Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Agave Nectar – Should you be using it?

A few years ago, Agave nectar was all the rage and touted as the sweetener to use. I have written about sweeteners in cooking/baking in prior Cooking Tips. Here is one on Liquid Sugars, of which agave is just one type. Here is another one – Sugars – more than just sweetness. In this current Cooking Tip, I will focus only on agave.

Agave nectar comes from the agave plant, also known as the “century plant”. It is used for its supposed healing properties and is the plant from which tequila is made. Agave nectar is a golden-colored liquid sweetener that comes from this same plant. There are different kinds.

  • Light agave nectar – This has undergone multiple processing steps including heating and filtering. This gives it a more neutral taste but it also leads to a loss of some of its nutrients.
  • Raw agave nectar – This is an unprocessed nectar. It is darker in color with a more distinctive taste. No nutrients are lost since it is not processed.
  • Agave sweet powder – With this product, all the liquid is removed, turning it into a granular form, which is then crushed into a powder.

Agave has been pushed by some by saying it is a more natural and healthier sweetener. It is touted as having a low glycemic index (GI) and thus, less impact on your blood sugar levels. However, the story doesn’t end there. The reason it is said to be low on the GI scale is that it is 85% fructose. Fructose will not raise short term blood sugar levels as rapidly as the glucose found in table sugar (table sugar, aka sucrose, is made up of 50/50 glucose and fructose). However, there are those who say because fructose is only processed by the liver, it can lead to other health concerns such as increased triglyceride levels, increased insulin resistance and others. So, as with so many wondrous “health finds”, there are two sides to the story.

Another benefit is said to be that since it is 1½ times sweeter than other sweeteners, you can use less. Another nice thing is that it doesn’t crystallize like honey.

If you wish to use it in your kitchen, there are some recommendations. It can easily be added to beverages, vinaigrettes, sauces and as a topping for things such as oatmeal. The biggest problem comes with baking.

If you have a recipe that was designed using agave, great. However, if you are trying to swap out other sweeteners in favor of agave, there are factors that you need to consider.

  • As mentioned above, it is sweeter. You will, therefore, need to reduce the amount you use by ½ to ⅓.
  • It is a liquid as opposed to granulated, brown or other sugars. This will need to be compensated for by decreasing other liquids.
  • Just as with honey, it can lead to excessive browning of items in the oven. Reduce the oven temp by 25° to prevent this.
  • Baked goods made with agave can be sticky and so the use of parchment is strongly advised.
  • It must first be combined with the liquids or fats in your recipe to prevent a crusty or oily layer on top.
  • If baking time is more than 40 minutes, reduce the cooking time by 5-10 minutes.
  • Sugar does more than just add sweetness. See my Sugar Cooking Tip for a further discussion on this. Be aware of this before simply swapping it out.

I found three tests of head-on comparisons of the same baked goods made with agave and sugar or honey.

  • Cook’s Country tested cornbread and honey-wheat rolls. They found light agave to work just as well as honey, but it lacked true honey flavor. The amber agave led to darker baked goods with an earthier flavor.
  • Cook’s Illustrated tested it in cookies and cakes as a substitute for sugar and found, even with recommended adjustments, the results were subpar.
  • Deseret substituted agave for sugar in brownies. Although the agave brownies were moist, they were more cake-like and lacked the caramelized sugary crust that the brownies made with sugar had.

I looked at multiple sources to come up with the following recommendations for you if you do want to try agave in place of another sweetener.

