Why I Love to Bake With Natural Sugars

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I got a text message from my mom a few days ago: Demerara sugar?! I inquired as to what she was referring to so early on a Tuesday morning, and she mentioned that a new pie she was experimenting with for Thanksgiving called for the ingredient. What the heck? she followed, Why not just white sugar like I've done for the last three centuries?

In response to my mom, I said a few things. First I let her know that demerara sugar is actually one of my favorite natural sugars — it's unrefined and rather coarse and has a really nice, dark flavor profile. So for something like an apple pie (which is what my mom was making) it would actually do much more than just simply sweeten it — what white sugar is so good for — it would actually add some darker notes of flavor.

If you're like my mom and wondering why mess with white sugar when it's worked all along, I'll just tell you how I've come to look at sugars and it's much the same way I look at whole-grain flours, really. Can you bake a loaf of fantastic bread using all-purpose flour? Of course! It'll rise beautifully and make the house smell fantastic. But when you start experimenting with whole grain flours that actually have a flavor in and of themselves, baking can get really exciting. Then the bread's not just rising and looking good — it's taking on the notes of flavor from the different flours you use (a subtle sweetness from barley flour, for example, or a dark earthiness from rye flour).

The same holds true for natural sugars. I'm willing to bet a lot that my mom's pie is going to taste much more complex and interesting with the demerara sugar than if she just used white sugar. I use demerara often at home in recipes where I want a darker sweetness — when I'm baking with fall and winter fruits, especially. Turbinado sugar is another go-to: an easy-to-find unrefined sugar that you can use as a 1:1 substitute in any recipe calling for white granulated sugar.

Other natural sugars that I've got stocked in the cupboard right now: date and maple sugar (because both are a little pricey, I reserve these for garnishing), coconut sugar, and liquid sweeteners like organic honey and molasses.

So, reasons to switch? I won't talk about health aspects of unrefined sugars here, as it's a little outside my scope. Personally I do feel much better about eating unrefined sugar, so that's what I use almost 100% of the time in the baking I do in our house.

But the main reason I think you should make a foray into the world of natural sugars this Thanksgiving if you haven't already is for flavor: it can be really fun to geek out on the way a certain sweetener can actually flavor — not just sweeten— a recipe.

And my mom, the most ardent skeptic, would back me up here: she made a trip to Whole Foods for the demerara sugar, tried the pie, and has fallen in love. We'll all get to try it next week when we're home for the holiday. I have a pretty good feeling about it.

Curious to learn more about natural sugars?

(Image credits: Megan Gordon)

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