Sugar, particularly glucose, is the primary fuel for your body. Your brain, for example, can eat nothing else. Most digestion is the conversion other carbohydrates and fats into some kind of sugar. Sugar is fairly cheap and it is usually the easiest way to add sweet flavor to food. And in most forms it readily dissolves in water, so it is fairly easy to use in cooking.
There are 4 main sugar chemicals used as sweeteners in most cooking
- Glucose – This is a natural sugar that occurs in plants. It is the most basic fuel for your body.
- Fructose – this is also a natural sugar found in plants. Your body metabolizes it a lot like alcohol. (This is usually bad, for a lot of complicated reasons. If you’re diabetic, fructose is low on the glycemic index, so it makes a decent substitute sweetener. But you should still avoid it if possible.)
- Sucrose – a joined molecule of fructose and glucose, this is the chemical name of table sugar
- High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)– also comprised of roughly equal parts glucose and fructose, but in this case they are not joined into a single molecule like they are in sucrose
And while I’m here, I should say my piece on HFCS. As of right now, you no longer care about HFCS. In the USA, HFCS is cheaper than sugar due to tariffs and subsidies. It gets a lot of bad press due to its association with the obesity epidemic. At least one study has found a verifiable correlation between HFCS and obesity (in rats) above that of equal amounts of sucrose, but they cannot explain the results. Meanwhile, the HFCS industry says that it is no more or less healthy than sucrose and the real problem is that people are consuming too much. But I’m not concerned with this, and you shouldn’t be either. Because HFCS isn’t typically sold at the grocery store, we won’t use it when cooking. And now that you’re cooking most things, your consumption of HFCS will be fairly minimal, especially if you avoid soda (or make your own). From here on out, when I talk about sugar, I’ll be referring to sucrose.
Most sugar comes from Sugar Beets or Sugar Cane. Each plant prefers slightly different climates, but both produce basically the same sugar molecule. The plants are processed and the sugar is purified through a fairly straightforward but interesting process you can learn about on Wikipedia. The important part here is that you don’t care which plant is the source of your sucrose.
Common purchasable forms of sugar (Sucrose)
- Granulated Sugar – this is the most common form of white, crystalline powder that most people think of when they hear the word “sugar.”
- Powdered (confectioners) sugar – this is the same chemical as granulated sugar, but more finely ground. It dissolves much more readily than granulated sugar. It is typically used to make icing.
- Brown Sugar – this is sugar that still maintains some of its molasses content from the refining process. It has a different flavor.
Solubility of sugar
Experiment 1 (cost of $0.02) – Dissolve a tablespoon of granulated sugar into ½ cup of cold water. Repeat with hot water. Which is faster?
Experiment 2 (cost of $0.25) – Try to dissolve 1 cup of sugar into 3 tablespoon of water. Did it work? Would you call the results “dissolved?”
Experiment 3 (cost of $0.35) – Dissolve a cup of powdered sugar into 1.5 tablespoons of milk. Did it work?
You can save the sugar from experiment 3 by making it into icing! Add 1.5 tablespoons of melted butter and ¼ of vanilla extract and stir until evenly mixed. Store it in the fridge.
Sugar melts somewhere around 350F or 170C. (This is just below the melting point of tin – which is sometimes used as a liner for some brands copper cookware. So use an iron or steel pan to make caramel.) But really, melt is the wrong word. The sugar molecules actually partially break down and reform into other sugar compounds. This process changes the sugar into a lumpy, brown, syrupy mixture of intact sugar molecules and these new compounds. What we commonly call caramel is just sugar that is partially through this process.
Before you perform the next experiment, find a small dish (about 1 Cup) and coat the inside of it with butter. I also recommend you find about 6 tablespoons of chopped peanuts a pinch (about 1/8 a teaspoon) of salt. If you use salted peanuts, skip the salt.
Experiment 4 (cost of $0.25) – Pour a cup of granulated sugar into a small pan. The pan should be small enough that the sugar completely covers the bottom in a thin layer. Heat until the edges start to brown, then constantly fold the brown edges into the center until all of the sugar is a consistent brown. There should be no smoke or burned smell, only steam.
Save the caramel! If you managed not to burn the caramel, mix in the peanuts and salt. Pour the caramel/peanut mixture into the buttered dish and let cool.
Experiment 5 (Cost already paid) – Take some of the caramel you made in Experiment 4 and try to dissolve it in water. Does it dissolve as readily as granulated sugar?
- Granulated sugar is commonly sold in 4 lb bags.
- There are about 2 cups per 1 lb of granulated sugar. So 8 cups per bag.
- There are about 15 calories per tablespoon of granulated sugar. (1 Cup = 240Cal. 1 lb = 480 Calories).
- My local grocery typically sells sugar at $2.00 per bag, so I estimate sugar in recipes at $0.25 per cup or $0.03 per tablespoon.
- Sugar is a dried bulk product. It has a long shelf life in the pantry, especially if you store it in a sealed container.