Over more dinners with friends than I can remember, chocolate chip cookies have become synonymous with coming to my house. While my dorm neighbors were making tartiflettes and curries to plant little seeds of home in campus life, I was either making apple crumbles in a roasting pan, or trying to beat butter and sugar until fluffy with a wooden spoon. This is really not as sophisticated or even as homey as it sounds, considering that our 50-year-old kitchens had a decorating scheme typical of a detention centre, and faulty wiring that’s led the university to demolish the buildings. Still, the sentiment was there.
Neglecting the brownie, the chocolate chip cookie might be the greatest American delicacy that is almost untraceable on this side of the ocean – apart from some pretty pathetic, grey-looking supermarket things and the greasy mondo version from Millie’s Cookies branches in shopping centers. No matter which recipe I use, the chocolate chip cookie is one I’m asked for more than anything else by friends from all over the place (and is the main reason some called me “Monica” for being anal enough to write “226 grams of butter”).
In those beginning days in university halls, the oven was so temperamental that it was okay to make sweeping substitutions with whatever you had on hand, because you never knew what would come of it. (Seriously, there was always a hungry Frenchie to vacuum up the disasters.) It wasn’t until I moved kitchens that I realized my “randomize” approach just wasn’t cutting it. I needed to test several recipes, and I needed to know which one was the best…and so began the Great Chocolate Chip Cookie Quest!
One thing that stood out immediately was the small but obvious difference in taste and texture between the light brown sugars found in North America and the UK - an ingredient essential to the success of a good chocolate chip cookie recipe. I set about finding out the difference, and here’s what I found.
Disclaimer! I read up on general processes – not those of specific companies – and I am no food scientist. The further I dug into the subject, the more I wanted to learn (and I’d love it if you’d make corrections!).
3 TYPES OF COMMONLY USED BROWN SUGAR
To figure out what kind of product I’m actually trying to reproduce, I looked at light, dark, and muscovado (or “regular”) brown sugars. Light brown sugar consists of a small proportion of molasses at 3.5%; dark brown sugar at 6.5%; and muscovado sugar at nearer 10%.
SUGARCANE vs. SUGAR BEETS
Sugar is made from a a variety of plants, but most of the sugar that we reach for in the baking aisle comes from either sugarcane or sugar beets; which one you use is all about climate. Sugar cane grows exclusively in tropical climates like in Hawaii. Brazil and Indonesia, making it the standard in the US market. Sugar beet grows exclusively in “temperate” climates like parts of Russia, the American Midwest, and East Anglia in the UK, making it the standard in Britain and the surrounding European countries.
It seems that sugar beet in the UK has a greater consumer loyalty here (than the non-loyalty of North Americans to a specific plant), due to sugar beet being viewed as a more “green, local, British” product. This is also true for the parts of the States that grow sugar beet, but because we’re a huge country with such varied climates, branding a ‘national’ sugar source presents some problems.
Fun fact: it takes about 6-9 kg (or 4-6 bulbs) of sugar beet to produce a kilogram of refined white sugar, and about 8 kg (or 5-6 stalks) of sugar cane to produce a kilogram of brown sugar. (Brown and refined white sugars have surprisingly similar densities.)
Cane sugar is often touted as being more beneficial for health, due to its roots reaching further into the ground beyond topsoil which may have had a lot of its nutrients washed away. But this appears to be true only of unrefined – and not refined white – sugars. White sugars are refined by stripping all flavorful minerals and “impurities” from plant juice by centrifuging out the syrup by-products from the crystallized sugar, the only slight and indiscernible difference between cane and beet sugars being that during the treating and whitening of beet juice, a few more natural agents are used due to its different chemical composition. This difference in processing has absolutely no effect on the flavor and little effect on the natural composition of the final product in white sugars. (Recent studies have shown that it is possible to ‘fingerprint’ a beet or cane sugar particle and reveal trace elements leeched from the soil where it was produced, and lock down regional connections, but any elements found are in such small quantities that differences are pretty negligible to nutrition. Pretty cool, eh?)
But I’m getting sidetracked: the principal difference between cane and beet brown sugars is in the nature of the syrupy by-products from each plant.
