In its unrefined state, sugar is much more than a sweetener, affecting texture and flavour in baking, writes Dan Lepard.
We've rediscovered the idea of flavour in sugar beyond simple sweetness. In the same way that roller-milling wheat gives you fine white flour that can be short on flavour, refined sugar can be the whitest available, but lack flavour complexity. Go back a few hundred years and that wasn't the case - even the whitest sugar available then would be viewed today as slightly caramel flavoured.
Now, it's not all doom for mechanical or chemical refinement, since the physical properties of some ingredients are enhanced - or made clearer to observe - through refinement, and this for many cooks is utterly important. The whiteness of a pavlova, for instance, is part of its charm, the clean flavour of fresh raspberry jam is better without the muddling of caramel. But the rich, complex flavour of unrefined sugar, with its hearty, aniseed intensity is becoming the essential store-cupboard ingredient in top kitchens around the world and pushing white sugar to the back.
There are a few different types on the market if you know where to look. Palm sugar, slightly tricky since it comes in a a solid lump, can be grated and dissolved into rice puddings and other warm mixtures to add a beautiful caramel sweetness. Syrups, such as agave and maple, are an option as long as they haven't been adulterated with coloured sucrose or corn syrup.
With Billington's, whose range includes unrefined sugar from Mauritius, now avauilable in Australia, the market is sure to expand even further, given our cane crops in Queensland. It's Billington's sugar that most chefs use in the UK and US if they're looking for unrefined sweetening because the variation in the range gets us excited and it's easily available, from golden caster through to the blackest molasses sugar.
A word you'll start to see is muscovado, from the Portuguese "açúcar mascavo". It typically refers to unrefined sugarcane juice that has slowly evaporated to produce richly coloured and flavoured and slightly moist sugar crystals. In the 15th century, the Portuguese were the largest refiners of sugar, just before it was introduced to South America and grown on vast plantations as an export crop.
Using unrefined brown sugar in recipes isn't always a straightforward swap and it helps if you plan for its intense flavour and rich colour. As a flavour enhancer it's excellent; the umami of sweeteners.
For example, I'll replace anything up to a quarter of the sugar in a biscuit or cake recipe with unrefined muscovado, either light or dark depending on the colour I want, without worrying that anyone will notice anything but a subtle boost in the background flavour. So for a classic Anzac, you get much more richness in the biscuit without losing authenticity.
Beyond that, you sense the sugar's flavours starting to dominate. Expect hints of aniseed, treacle, pepper and chocolate to appear, and even the slightest hint of tar. Much bolder flavours sit well with it: ginger, allspice, chocolate, mace, red wine, liquorice, and so on.
Sometimes it affects the way cakes rise if you do a straight swap with refined white sugar; unrefined sugar can cause it to rise lopsidedly. The trick here is to place a tiny dab of butter on top of the batter, either a matchstick-thin strip for a loaf, or a tiny spot in the centre of a cupcake, so the crust breaks where the butter melts, resulting in a gorgeous volcano or ridge effect. But otherwise it swaps just fine.
My favourite use lately is mixing equal teaspoonfuls of molasses sugar with smoked paprika, cocoa, ground cumin, chilli powder and salt as a dry rub for pork joints and chops. Simple. And when placed on a bed of sliced onions and slow baked in a covered pot in the oven, almost effortless.
Here are two recipes I use often that really show off the magic of unrefined sugar. The first is for an intensely flavoured banana and walnut loaf cake, spiced with sumac, allspice and cinnamon, and heady with tahini and sesame. The other recipe is for a much more simple muscovado biscotti, my go-to biscuit to pair with chocolate panna cotta served in a goblet as they do at DOC Pizza in Melbourne.