Liquid Sugars

Last week, I wrote about the importance of sugar and the various types of solid sweeteners. In this Cooking Tip, I would like to concentrate on liquid sweeteners. The main ones we probably have in our kitchen are honey, maple syrup, molasses and corn syrup. There are others, which I will also briefly discuss. With all these sweeteners, it is best to use recipes that have been created for that ingredient. However, if you want tips for how to swap these sweeteners for sugar, email me for recommendations.

Honey is said to be the world’s oldest sweetener. Its flavor varies greatly depending on the flowers and trees that the bees visit. If you have never tasted anything other than supermarket honey, I urge you to seek out and taste these different types of honey. I know the first time I did, I was totally amazed. The uniqueness of these different honeys can make a huge difference in the taste of your food item. If you are using honey in a very light and delicate dish, you are going to want to use a mild-flavored honey such as clover or orange blossom. Darker, more full-flavored honeys can overpower such a dish.

Generally, honey is sweeter than sugar. Although honey can be used in baking, you must do so with care as it is not a 1:1 substitution for sugar. Not only do you have to be concerned about the sweetness level but honey also adds liquid as well as acidity. Honey also browns very quickly and this needs to be taken into account. The types of baked goods that take to honey well are softer baked goods that do not require crispiness such as muffins, quick breads and cake. One advantage of using honey is that it is attracts water and thus, keeps your baked item moister.

Corn syrup is said to be only 65% as sweet as white sugar and is derived from cornstarch. One advantage of corn syrup is that, unlike other sugars, it does not crystallize. Note that regular corn syrup is not the same thing as High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). The latter is something that only food manufacturers use; it is not what you find in the baking aisle of your supermarket. HFCS is mainly fructose and its sweetness level is on par with granulated sugar. Corn syrup is mainly glucose, along with water & other longer-chain sugars. It is these longer-chain sugars that tend to tangle up with each other, creating a more viscous product and they are what prevent crystallization of other sugars. That is why it is often used in items such as pecan pie, caramel sauce, chocolate truffles and frostings. Some producers may add HFCS to their corn syrup but Karo is one company that does not. If you have concerns, just check the label.

Corn syrup comes in light and dark varieties and it is best to use whatever variety is called for in a recipe. The dark version is actually light corn syrup with added molasses, caramel coloring and flavoring. The light syrup has a delicately sweet flavor whereas the dark syrup has more of a molasses flavor.

Maple syrup is made from the sap of the sugar maple tree. In 2015, the FDA issued regulations concerning the grading and terminology for maple syrup. Rather than Grade A or B, the industry now uses terms relating to the color. Here is a great infographic that will help you when looking at the choices in the supermarket. If you wish to see the actual FDA regulations, here is a link. The lighter syrups are probably more all-purpose but the stronger flavored dark syrups are best for cooking. Swapping out sugar for maple syrup has the same precautions as for honey although browning does not happen as quickly and it is less acidic than honey.

Molasses is a byproduct of the sugar refining process. It is the residue that remains after the sugar crystals are extracted during the boiling process. The flavor will vary from type to type and it can also have bitter undertones. This sweetener comes in light or dark varieties as well as what is known as blackstrap. The most common is Light (aka Barbados, first, mild, sweet) and is the sweetest and mildest in flavor. Dark molasses (aka full, robust, second) will be thicker, less sweet and stronger in flavor. Blackstrap is very dark, thick and bitter. Another term you may see is “Unsulphured”. Some molasses is treated with sulphur dioxide as a preservative. Because this chemical affects the flavor, most molasses on our shelves will be unsulphured. Molasses is best used in recipes where it is used in combination with spices and/or fall fruits and vegetables.

Cane syrup is a caramelized, concentrated version of pure cane juice. The juice is boiled down and evaporated to create cane syrup. It is said to have a “burnt caramel” flavor and preferred uses are fruitcake and other spiced baked goods.

Sorghum syrup comes from sweet sorghum grass. The juice is extracted from the plants, returned to the mill and cooked down into a syrup. It is made in very small batches and its flavor is very specific to each producer.

Golden syrup is something you are much more likely to see in the UK, where it is often called “Treacle” or “Light Treacle”. Lovers of this syrup call its flavor “butterscotch” or “toffee”. There is a product known as “Black Treacle”, which is much darker and thicker than light treacle. It is similar to our molasses and is great in Sticky Toffee Pudding but can be overpowering in lighter dishes.

Agave nectar comes from the blue agave plant. It is very mild and neutral in flavor. It has been touted as a less refined sugar but has come under more scrutiny that has caused doubts to arise as to that claim. I am not going to go into the arguments about this sweetener but, if you use it, you may want to do some research of your own.

There is no doubt that Americans eat too much added sugar, but as I said in my last Tip, it is an ingredient that must be in any cook’s kitchen. Between last week’s Tip on solid sugars and this one on liquid sugars, I hope you can gain a better understanding of your choices so you can use it properly without overdoing it.