In sugarcane processing, the molasses syrup that results from removing sugar after each stage of boiling can be categorized as either sulphured or unsulphured. Sulphur dioxide is added in the first case to preserve sugarcane which has been picked ‘young’, and unsulphured molasses is derived from fully mature stalks which have sun-ripened over 12-15 months. Regardless of whether sulphur dioxide has been added or not, the first boiling of juice yields ‘mild’ molasses and the second yields ‘dark’. ‘Blackstrap’ molasses is obtained from the third and final round of boiling, after which the proportion of sugar in the syrup is too small to be extracted economically. This makes Blackstrap molasses the lowest in sugar content and the most rich in “impurities” (like B6, calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron). That’s why it’s promoted for good health, providing the most concentrated dosage of all of those minerals and accounting for up to 20% of their recommended daily amounts!
Refiners’ syrup, used widely in the commonwealth countries under the name golden syrup, is made by refining and filtering the pre-boil, concentrated cane juice through bone charcoal. It’s similar to molasses, but consists of only certain sugars and moisture – and does not include any of the minerals and other “impurities” in molasses which cause its distinct flavors.
On the other hand, sugar beet processing yields different results. Molasses can be produced from beet sugar, but it only appears after the second round of boiling (because of this, the first and second boils are called the ‘high’ and ‘low’ greens, or raws). Sugar beet molasses, obtained from the second or third boil, contains a lot of salts and compounds which don’t make it very tasty for humans, so it’s used predominantly in the production of cattle feed. In the Low Countries, sugar beet molasses is sold as “sirop de candi”, in a normal version branded as ‘sweet’ – due to a higher proportion of remaining sugars – and also the third boil, very dark version. Sirop de candi is used as an ingredient in traditional treats like speculoos biscuits, or as a topping for toast or waffles. Beet molasses is also used as a coating for road salt, due to its low melting point and de-icing properties (which actually ends up attracting deer to road networks in cold weather, but that’s a tangent for the transportation engineer in me!). Refiners’ syrup can also be made from beet sugars by a different process than that used to obtain it from cane.
It’s important to note here that some of the products we know as molasses in North America (such as Grandma’s Own Original Molasses) are, in fact, reduced cane syrup: molasses which has been gently heated, but not boiled, and had none of its sugars removed. This is sometimes referred to as ‘high-test’ molasses, and is not a by-product of sugar production. As a result, what most people recognize as normal pantry molasses is much less bitter than black treacle here in the UK, which is a 50/50 mixture of Blackstrap molasses and golden syrup. Bottom line: unless your North American recipe calls for ‘dark’ molasses, don’t use black treacle as a substitute and expect exact results!
THE BIG DIFFERENCE ACROSS THE POND
Essentially, all of this means that most standard brown sugars in the UK have to have the less palatable beet molasses completely extracted, and then add in ‘dark’ sugarcane molasses to the refined white beet sugars. (So that package of “British” brown sugar actually has a pretty large carbon footprint!) This alone doesn’t cause any variations – even most brown cane sugar producers totally refine their sugar and then re-add the extracted molasses, in order to control variations in the harvest and make a uniform product with a standard molasses content. It’s the processes commonly used for re-adding the cane molasses to either kind of white sugar which makes a difference. While the molasses added to the cane sugar is combined via a stage of re-boiling, the molasses added to beet sugar is always sprayed over the granules. This coating of the white sugar creates coarser and less saturated particles, and totally explains why North American light brown sugars are softer and more compactable than the relatively free-flowing light brown sugars in the UK – like the difference between slightly moist and just-drying sand.
So after all of that technical mumbo jumbo – now what? To make your own brown sugar at home, molasses can be re-added to white sugar at a recommended proportion of 1 tablespoon to 200 grams. But which grade of molasses to add is never mentioned! This is because the syrup that is said to be re-added into white sugars at the factory is always a blend of molasses and/or treacle varieties produced and sold differently to companies in different parts of the world. Whichever blend is used contributes to the different flavors found in every country.
Now that I’m itching for a factory tour, I want to reproduce this in my own kitchen. The homemade method means that the molasses content is roughly 7.5% if using the ‘Blackstrap’ variety. Using my fabulous engineering skills (HA!), to get a 3.5% molasses content that one tablespoon of molasses must be at around 60% sucrose content; dark second-boil molasses contains about 55% sucrose, as does black treacle. Like most things worth doing in baking, I might play mad scientist, go try some British-made cane sugars, or even make my own, and see what happens. All in the name of chocolate chip glory!