10 Exotic Sweeteners
Beyond white sugar
By Lessley Anderson
Sugar can be so much more than just white and brown, cane or beet. There are all kinds of things you can use to sweeten your food or coffee, from a South American tuber to a substance processed from corn cobs. Many contain fewer calories and more nutrients than the traditional sweeteners you’re probably using.
1. Yacón. Typically sold in syrup form (unlike the other sweeteners here), yacón is an edible tuber that grows in the Andes. The sweet syrup is not highly refined or cooked, which makes it a good sweetener for raw foodists, and it’s lower in calories than sugar-based sweeteners. It tastes like a spicier, fruitier molasses, and can be substituted for it in recipes.
2. Turbinado Sugar. Clear, tan-hued, refined cane sugar crystals with a higher molasses content than white sugar. Turbinado is sold under the Sugar in the Raw brand in the United States, and is referred to sometimes as Demerara sugar. Azúcar morena (from Mexico) is a similar product. All three can be substituted for light brown sugar when baking, with decent results.
3. Xylitol. An alternative clear-crystal sweetener made from a sugar alcohol that’s refined from botanicals like corn cobs and birch tree bark. It has fewer calories and carbohydrates than sugar, but has a bizarrely wet mouthfeel and tastes slightly synthetic on its own. It can be substituted for white sugar in recipes, and is often used in chewing gum, as it’s been shown to reduce plaque.
4. Date Sugar. Not sugar at all, but rather ground-up dried dates. It’s used by raw foodists to sweeten dishes, because it’s made without the use of high heat, and contains fiber and other vitamins and minerals present in the fruit. It tends to clump and not dissolve, so it’s not great for baking, but it will work for things like a crumble topping or sweetening a bowl of tart berries.
Made from sugarcane, muscovado is a darker, stickier, and hardier version of brown sugar. Unlike brown sugar, where the molasses content is added back in after first removing it, muscovado is minimally refined. Sugarcane is pressed and cooked, with impurities skimmed off the top, and the resulting dark liquid is dried, then crushed into sugar. You’ll find recipes for gingery cakes, puddings, and rich syrups calling for muscovado, but its increased moisture content makes it tricky to substitute in most other baked goods.
6. Piloncillo, a.k.a. Panela. Unrefined blocks of dark caramel–colored sugarcane juice that’s been boiled and reduced. It’s often sold in cones at Mexican grocery stores near the cash register, and can be used in desserts, like flan, or boiled with cinnamon, anise, and coffee to make a delicious beverage called café de olla. (Panela is also the name of a type of Mexican cheese.) Southeast Asian jaggery, often called for in Indian and Thai recipes, is a similar product, although sometimes it is made with palm sap. In Burma, this sweetener is called htanyet.
7. Japanese Wasanbon. Similar in look and texture to powdered sugar, only more cakey and crumbly, this Japanese sugar is considered a specialty item used mostly for classy sweets, like higashi, a confection served at Japanese teas. Wasanbon is refined using traditional techniques, from a species of sugarcane plant called chikuto, which only grows in a few areas of the Asan Mountains.
8. Stevia. Derived from the South American herb Stevia rebaudiana, stevia is a powdery white sweetener not approved as a food by the FDA; you’ll find it in the nutritional supplement section. It’s considered a healthy sugar substitute because compounds that make the plant intensely sweet (steviol glycosides) don’t raise blood sugar levels, nor do they cause tooth decay. Stevia has a slightly bitter flavor, and though it’s a natural product, it can taste synthetic to some. It’s also a lot sweeter than sucrose (up to 300 times as sweet!) and lingers in your mouth after you taste it. The Coca-Cola Company is apparently working on a diet soda that contains stevia.
9. Superfine Sugar. Granulated white sugar that’s been ground into very fine crystals. In British recipes it’s called castor sugar. It’s also sometimes called baker’s sugar, because it gives baked goods a denser, finer texture. Bartenders use it to rim cocktails, like the Sidecar. Its finer crystals stick more readily to the glass, and it dissolves better in liquids.
10. DIY Flavored Sugars. A unique twist on crème brûlée topping, or a treat for your buttered toast, flavored sugars can also make a crafty gift when packaged up in a jam jar. You can create vanilla sugar by scraping the inside of vanilla bean pods into your sugar jar and letting it sit. Other botanicals can be ground up and mixed into sugar, like dried rose petals, lavender, or cinnamon and ginger. When you start to think about it, what wouldn’t be good ground into sugar? Coffee? Black pepper? Chile?
CHOW’s The Ten column appears every Tuesday.