spectrum are products like Sucanat (pure dehydrated sugarcane juice) and Rapadura, which are the least processed. The trade-off is that they are dry, irregular, and a bit dusty
Beyond that there are the rich, delicious "raw" cane sugars like Muscovado or Barbados, Demerara, and Turbinado which unlike commercial brown sugars get their natural brown color from the local sugar cane juice. You then move on to a range of cane sugars that have gone through varying stages of processing until you come out the other end with a nearly white sugar--something like Florida Crystals or the organic cane sugar sold through Trader Joe's.
I generally look for cane sugars that are moist and similar in appearance to brown sugar with a fine grain echoing the size of standard white sugar grains. More often than not they'll have some combination of the following words on the packaging: natural, raw, unrefined, whole, and/or unbleached. I'm happy to report that there's a growing variety of cane sugars on the market now, and some are organically produced and fair trade certified. Natural cane sugar recipes.
Honey:One of the things I love about honey is that is has terroir--flavor that reflects the blossoming flowers of the specific region in which it was produced. Some honeys are thick, dark, and brooding; others are light in color and bright on the tongue. Navigating your way through the vast landscape of honey varietals involves a lifetime of tasting. A honey appropriate for pairing with an artisan cheese might be very different than a honey for baking with, so taste different types, take notes, and try different pairings. Look for raw, unfiltered, unprocessed honey and be aware that darker honeys contain higher levels of antioxidants. Farmers' markets are typically a great place to find honey producers who can talk you through the nuances of the different varietals. A few honey recipes.
Maple sugar, a dusty-textured, buff-colored sweetener, is made by evaporating the water out of maple syrup. It is on the pricey side, but has a lovely, deep, round maple flavor that helps you forget about the hole it leaves in your wallet. This is another sweetener I tend to use as an accent, sprinkled over yogurt, dusted on top of crepes, and sprinkled over scone, cookies, and muffins as they come out of a hot oven. Maple sugar recipes.
Maple syrup: The maple syrup market is a minefield of artificially maple-flavored syrups with little to no maple content, so be sure to read labels. Pure maple syrup is rich in important minerals like zinc and manganese and comes from boiling down the sap of maple trees. Available in various grades depending on when the sap was harvested from the tree, syrup produced from tapping early in the season yields a lighter, finer syrup designated grade A. I actually prefer grade B, which comes from sap harvested later in the season; it's thicker and more luxurious in flavor and color. Buy pure 100 percent organic maple syrup. Maple syrup recipes.
Pomegranate molasses, a deep, ruby-colored syrup with a tangy-sweet flavor is derived from the concentrated juice of the pomegranate. It is commonly used in Middle Eastern cuisine and is widely available at ethnic food markets. Look for bottles labeled pomegranate molasses, or if you can't find that, look for pomegranate syrup made from 100 percent pomegranate juice. One of my all-time favorite dips (or slather in this case) uses pomegranate molasses - it is called muhammara.
I do my best to avoid any artificial sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup, and any number of other sweeteners that don't meet the above criteria.
To wrap up this topic for now, I should mention that I certainly crave the occasional sweet treat, and I don't feel bad about it. I've found that if I cut out processed foods, eat healthy foods throughout the day, and indulge in the occasional sweet treat. I can typically strike a nice, satisfying balance.