We all have a love-hate relationship with sugar.
Some days we follow a “Life is short, eat dessert first” mantra. Other days, we read that sugar is killing us and feel guilty for having that second cupcake. Our fondness for sweet is embedded in our language. “Sugar plum” or “sweetie” we coo to a loved one. “Gimme some sugar” was our grandma’s way of asking for a kiss.
As with so many things readily available today — salt, spices, meat, chocolate — sugar was once an elusive treasure, available primarily to a privileged few. Because it is so easy to get nowadays, we can afford to both reject it and overindulge. Food manufacturers understand this, which is why so many packaged foods are loaded with sugar. The health problems associated with sugar have to do with overuse, and many sources say we Americans eat more sugar per capita than any other country.
This was not always the case. Sugar, first refined in India around 500 BC, was expensive and hard to get in the West until the 1600s. In Europe, it was used as a medicine before it was accepted as a food. Sugar masked the flavors of less palatable potions but was also considered a powerful healer on its own.
Sugars are found throughout nature. The most accessible are in fruit, but others — notably honey and maple syrup — are easy to procure. Certain plants, such as stevia, are much sweeter than common sugar.
Sugars are a product of photosynthesis, in which a plant converts water, sunlight and carbon dioxide into sugar. The stored energy provides essential fuel for all the world’s plants and animals. Of these many sugars, three concern us in the kitchen: fructose, glucose (also known as dextrose) and the most common, sucrose. Honey is primarily fructose and glucose. Maple syrup is mostly sucrose.
What recipes call for when they use the word “sugar” is granulated white sugar or table sugar, the kind we stir into our coffee and sprinkle over our cereal. It is almost completely sucrose, each molecule of which is made up of one molecule of glucose and one molecule of fructose.
Most of this sugar, about 60% worldwide, is extracted from sugar cane, grown in tropical regions such as Hawaii, Cuba, Brazil and the southeastern United States. The remaining 40% comes from sugar beets, most which are grown and processed in Russia, Germany, California, Utah and Colorado.
Cane sugar comes in forms other than granulated. Superfine or berry sugar is more finely ground than granulated, though we can still see individual crystals. It can be substituted, cup for cup, for granulated sugar, though measuring by weight is more accurate.
Confectioners, or powdered, sugar is ground so fine we can no longer see its crystals. Powdered sugar is combined with a small amount of cornstarch to prevent lumping, though small lumps do form as the sugar sits in the pantry. It is best to sift it before measuring.
Brown sugar is made by adding molasses to redissolved sucrose. Turbinado sugar, often called “raw” sugar, is processed just once, leaving some of the color and a quantity of molasses; in composition, it’s very similar to brown sugar.
Much of cooking is an art, and this is true to some degree with sugar, too. Leave sugar on the heat, and it slowly takes on color as it warms. At 230 degrees, threads form when the sugar is dropped from a spoon; at 234 degrees, the syrup forms a soft ball when a bit is dropped into cold water; at 300 degrees, the syrup separates into hard, brittle threads in a stage known as “hard crack.” Sugar caramelizes between 310 degrees and 338 degrees, quickly passing from pale gold to dark amber. If allowed to rise to 350 degrees, the syrup turns black and takes on an unpleasant burned taste.
Working with sugar in these stages requires a degree of expertise, which is why pastry/dessert chef is a separate cooking discipline. But even if you are not a professional, it is helpful to understand the nature of sugar, especially as the upcoming season of sweets unfolds. From Halloween through Valentine’s Day and Easter, holiday candies, cookies and pies fill the space left by the disappearance of summer’s bounty of sweet fruit.
In this traditional shortbread, orange zest adds both flavor and aroma, creating a softly perfumed cookie. For suggestions for using other fruit, see the variations that follow the main recipe.
Makes 16 wedges
½ cup superfine sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
8 ounces local butter, cut into cubes and chilled
Grated zest of 1 large orange or 2 to 3 tangerines
½ teaspoon vanilla
2 cups all-purpose flour
Put the sugar and salt in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade and pulse several times. Add the butter and pulse until the sugar and butter are smoothly blended. Add the orange zest and vanilla and pulse again.
Add the flour and pulse, stopping two or three times to scrape the work bowl with a rubber spatula, until the mixture is evenly mixed and crumbly. Cover your work surface with wax paper or plastic wrap and transfer the mixture to it. Use your hands to press the dough together, then knead it gently until it just holds together. Wrap it tightly and refrigerate for 30 to 60 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.
Divide the dough in half and press each half into an 8-inch square tart pan, cake pan or a glass pie pan. Set on the top rack of the oven and bake for about 20 minutes. Rotate the pans so the shortbread cooks evenly and continues to cook for 30 to 40 minutes more, until the shortbread just barely shows a little color.
Remove from the oven and let cool to room temperature. Use a sharp knife to cut into wedges and carefully remove from the containers. Enjoy right away or store in an airtight container for several days.
- Use the zest of two lemons in place of the orange zest.
- Use the zest of one ruby grapefruit instead of orange zest and add ½ teaspoon ground cardamom, along with the salt and sugar.
- For a more complex and delicious aroma, add 2 teaspoons of rosewater or orange flower water to the mixture.
- For racy shortbread, add ½ to 1 teaspoon each of ground cayenne or chipotle powder, ground white pepper and ground black pepper at the same time you combine the sugar and salt. I typically increase the salt to 2 teaspoons, which works with kosher salt but not with table salt.
Michele Anna Jordan is the author of 24 books to date, including “The Good Cook’s Book of Salt & Pepper.” Email her at michele@micheleannajordan.