The best-known natural sweetener is also the oldest: honey. Hundreds of varieties exist around the globe. Their flavors, colors and types depend upon the flower from which bees have collected the nectar. But whatever the source of nectar -- buckwheat, clover, orange blossom or what have you -- honey ultimately comes in three forms: comb, chunk and liquid. Of the three, only liquid honey is pasteurized. This helps to prevent crystallization, a common occurrence in clover, alfalfa and buckwheat honeys, which contain larger amounts of dextrose.
Honey can be used to sweeten drinks, baked goods and desserts. It can flavor soups and marinades, and it makes an excellent glaze for vegetables such as carrots, beets, parsnips and potatoes, as well as for hams. When slathered over toast or bread, it makes a moist, luxurious spread.
When replacing refined sugar with honey in a recipe, there's no need to adjust the amount; honey has a 1-to-1 ratio with sugar. However, you will need to reduce the liquids in a baking recipe by 1/4 cup and lower the baking temperature by 25 degrees. Batters enriched with honey tend to crisp and brown faster than those without.
Recently, more exotic natural sweeteners have captured the imagination of cooks. Agave nectar, produced in the highlands of Mexico and available widely in the United States, comes from the sap of the same spiky, desert succulent used to make tequila. Heat turns the juice's carbohydrates into sugar and produces the honeyed syrup.
Agave nectar is sweeter but less gooey than honey. It's also about 1 1/4 times as sweet as refined sugar. When using it as a replacement for sugar, always reduce the required amount by one-fourth and also cut back on the liquids in the recipe.
Available in light, amber, dark and raw, agave nectar melts and, like honey, it blends well in iced drinks, cocktails and smoothies. It also sweetens baked goods and replaces maple syrup as a topping for pancakes, waffles and French toast. Just remember that when baking with agave nectar, you must reduce your oven temperature by 25 degrees to prevent burning.
In Central and South America cooks have used the perennial shrub stevia for centuries. Native to the tropics and subtropics, stevia sprouts leaves that are up to 400 times sweeter than sugar. They are also calorie-free.
Bakers waver over the exact amount of powdered stevia to use in a recipe. Some claim that 1 teaspoon of stevia equals 1 cup of sugar, while others state that it's one tablespoon to one cup. This difference can be attributed to the quality of various stevia plants.
One sweetener about which few quibble is raw sugar. The residue left over from refining sugar cane, raw sugar comes in several varieties, specifically turbinado, demerara and muscovado. These range in color from blond to dark brown and in flavor from mild to molasses-rich.
Sometimes referred to as "sugar in the raw," turbinado is unrefined sugar that has been steam cleaned. Buy a packet of turbinado and inside you'll find tan, coarse crystals with a slightly honeyed taste.
Because it's moister and lower in calories than refined sugar, turbinado works well in cookies, muffins and quick breads. It makes a good topping for creme caramel, as it caramelizes easily. It also is an excellent sweetener for hot and cold drinks.
Originating in the Demerara region of Guyana, the dry, coarse textured demerara resembles turbinado in appearance but not in taste. It possesses a delicate, molasses-like flavor.
Demerara's large, unrefined crystals dissolve slowly and remain crunchy after cooking. Its crunchiness makes it ideal for decorating scones, cookies, muffins and pastries.
With its high molasses content and unevenly sized crystals, the dusky muscovado is the moistest and stickiest of the three. Also known as Barbados sugar, muscovado also has the boldest flavor.
Due to its strong color and taste, muscovado rarely serves as a substitute in recipes and never appears as a flavoring for drinks. It does, however, enhance such rich baked goods as fruitcakes and gingersnaps.
The next time that you reach for that bag, bowl or teaspoon of refined sugar, consider the natural alternatives. They taste great, in some cases they may be better for you, and they're fun to experiment with.
MAKES: 2 1/2 dozen soft cookies
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 3/4 teaspoons ground ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 3/4 cup muscovado sugar, lightly packed
- 1 large egg
- Demerara sugar, for dusting
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Grease two baking sheets.
In a large bowl sift together the salt, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and flour.
Using either an electric stand or hand mixer, beat the butter in a large mixing bowl until creamy and smooth. Add the sugar and beat until well combined, and then add the egg and beat again. When the ingredients are blended together, add the dry ingredients in two installments, beating and then scraping down the bowl's sides after each addition.
With either a spoon or small scooper, spoon the cookies onto the greased baking sheets, leaving about 2 inches between each cookie. Press down on each one to flatten slightly and then sprinkle demerara sugar over the top. Bake for 6 to 8 minutes, until golden brown around the edges. Remove and transfer the cookies from the baking sheets to a wire cooling rack. After they are completely cooled, they should either be served or stored in an airtight container.
Serves: 8 to 10
- 2 sticks unsalted butter
- 2 cups dark honey, divided
- 1 1/4 cups milk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 1/2 cups turbinado sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 1/2 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Grease and line a 10-inch springform pan.
In a saucepan, melt the butter and 1 1/2 cups honey on low heat, stirring to combine. Add the milk and vanilla, and stir until well combined. Remove from the stove and set aside to cool.
In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, salt and spices. Add the sugar to the dry ingredients.
In a small bowl whisk together the eggs. Add the eggs, along with the cooled honey, butter and milk, to the dry ingredients. Stir the mixture together until the batter is smooth. Pour it into the greased and lined pan and bake for approximately 90 minutes. When done, the cake will be browned and a toothpick inserted in the center will come out clean.
Place the cake on a rack and, using a toothpick, prick small holes in the top of it. Heat the remaining 1/2 cup of honey, toss in the walnuts and then pour the mixture over the cake. Allow the cake to cool completely before removing from the pan and serving.