  • Honey – replace with equal amounts.
  • Maple Syrup – replace with equal amounts.
  • Brown Rice Syrup – use ½ to ⅓ as much agave and increase other liquids in the recipe by up to ½ cup.
  • Corn Syrup – use ½ as much agave, and increase other liquids in the recipe by up to ⅓ cup.
  • White Sugar – recommendations vary just a bit
    • Some sources recommend that for every 1 cup sugar called for, use ⅔ cup agave, and reduce the liquid in the recipe by ¼ to ⅓ cup.
    • Another source recommends the “75% rule”, which means using only ¾ of the amount of agave by volume as granulated sugar. For every cup of sugar that the recipe calls for, reduce the liquid by 2-4 tablespoons.
  • Brown Sugar – again, there are some differences in recommendations
    • One guide is that for every 1 cup sugar called for, use ⅔ cup agave and reduce the liquid in the recipe by 2 tablespoons.
    • Another says to use ¾ cup of agave nectar for each cup of brown sugar the recipe calls for and reduce the liquid by no more than a tablespoon.

When it comes to reducing the liquids, you have choices. Some liquid ingredients (milk, eggs) are made up of water while others are liquid fats. Although both categories are liquid, water will evaporate as it heats whereas the fats will remain. Therefore, you are probably better off reducing the former rather than the latter.

Remember that it is not an all or none situation. You do not have to replace all the sweetener in a recipe with agave. In fact, it may be better to only swap out a portion.

One source recommends the following

  • Cakes & brownies – replace only ½ of the sugars with agave
  • Cookies –replace ⅓ of the sugars with agave
  • Bars containing fruit – replace ⅔of the sugars with agave or 100% if it is fresh fruit

If you use agave or have been thinking about it, I hope this Tip will give you some information to help you be successful with it!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Maple Syrup — a great sweetener

I do not know too many people who don’t just love the flavor of real maple syrup. Yes, we often pour it over our pancakes, waffles or French toast but it can be used in many more ways in the kitchen. In this Cooking Tip, let’s explore what maple syrup is and how to use it.

Maple syrup is made from the sap from certain species of maple trees. The three major species of maples are the sugar maple, red maple and the silver maple with the sugar variety being the main tree. Vermont is the leading producer in the nation although it is also produced in other states.

It takes about 30 to 40 years for a sugar maple to reach the required size for tapping. According to NYS Maple, the trees produce and store starch from May through August. As the thaws begin and the snow melts, starch turns into sugar (sucrose). The sap starts to run at the time of thawing but before the leaf buds open. Although sources vary, an average tap can produce from 5 to 20 gallons of sap.

Maple sap, however, is not the same as maple syrup. The sap is a clear and slightly sweet liquid with a consistency close to water. Maple syrup is produced by boiling the maple sap and thus concentrating it into maple syrup. According to experts, it takes about 40 parts of sap to make 1 part syrup. Another way to think about it is that it takes about 10 gallons of sap to produce one quart of syrup. This should give you an idea about why maple syrup is relatively expensive.

When I first started buying and using maple syrup in the kitchen, I always grabbed Grade B rather than Grade A. It wasn’t an inferior syrup (all the grades had similar quality) but was darker in color and had a deeper flavor, which was great for cooking and baking. At that time, there were three grades: A (light), B (dark), and C (very dark, and only sold commercially).

Then, in 2014 Vermont introduced a new grading system which was adopted by the USDA in 2015. Many people like it better but I personally think it became a bit more confusing for the consumer.

The USDA regulations use both color and flavor in the grading of maple syrup. There are now four grades although some states and Canada may use slightly different terminology. According to the USDA, this is how the grades break down.

Grade A Light Amber – this used to be called “Fancy”. It is a light golden color with a mild and delicate maple flavor. It is usually made earlier in the season when the weather is colder. Some say this is the best grade for making maple candy and maple cream.

Grade A Medium Amber – formerly called “Grade A Medium Amber” or “Grade A Dark Amber”, this is a bit darker with more maple flavor. It is the most popular grade of table syrup and is usually made after the sugaring season begins to warm, about mid-season.

Grade A Dark Amber – older names include “Grade A Dark Amber” or “Grade B”; it is darker yet, with a stronger maple flavor. It is usually made later in the season as the days get longer and warmer.

