Thousand Secrets of Sugar

Post Zucchero

Behavior in Cooking and Types

The whole world of cooking could be summarized as the art of combining and reinterpreting the raw material through heat. Fascinating then verify how the choice of ingredients, their quality and contribution in their specificities are able to influence the final dish, playing in the recipe between the attribution of more prominent roles and more subtle and hidden presences in the background tones. The cook is a director and creating his screenplay in the plate is his art. Logical that especially in this historical phase in which the artistic contribution of the chef takes a degree of personification never seen before, to the limit of completely exceeding the borders of the kitchen in itself, the study of raw material overcome in obsession, becoming his a finite space in which to exercise arts and crafts. You just need to think about the types of pepper until a few years ago was in supermarkets: black, white and green. Stop. Today it is a flowering of exotic origins, perfumes and different degrees of pungency. The same could be said of the salt not to mention the endless spices and theirs combinations.

In our little corner of the world, dedicated to cooking on a live flame, things are not different but we add a series of elements that in other contexts are considered irrelevant or not very interesting. If you remember when we had talked about the construction of a rub, we have defined a third fundamental sphere together with salt and spices, which however, has not enjoyed equal success from the media point of view and the evolution of the offer to the public: sugar. Sugar is still just sugar, that stuff that is used to sweeten cakes or coffee. Even a commercial product, with a poor nature and widespread in other countries like Brown Sugar, remains an object of mystery here. In a context such as ours, where the caramelization effect at various levels characterizes many key phenomena, sugar is however very important and its differences clearly influence the final result. Despite this, also due to the almost zero availability of the offer, I must however note little knowledge of the raw material both in terms of behavior in cooking and perceptive contribution. I therefore wanted to give my humble contribution so that the first, fundamental step in this direction can be accomplished.

What’s Sugar

Post Zucchero 2The term “Sugar” means essentially the result of the extraction process obtained from the sugar cane plant. It can also be obtained from other plant forms, among which the main is the sugar beet, through procedures that differ in various measures, but for world volumes, cane sugar is so overwhelming the others that it is in fact synonymous with the term itself. In the case of the cane, the plant is milled and then macerated and pressed, from which the molasses is obtained, a dark liquid then subjected to a refining in several successive phases which eliminates any impurities.

From a chemical point of view, if it is meant in its widest sense of carbohydrate, sugar is a chemical compound made up of atoms of Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen (CHO). As we always do, we avoid going into excessive analytical complications between ketones and aldones, but it is interesting to highlight three aspects that particularly affect our type of cuisine:

  1. The three atoms can combine in different proportions to form different units that can in turn blend together. The simple sugars, in which these units are all the same, are called Monosaccharides. An example is fructose or glucose. The complex sugars that are the combination of different units, are called Oligosaccharides and Polysaccharides depending on how many they are. Among these is the Saccharose which is then the Sugar that we all mean in the spoken word, but there are many others such as lactose or maltose.
  2. These units can be arranged by forming a closed or an open chain. Some of the open-chain ones may have a free carbonyl group (C), which can oxidize. In the latter case we talk about reducing sugars. It is a rule that has several exceptions but in an indicative way we could say that generally reducing sugars are simple sugars. Certainly in any case, Sucrose is not.
  3. Sugar as we understand it, or the cooking ingredient is something even more complex than what we have described so far. If it is true that it is mainly Saccharose, only completely refined sugar, the white one is it 100%. All the other existing different types contain various impurities in many measures, including also traces of molasses, which in turn contains different types of carbohydrates. From this we derive that the various types of sugar enrich the dish in a very different way and have different behaviors in cooking playing on the gradients of the presence of the various carbohydrates

Sugar in Cooking

Post Zucchero CotturaThe two phenomena having as their object the sugar and which are most relevant in our world are the famous Maillard Reaction and the Caramellization.

As you well know, Maillard Reaction binds sugars with the amino acids of food proteins in the presence of heat. However, the suitable sugars are only the reducing ones, so Saccharose is not the most suitable choice. To confirm it, simply return to when we talked about Glazing, very often made baseing on ingredients very rich in simple sugars like honey.

