Looking for alternatives to refined sugars?
Natural sweeteners like unrefined brown sugar, maple syrup, molasses, barley malt syrup, rice syrup, honey and agave nectar are common these days and for good reason. Each has a unique flavor and set of uses that’ll satisfy any craving for sweetness in everything from your salad dressings to your roasted pork loin.
Today, the main sources of commercial sugar are sugar cane and sugar beets, from which a variety of sugar products are made:
Granulated white sugar is common, highly-refined all-purpose sugar. Look for organic varieties for a more natural choice.
Confectioners’ sugar (powdered sugar) is granulated white sugar that’s been crushed to a fine powder that is used for icing and decorations.
Unrefined brown sugar (raw sugar) is slightly purified, crystallized evaporated cane juice. This caramel-flavored sugar comes in a variety of flavors, including demerara, dark muscovado and turbinado.
Unrefined dehydrated cane juice is generally made by extracting and then dehydrating cane juice with minimal loss of the original flavor, color or nutrients.
Turbinado sugar is a sugar cane-based, minimally refined sugar. It is medium brown in color and has large crystals. It’s often mistaken for traditional brown sugar because of its light brown color, but it’s made in a different way. Many people consider it to be healthier than both white and brown sugars, since it is generally less processed and less refined. Recipes that call for turbinado sugar tend to use it as a replacement for traditional brown sugar. It contains more moisture than regular white or brown sugars, which can be beneficial in things like cookies or muffins.
Honey: – the world’s oldest-known unrefined sweetener. Honey’s flavor and color are derived from the flower nectar collected by bees. This accounts for the wide range of honey available around the world. Note that dark honey generally have a stronger flavor than lighter ones. Since bees can forage up to a mile from their hive and are indiscriminate in their nectar choices, so when a particular flower is named on the label of a honey container, it simply means that flower was the predominant one in bloom in the harvest area.
Here are a few of the most popular varieties:
Clover: mild flavored and readily available in colors ranging from white to light amber
Wildflower: generally dark with a range of flavors and aromas depending on the flowers that provided the nectar
Alfalfa: light in color with a delicate flavor
Orange Blossom: distinctive citrus flavor and aroma and light in color
Blueberry: slightly dark with a robust, full flavor
Tupelo: fragrant, light and mild
Chestnut: dark, tangy and slightly bitter with a high mineral content
Storage tip: Keep honey in an airtight container and, if used infrequently, at temperatures below 50°F. Liquid honey will eventually crystallize but can be returned easily to a liquid state by placing the container in warm water for a few minutes.
Maple syrup is simply the boiled down tree sap of the sugar maple tree. As for maple sugar, it’s twice as sweet as white sugar and has a caramel flavor. Until the arrival of the honeybee (introduced from Italy in 1630) maple sugar was the only form of concentrated sweetener in North America. Both maple syrup and maple sugar are among the least refined sweeteners.
Storage tip: Refrigerate maple syrup to help it retain flavor, prevent slow fermentation and mold formation. When you store it right, maple syrup will keep for a year or more. If your syrup develops sugar crystals, simply warm the syrup to dissolve them.
Molasses: With its strong, fragrant dark caramel flavor, it is about 65% as sweet as sugar and is actually produced during the refining of sugar. (The syrup remains after the available sucrose has been crystallized from sugar cane juice.) Light molasses is from the first boiling of the cane, dark molasses is from the second and blackstrap, the third. Though molasses can be sulfured or unsulfured, unsulfured molasses is preferred because the fumes used in manufacturing sugar aren’t retained as sulfur in the molasses.
Date sugar is not extracted from anything. It’s just dried dates, pulverized into a powder. Date sugar is very sweet. It clumps and doesn’t melt, so it can’t be used in all the ways we use white sugar. Still you can usually substitute it in recipes that call for brown sugar. Some cooks suggest that you use only two-thirds the amount of date sugar in place of brown or white sugar called for in your recipe, otherwise, the end result may taste too sweet.
