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:
The Ultimate Guide to Unrefined and Raw Sugars
What is unrefined sugar, anyway?
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.
Here is an overview of organic brown sugar:
Organic brown sugars are extracted from organically grown sugar cane. They are sourced, processed, handled, and packaged according to a long list of rules established by the United States Department of Agriculture—the National Organic Program or NOP. Learn more about the organic standards Organic Sugar: What does it actually mean?.
Organic brown sugars are produced directly from the cane juice: Raw sugars are made in a sugar mill close to cane fields. After the juice is extracted and clarified, it is concentrated and undergoes a single-crystallization process. As opposed to unrefined sugars, their crystals are centrifuged in a large perforated basket spinning very rapidly, much like a washing machine in the spin cycle, where the loaded laundry is spun and dried. During the centrifugation, the molasses is not completely washed off.
Most organic brown sugars are imported from South America and only one brand is made in the USA: Paraguay is the leading producer of organic brown sugar. America's only producer of certified organic sugars is Florida Crystals Corp. The company pioneered organic sugar farming in the country and owns a sugar mill in South Florida. Check their Amazon storefront here.
What's in stores? Any brand of organic brown sugar is non-GMO, kosher, and suitable for vegetarians, vegans, and Halal. At the time of publishing, one pound of organic brown cane sugars ranges from $1.99 to $4.32, with an average of $3.00 per pound.
Florida Crystals =>
Trader Joe's =>
Learn more by reading a previous post titled Raw Sugar: From Turbinado to Demerara, Find out Exactly What it is.
3) REFINED BROWN SUGARS
The most widely available brown sugars in grocery stores are not naturally brown. Regular (aka refined) brown sugars are simply a blend of white sugar crystals and cane molasses (or cane syrups). They vary in flavor and color based on the amount of cane molasses.
Refined brown sugars are made from sugar cane, sugar beet, or they might be a blend of both. As I wrote in a previous post, blends of cane and beet sugars are common because many sugar producers do not sell their products directly to consumers. They have their sweeteners sold and distributed by sugar marketing organizations, which may blend beet and cane sugar, based on price and availability.
From Sugar Cane
Three types of brown sugar from sugar cane are sold in stores:
— Light flavor and golden color: 2 to 3% molasses
— Dark color and rich flavor: 6 to 8% molasses
— Pourable: 2 to 3% molasses
Refined brown sugars are not produced directly from the cane juice: They are made in sugar refineries using crude raw sugar (see image below) shipped from domestic sugar mills or foreign sources. The production process starts with the removal of raw sugar impurities by remelting and filtering.
Refined brown sugars are made by 3 different methods: They might be brown all the way through, on the outside only, or free-flowing. It is not easy to say whether one brand of brown sugar is just painted or is brown all the way through. One way or another, both brown sugars give a molasses flavor to our recipes. Those methods use crude raw sugar as starting material, not cane juice.
In the Crystallization method, the resulting brown sugar crystal is brown all the way through: Brown sugar is made by redissolving raw sugar, which is then concentrated and recrystallized till a thick brown paste with sugar crystals is formed. It is then centrifuged but the molasses is not completely washed off.
In the Coated or Painted method, the resulting brown sugar crystal is brown only on the outside: Raw sugar is refined all the way to white granulated sugar (table sugar), and its surface is coated or "painted" with a small amount of cane molasses. This brown sugar is simply white sugar crystal with a thin film of cane molasses on its surface. Brown sugars from sugar beet are made through this method.
In the CoCrystallization method, the resulting brown sugar is dry and pourable (free-flowing): This process starts with extremely fine refined sugar crystals, which are cocrystallized (agglomerated) with cane syrup. Each granule of the resulting sugar consists of many tiny crystals that are held together by the syrup in a porous sponge-like structure. Pourable Brown Sugar has loose, dry crystals that are easy to scoop, spoon, or pour. It contains less moisture and weighs slightly less than other brown sugars. They are also known as free-flowing brown sugar, molasses granules, or Brownulated® sugar. The advantage of this refined brown sugar is that it pours easily, and does not clump, cake, or harden. Please watch the unboxing video at the end of this post.