The real contribution of this post, however, wants to be addressed to the process of Caramelization. It is a reaction of thermal and oxidative degradation of sugar that gives rise to brown compounds typical of caramel and to the formation of volatile substances, which together determine the color, flavors and characteristic aromas. The caramelization is at the base of the complex taste-olfactory contribution that the sugary rubs, or those characteristic of medium and low temperatures cookings, develop in the bark. Caramelization begins with the sugar melt, but it takes place at different temperatures depending on the composition.

The Sugar Melt


Consider the temperature of 150° C as the threshold that ideologically divides the averages from the low cooking temperatures. Looking at the chart it would seem that even in low temperature cooking, are the simple sugars to be the master. However, we also said that in not completely refined sugars there are more or less important parts of processing residues, due to molasses and simple sugars or more simply to impurities that give very complex and rich taste-olfactory pictures, which affect among other things also the degree of residual sweetness. Have you ever seen using a white sugar in a rub? Now you know why. If we then come to consider cooking at medium temperature, the sensory compass literally goes crazy, also affecting tastes and volatile compounds resulting from the carmellization of complex sugars as well as that of simple sugars, creating an incredibly varied spectrum, played on balancing in one direction or other of the various types of sugar.

The Types of Sugar

Here, knowing the existing types of sugar and their characteristics, it becomes essential to build our rub according to the specific sensory objectives on the finished dish, that we want to put in the planning stage. Although officially there is no official nomenclature and very generally we talk about raw sugar or whole sugar for any product of sugar cane extraction that has not achieved full refinement, it is interesting to outline the characters common to the various types.

Brown Sugar

Brown Sugar

It is certainly the most used sugar in the American rub. Contrary to what many think, it is not the correspondent of what we call “cane sugar” and the two products are not substitutes one of the other in terms of contribution to the bark. Brown Sugar is a poor basic product and is nothing more than normal refined sugar to which molasses has been added, which depending on the degree of refining (and consequently color) gives rise to the light or dark version. In cooking, however, it is highly effective, making immediately available the types of sugar interested by the processes mentioned above. Then give notes of vanilla, of mou and candied fruit.

Demerara (or Raw Sugar)


It would be the “real” cane sugar, in place of what available in the bar, which is nothing more than normal refined sugar with an outer frame to give it color. The Demerara is a sugar that has stopped at the penultimate stage of refining, presenting itself with a clearly recognizable crystalline structure and with a slight residual amber color. The name Demerara recalls the origin from the Mauritius Islands. The same product, made in the Hawaiian Islands, takes in america the name Turbinado. It is basically 99% sucrose, with a minimal residual part and consequently a limited contribution to our cooking.

Muscovado (or Muscobado, or Mascobado)

Muscovado Sugar

It is a sugar with an important residual part, which can reach even 5% to which a small part of molasses has been added, cause of its pasty consistency. It is probably the closest type of sugar for contribution to Brown Sugar and, paradoxically, also of better quality and richness. The complex aromas are probably the feature for which it is more recognized: dried fruit, banana, spices and the famous licorice.

Maple Sugar (or Stirred Sugar)

Maple Sugar

It is a sugar obtained from maple syrup brought to slow boiling and then quickly cooled to become granular. It has a consistency very similar to Muscovado but of a beautiful bright honey color and markedly more aromatic and complex. In our country is practically impossible to find but I recommend to those who have the opportunity, to try it on low temperature cooking: the result is really interesting

Coconut Sugar

Zucchero di Cocco

It is the unrefined product of the nectar extraction of coconut palm flowers. Dark brown, with a grainy consistency, a cross between Demerara and Muscovado. It is noticeably less sweet than the others and aromatically does not bring great complexity but is interesting for some particular hazelnut and toasted notes that I have not encountered in other types of sugar. In my opinion, a good solution as an addition to another sugar base.

Here we have summarized the main types of sugar on the market but there are many others. Play to build your personal cognitive map by trying them all in cooking under various conditions. The world of sugar deserves to be discovered and valued. Especially when talking about barbecue.

Sources: Le Scienze Blog,,
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