When I was growing up, brown sugar seemed magical. Unlike granulated sugar, it was golden, and when spooned on the simplest things, such as hot cereal, it became irresistible. And it had this amazing texture, like coarse beach sand moistened slightly by a receding wave.
When I got older and learned to cook professionally, my fondness for brown sugar turned into a curiosity as to how it was made. A good place to learn about that is the website of the Canadian Sugar Institute, sugar.ca. This institute is the national, non-profit association representing Canadian sugar manufacturers on nutrition and international trade affairs.
It says sugar refiners can produce brown sugar from boiling refinery cane syrups until brown sugar crystals form or by blending molasses syrup with white sugar crystals. In those made using the latter method, the difference in colour and flavour among the various types depends on the amount of molasses present.
Understandably, the less molasses added, the lighter in colour the brown sugar will be, with these types of products being described as, depending on the manufacturer or recipe, as light, golden or golden yellow brown sugar. To make what most often is called dark brown sugar, more molasses is added, creating a product stickier in texture, darker in colour and stronger in flavour. These two types are often called “regular” brown sugar, the type sold in bags in every supermarket.
According to the U.S. Sugar Association website, sugar.org, another good source for information, there are also specialized forms of molasses-spiked brown sugar.
One called demerara sugar is described as a light brown sugar that has large, golden crystals slightly sticky from the adhering molasses. Another type, called muscovado sugar, is a very dark brown sugar with a strong molasses flavour that has crystals slightly coarser and stickier in texture than regular brown sugar.
The Canadian Sugar Institute describes turbinado sugar as raw sugar that has been processed (double washed) for human consumption. The institute notes that this sugar’s molasses coating gives it a golden colour and mild caramel taste.
All of the brown sugars described above can be used in dishes both savoury and sweet, and I’ve used some of them in today’s recipes for chicken drumsticks, pork chops and cookie squares.
However, in most recipes calling for brown sugar, particularly baking recipes, unless specified, it’s the regular light or golden brown sugar that’s meant to be used. Other forms of brown sugar have a different consistency and melting point, and can react quite differently in a cake, cookie or other item.
I’m sure many of you have discovered that if brown sugar is improperly stored, the moisture from the molasses in it can start to evaporate and the sugar will harden. To help avoid that, remove it from the bag you bought it in and store it in an airtight container.
If the sugar has hardened, the U.S. Sugar Association says, to soften it, you should let it stand overnight sealed in a jar with a damp paper towel or apple slice. If you need it right away, heat the required amount in a 250 F oven for a few minutes, or in a microwave a short while until softened. The warm, softened brown sugar should be used immediately.
Eric Akis is the author of the just-published, hardcover book Everyone Can Cook Everything. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.
Grilled Pork Chops with Rum, Lime and Demerara Sugar
Rum, lime and brown sugar marinated chops grilled until cooked and juicy.
Preparation time: 10 minutes, plus marinating time
Cooking time: 6 to 8 minutes
Makes: 4 servings
1/4 cup dark or amber rum
2 tsp finely grated lime zest
3 Tbsp lime juice
3 Tbsp demerara brown sugar
n pinch crushed chili flakes
1 Tbsp soy sauce
2 tsp finely chopped or grated fresh ginger
4 (7 oz. to 8 oz) bone-in pork chops
n salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 Tbsp vegetable oil, plus some for the grill
n lime slices for garnish
Place the pork in a single layer in a sided dish. Combine remaining ingredients, except oil and lime slices, in a bowl and then pour over the pork. Turn the pork to coat with marinade. Cover, marinate and refrigerate pork for 4 hours, or overnight, turning occasionally.
Lift a pork chop out of the marinade, let the excess marinade on it drip back into the dish, and then set the chop on a plate. Repeat with remaining chops. Place marinade in the dish into a small skillet. Create a glaze for the pork by simmering the marinade until lightly thickened. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Preheat your grill to medium-high. Brush the pork chops with the 2 Tbsp oil. Season the pork with salt and pepper. Lightly oil the grill. Grill chops 3 to 4 minutes per side, or until cooked through. Plate the chops, spoon glaze in the small skillet over top, and serve, garnished with lime slices.
Brown Sugar Chili Drumsticks
Chili-spiced chicken accented with the sweet taste of brown sugar and tangy lime juice.
Preparation time: 5 minutes, plus marinating time
Cooking time: 35 to 40 minutes
Makes: 4 to 6 (2 to 3 drumsticks each) servings
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
2 tsp Tabasco or other hot pepper sauce, or to taste
2 Tbsp fresh lime juice
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp chili powder
1 tsp ground cumin
12 chicken drumsticks
n salt to taste
n lime slices for garnish
Combine the first 6 ingredients in a bowl large enough to hold the chicken. Add the chicken and toss to coat. Cover and marinate chicken in the refrigerator 4 hours, or overnight, turning occasionally.
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Arrange chicken drumsticks on the baking sheet. Spoon marinade in the bowl over the chicken and season with salt. Bake the chicken 35 to 40 minutes, basting with pan juices occasionally, or until cooked through. Arrange the chicken on plates or a platter, spoon pan juices overtop, garnish with lime slices and serve.
Brown Sugar Cookie Squares with Butterscotch Chips and Pecans
Addictive, brown-sugar-rich squares flecked with butterscotch chips and pecans.
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 60 minutes
Makes: 60 squares
n vegetable oil spray
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
100 grams pecan pieces
300 grams butterscotch chips
1/2 lb. butter, at room temperature
2 1/2 cups packed golden (yellow) brown sugar
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
3 large eggs
Preheat oven to 300 F. Coat a 9x13-inch baking pan with the oil spray. Cut a 13x13-inch piece of parchment paper to fit the bottom and up 2 of the 4 sides of the pan. (The parchment paper will later be used as handles to lift the square out of the pan.) Set the paper into the pan; the oil spray will help it stay in place.
Place the flour and baking powder in a bowl and whisk to combine. Mix in butterscotch chips and pecans.
Place the butter, brown sugar and vanilla in a second bowl, or bowl of your stand mixer. Beat until well combined. Beat in the eggs, one at a time.
Mix the flour mixture into the butter mixture until well combined. Spoon the dough into the prepared pan. Lightly dampen your hands with cold water, and press cookie dough into the pan, until evenly spread.
Bake cookie square 60 minutes. Remove from oven, set on a baking rack and cool to room temperature. Loosen the cookie square from the edges of the pan, if still attached anywhere. Lift the cookie square out of the pan and on to a cutting board. Cut the square into quarters. Now cut each quarter into 15 squares.
Enjoy some squares now and keep the others stored in a cookie tin, layered between parchment paper if stacked. They will keep about a week at room temperature.
These cookie squares also freeze well.
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