Grade B – this might also be called “Grade C” and used to be called “Grade A Very Dark”. It is sometimes called “Cooking Syrup” or “Processing Grade” and is made late in the season. It is very dark, with a very strong maple flavor, as well as some caramel flavor. Many people use this for table syrup, but because of its strong flavor, it is often used for cooking, baking and flavoring in special foods.

Besides pouring it on the aforementioned pancakes, how else can maple syrup be used in the kitchen? Here are just a few ideas.

  • Candy – caramels (my personal favorite), hard candy, fudge
  • Baking – breads, cookies, fruit crisps, custards, pies, blondies
  • Savory cooking – glaze for salmon or chicken, candied bacon, veggies such as brussels sprouts, carrots and sweet potatoes, BBQ sauce, sauces for pork
  • Vinaigrettes

If you have a recipe that uses a different sweetener and you want to try to swap in maple syrup, here are some items to consider.

Most sources tell you to substitute ¾ cup maple syrup for 1 cup of white sugar in baked goods while reducing other liquids in the recipe by about 3 tablespoons. However, King Arthur Baking advises to replace it 1 to 1 but do recommend decreasing other liquids by 3 to 4 tablespoons per 1 cup substitution. If there is no liquid called for in the recipe, they suggest adding about 1 tablespoon of additional flour for every ¼ cup of maple syrup used. They also caution to make sure the maple syrup is at room temperature as cold syrup may cause the other ingredients to clump, especially if baking with butter.

Just as with honey, excess browning may occur. With honey, the recommendation is to reduce the oven temperature by 75°F. With maple syrup, the risk of browning is not as great and you can probably get by with a reduction of 25°F.

Substituting maple for other liquid sweeteners is also possible. However, as honey, molasses and corn syrup are thicker than maple syrup, the recommendation is to start by trying ¾ cup maple syrup plus ¼ cup of white sugar for every 1 cup of the other liquid sweetener.

Another great product to try is granulated maple sugar which is made from continuing the concentration step until a dry, granulated product is achieved. It can be substituted for white sugar one-to-one.

I am not even going to mention “pancake syrup”. Why? Look at this list of ingredients: “High fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, water, salt, cellulosegum, caramel color, natural and artificial flavors, sodium hexametaphosphate,sorbic acid and sodium benzoate (preservatives).” Now, look at the ingredient list for pure maple syrup: “Pure Maple Syrup”. Which do you want to eat? Which do you want to feed your family?

Maple syrup – the last thing I have to say is YUM! Do you agree or not?

Cooking Tips · Ingredients · Techniques

Cooking with Honey

I recently had a booth at our town’s Honey Festival where I showcased five different goodies make with honey as well as Honey Ginger Lemonade. I was humbled by so many of you who stopped by, sampled these goodies and signed up for my emails. In honor of that, I thought I would write this Cooking Tip on how to cook with honey.

Honey is a delightful sweetener and is lovely to have in your arsenal. Because honey attracts and holds water, it can add great moisture to your baked goods. It can also act as a binder and thickener for sauces, dressings, marinades and dips.

There are, however, some cautions about cooking with honey. You cannot make a 1-to-1 swap from your recipe’s current sweetener (such as granulated sugar) to honey.  With so many wonderful recipes that were created with honey as an ingredient, I encourage you just to find this type of recipe. Someone has already done all the experimentation to come up with the right mix and amount of ingredients.

If you would like to convert a recipe from it is current sugar to honey, here are some guidelines.

  • Begin by only substituting half of the amount of sugar in the recipe with honey. You might be able to up this as you continue experimenting but if you do it all at once, your recipe is likely to fail.
  • Because honey is a liquid sweetener, reduce the liquid in your recipe by ¼ cup for each cup of honey used.
  • In cookie recipes where the only liquid is eggs, increase the flour by 2 tablespoons per cup of honey.
  • Honey is an acidic ingredient. Therefore, add about ½ teaspoon baking soda for each cup of honey used.
  • Reduce your oven temperature by 25-75° to prevent over-browning as honey browns faster than sugar.
  • Choose your honey carefully. Very strongly flavored honeys should be used judiciously and are best in items such as spice cakes, spicy marinades and glazes (jerk spice, spare ribs, BBQ sauce). For a lighter dish, choose a lighter honey.

