So many types of brown sugar are available in stores across the country, and you might wonder which one is best. All of them are as sweet as table sugar and offer a cane molasses flavor, but how to distinguish refined from raw and unrefined forms?
This blog post is a guide to choosing brown sugars. To start, you need to know that both unrefined and raw brown sugars can only be made from sugar cane. On the other hand, refined brown sugars—which are the most widely available on store shelves—can be produced from either sugar cane or sugar beet, or they might even be a blend of both.
1) UNREFINED BROWN SUGAR
All brown sugars in stores are highly refined and processed, even the so-called "raw" and "unrefined," but unrefined brown sugars are the least refined of all. Most are traditional artisan sugars made on small scale for local markets using simple equipment and little capital. One type of unrefined brown sugar, called Sucanat, is produced by a more sophisticated drying method. Here are some quick facts about them:
Sweetness and Taste: Unrefined brown sugars have the same sweetness as table sugar (1 teaspoon table sugar = 1 teaspoon of unrefined sugar). They offer a stronger lingering molasses flavor when compared with other brown sugars, because they have a higher molasses content—8 to 14 percent versus 3 to 8 percent in light and dark brown sugars, respectively.
Crystals Size and Color: Unrefined sugars are slightly coarser than raw and refined brown sugars. As the image below shows, they often have small firm dark clumps of syrup-coated sugar crystals. Different batches may have slight differences in color and flavor (second image below).
Unrefined brown sugars are produced directly from the cane juice: Sugar mills around the world, which are always close to cane fields, use hundreds of years old know-how to squeeze the cane juice and refine it.
The refining process involves three steps: The production starts by collecting and clarifying the cane juice and then boiling its water off through slow simmering in open kettles. As cane juice is concentrated, a sticky dark syrup, called cane molasses, surrounds the pure sugar (sucrose) crystals. Hand paddling cools and dries the syrup. The color of the resulting brown sugars depends on the amount of molasses they retain.
Traditional brown sugars are not centrifuged to remove the original cane molasses at any stage during their refining: The processes used to refine and concentrate the cane juice vary with the manufacturer, but traditional brown sugars retain all or most of the original cane molasses around the sucrose crystals. Consequently, they offer a strong molasses flavor and a very dark brown color.
In the past, sugar mills used to separate the sugars crystals from the molasses by using upright conical pots: The first unrefined sugar was called sugar loaf. The molasses drained through a hole at the base of a cone. We can still buy unrefined sugars shaped like a cone (piloncillo from Mexico) or a block (panela from Colombia).
Traditional brown sugars have many different local names worldwide: They are called muscovado in the Mauritius Island and the Phillippines, rapadura in Brazil, panela in Colombia, piloncillo in Mexico, kokuto in Japan, and jaggery in India.
Sucanat stands for SUgar CAne NATural: It is an unrefined brown sugar produced by a drying process developed by the Swiss company Pronatec. It is called a free-flowing brown sugar because it doesn't clump, cake, or harden as other brown sugars do. Sucanat has dry, porous granules and doesn't dissolve quickly into doughts and batters, but it can be ground in a coffee grinder or pulsed in a blender to help incorporate it. Sucanat is a registered trademark of Wholesome Sweeteners Inc, from Sugar Land, TX, and here is their Amazon storefront. A variety of companies are licensed distributors of Sucanat in the U.S., such as Now Foods. It is certified organic, fair trade, and non-GMO Project Verified.
Unrefined brown sugars might be certified organic: Some unrefined sugars are made from organic sugar cane and processed, handled, and packaged according to the USDA organic standards. For instance, Organic Jaggery, Organic Panela, and Organic Whole Cane Sugar. Learn more about certified organic sugars in a previous post titled Organic Sugar: What Does it Actually Mean?
What's in stores? All unrefined brown sugars sold in stores are non-genetically modified (non-GMO), kosher, and suitable for vegetarians, vegans, and Halal. In the United States, unrefined brown sugar may cost 3 to 12 times more than regular (light or dark) brown sugars. At the time of publishing, one pound of unrefined cane sugars ranges from $3.50 to $12.50. I am often asked why unrefined sugars are more expensive than white sugar. The main reason is that they are usually made in small batches and imported from cane-growing countries around the world, such as Colombia, Brazil, Paraguay, Mauritius, and Mexico. There is no production of traditional brown sugars in America.
Whole Cane Sugar =>
Hand Crafted Cane Sugar =>
Dark Brown Molasses Sugar =>
Light Muscovado =>
Dark Muscovado =>
Panela powder =>
Jaggery Powder =>
Okinawa Kokuto =>
Okinawa Kokuto Powder =>
Piloncillo Granulated =>
Learn more about unrefined sugars on previous posts:
2) RAW BROWN SUGARS
Certified organic light and dark brown sugars we see in stores are raw cane sugars. Just like unrefined brown sugars, they come straight from the freshly harvested cane, but they contain fewer molasses. Organic light brown sugars have 3 to 4 percent molasses and dark brown sugars about 8 percent.