One wonderful characteristic of honey is that it is its own preservative. Therefore, it keeps for years although the flavor is best within a year of harvesting.

Store it at room temperature in your pantry. If you put honey in the refrigerator, it accelerates crystallization. Speaking of that somewhat irritating aspect of honey, what do you do with your honey when it has crystallized? Do not throw it away; it is not an indicator of spoilage, impurity, age or quality. Rather, it is a natural process that occurs when the glucose molecules align into orderly arrangements known as crystals.

You can reverse crystallization by any of the following methods.

  • Place the honey in a jar in warm water. Allow it to sit until the crystals dissolve.
  • Bring a pan of water to a boil, turn off the heat, place the honey container in the water with cap open & leave until both have cooled.
  • Microwave it in 10-second increments until the crystals dissolve.
  • For a more permanent solution, you can add corn syrup (assuming you have no objections to this ingredient). Because crystallization can only occur if all the sugar molecules are of the same structure, by adding something different (such as corn syrup), it will not crystallize. You do not need much – stir in 2 teaspoons of corn syrup per cup of honey.

Honey is such a wonderful ingredient and I would suspect we all have some in the pantry. It is great to spread on your bread or drizzle in your oatmeal. It is also an ingredient that has so much more to offer. Go someplace where you can taste all the different varieties, choose what you enjoy and have fun!


Cooking Tips · Ingredients

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.



Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Sugar — more than just sweetness

Although sugar has a bad name in the nutritional world, it is a necessary ingredient for your cooking and baking. It is such a simple word but it is far from a simple ingredient. In this Cooking Tip, I want to talk about why sugar is an important ingredient and about the many different types of sugar. This tip will be limited to solid sugars. Liquid sugars will have to wait for a subsequent Tip.

If you ask the average person what the purpose of sugar is, they will probably say to add sweetness to the dish/beverage. Certainly, sweetness is one of the major properties of sugar. It is not the only one, though. Sugar can also help balance other flavors. An example would be a tomato sauce made with less ripe tomatoes. A pinch of sugar can help mask some of the acidity and bitterness of that sauce.

In baking, sugar can add volume as well as texture. It actually acts as a tenderizing agent in baked goods. In bread making, it assists with the proper amount of gluten development and decreases stickiness. Sugar also acts as a preservative as well as aiding in moisture retention. Sugar is what gives stability to beaten egg whites so they maintain their volume while baking. It also is what is responsible for that crunch in your cookies. Those beautiful golden crusts on coffee cakes & other baked goods is also due to sugar. There is more but that gives you an idea of how important sugar is for the cook.

Most sugar is obtained from either sugar beets or sugar cane. They are processed similarly (although not identically) by extracting sugar juice from these plants. By adjustments in the processing steps, many different types of sugar can be produced. I want to spend some time discussing the different types.

White sugar contains little or no molasses as the naturally-present molasses has been removed during processing. Types include granulated sugar, powdered sugar, caster sugar, sanding sugar & pearl sugar.

  • Granulated sugar (aka table sugar) is what most of us think of when it comes to sugar. It is the most common type in our kitchens.

  • Powdered sugar (aka confectioners’ or icing sugar) is made by grinding granulated sugar to a smooth powder and mixing it with a small amount of cornstarch (to prevent clumping). In a pinch and need powdered sugar but you have none? Make your own by grinding 1 cup of granulated sugar with 1 teaspoon of cornstarch in a blender for a full 3 minutes. This is the type of sugar to grab for making icings, frostings and glazes.

  • Caster sugar (aka superfine sugar) is very finely ground and is best is recipes that need the sugar to dissolve quickly and completely. Examples include meringues or frostings.

  • Sanding sugars are those colored sugars with large crystals that we like to sprinkle on top of baked goods.

  • Pearl sugar (aka coarse or decorating sugar) is a white sugar with a coarse, hard texture and an opaque color. Because it holds it shape and doesn’t melt, it is normally used to decorate baked goods.

Brown sugar contains varying amounts of molasses.

  • Light and dark brown sugars are made by mixing white sugar with molasses – less for light and more for dark.

  • There are other brown sugars which are less refined. Turbinado sugar is a slightly refined cane sugar, retaining more of the naturally-present molasses. It has a caramel-like flavor and it has large crystals that do not dissolve well. Because of this, it doesn’t do well in light batters or doughs but may be fine in muffins. Because it has less moisture content than brown sugar, swapping one for the other is not recommended. If attempting to substitute it for white sugar, be aware that turbinado has more moisture, which shouldn’t be a problem in moist batters but this could be a problem in pastry dough recipes. Another problem with substituting one for the other is that a cup of turbinado with its larger crystals won’t be the same as a cup of white sugar. This is another reason to have a food scale in your kitchen as it will give you more accurate measurements. The best uses for turbinado sugar are stirring into your coffee/tea or sprinkling on top of baked goods for a crunch.

  • Demerara sugar is another less-refined variety. It has larger grains than turbinado, is amber in color and has a subtle molasses flavor. Again, because of the grain size, it is best used for beverages or as a topping on baked goods. Be aware that some companies use these two terms (turbinado & demerara) interchangeably.

  • Muscovado sugar (aka Barbados sugar) is unrefined cane sugar in which no molasses is removed. It comes in both light and dark varieties and has a more sticky, sandy texture than regular brown sugar. It can be very strong in flavor, especially dark muscovado.

Sugar can also be categorized by its source. If the bag claims it is “cane sugar”, it comes solely from sugar cane. If it does not state “cane”, it is probably either beet or a mixture of cane and beet sugar. Coconut sugar (aka coconut palm sugar) is made from the sap of the coconut plant. It has an earthy flavor. Palm sugar comes from the nectar of the sugar palm tree. It tastes similar to coconut sugar but may have more smoky, caramel notes. Date sugar is made from dehydrated ground dates and can be used as an alternative to brown sugar. Maple sugar is made from the sap of the maple tree and has a wonderful mapley (Is that a word? If not, it should be.) flavor.

Sucanat (a contraction of Sugar Cane Natural) is a sweetener that you may have heard about. It is essentially pure dried sugar cane juice. It is far less processed than other sugars and is considered by some to be truly unrefined. It has more flavor than granulated sugar and also retains much of the natural molasses, meaning it looks brown and has more of a molasses-type flavor. Because of this, it would not be a good choice for lighter baked goods but may be great in spice cakes and ginger cookies. Testers found its granular texture meant that it did not dissolve easily and, therefore, recommended grinding before using it. Its chemical content is also different from granulated sugar. The latter is pure sucrose where as Sucanat has small amounts of glucose, fructose and other molecules besides the sucrose. Because of this, it can react differently than regular sugar in recipes and cannot be substituted one for one on a volume basis. For every cup of granulated or brown sugar called for in your recipe, use 1¼ cups Sucanat. According to America’s Test Kitchen, you cannot scale this up/down exactly. Rather, they have put together a chart for conversion purposes. A similar product is called Rapadura. Some people also include in this category jaggery/gur and panela/piloncillo. They often come compressed into cakes or cones and must be chipped or grated. Jaggery can also be made from the date palm and is typically found in Indian markets whereas panela is usually found in Latin markets.

One caution – you may see the term “raw” sugar and think it refers to sugar that has not been refined. The term “raw” is mostly a marketing term to get you to believe just that. The truth is that it may be less refined than white sugar but it is certainly not totally unrefined – meaning nothing has been added or removed.

Well, if you thought sugar was a simple ingredient good only for sweetening food items, I hope you now see it is not nearly as simple as you thought – but just as delicious!