Barley Malt Syrup: Made from soaked and sprouted barley, which is dried and cooked down to make a thick syrup. Barley malt is a sweetener that’s slowly digested and gentler on blood sugar levels than other sweeteners.
Storage tip: I keep this sweetener in the refrigerator, so it does not develop mold.
Rice Syrup: Made in almost the same way as barley syrup and it is usually a combination of rice and barley. Some of the best Chai teas are sweetened with rice syrup.
Agave: Nectar is a multi-purpose sweetener obtained from the core of the Mexican Agave cactus, the same plant whose sap is a source of tequila. Agave nectar may resemble honey — its color ranges from pale to dark amber — but it’s slightly less viscous and dissolves more easily in liquids. Keep in mind that agave nectar is about 25% sweeter than sugar and that darker agave nectar has a more robust flavor with a hint of molasses.
So which one is the best?
The truth is that no sugar, regardless of where it comes from, will ever be optimal for regular consumption. From the above natural sweeteners, blackstrap molasses and pure maple syrup are the most nutritious. But whatever sweetener you choose, make sure that you get the least processed, pure version of it! In other words, if you are going to consume a sweetener, it is best if it comes from the fruit, herb or vegetable kingdom and be as raw/living as possible (not overheated and not overly processed) for optimum health.
Want to substitute natural sweeteners for refined sugar in recipes, keep this guide handy.
1 3/4 cups for each 1 cup sugar
1 cup firmly packed for each 1 cup sugar
1 cup for each 1 cup sugar
3/4 cup for each 1 cup sugar
Reduce by 3 tablespoons
3/4 cup for each 1 cup sugar
Reduce by 1/4 cup
Barley malt or rice syrup
3/4 cup for each 1 cup sugar
Reduce by 1/4 cup
1 1/4 cups for each 1 cup sugar
Reduce by 5 tablespoons for each cup used
Old-Fashioned Waffles (Barley Malt Syrup)
- 2 cups almond milk or 2 cups low-fat milk
- 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
- 3 tablespoons canola oil
- 3 tablespoons barley malt syrup (room temperature)
- 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/4 cup cornmeal
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
Preheat a waffle iron.
In a large bowl, use a fork or whisk to vigorously mix the milk, vinegar, oil and barley malt syrup.
Add remaining dry ingredients and mix together until the batter is smooth.
Coat the waffle irons with non-stick cooking spray and cook waffles according to waffle iron instructions.
Carrot Spice Muffins (Agave Nectar)
- 1 3/4 cups white whole wheat flour (or a mixture of 3/4 cups whole wheat and 1 cup all-purpose unbleached flours)
- 1 tablespoon ground flax-seed
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 3/4 teaspoon ginger
- 1/8 teaspoon cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup agave nectar
- 1/3 cup unsweetened applesauce
- 1/2 cup low-fat yogurt
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 1/2 cups shredded carrots (about 3)
- 1/4 cup raisins
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Spray a 12 cup muffin pan with non-stick spray or use muffin liners.
Mix together all dry ingredients in a large bowl. In a small bowl, combine the liquid ingredients. Add the liquid to the dry and mix just long enough to combine. Add the carrots and raisins and stir to combine.
Spoon the batter into the muffin cups–it will be very thick. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean.
Ham with Maple Syrup and Orange Marmalade Glaze
- 1 (7-pound) pre-cooked spiral-sliced ham
- 1 cup grade B maple syrup
- 1/2 cup orange marmalade
- 2 tablespoons orange juice
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 2 oranges, sliced
- 4-6 cinnamon sticks
Preheat oven to 325°F. Using a sharp paring knife, make shallow crosshatch cuts all over the outside of the ham. Arrange ham in a large roasting pan and bake for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, combine syrup, marmalade, juice, ground cinnamon, pepper and cloves in a small bowl to make a glaze. After the ham has baked for 30 minutes, remove it from oven and increase the oven temperature to 425°F.
Arrange oranges and cinnamon sticks around ham in the roasting pan, then brush ham and oranges liberally all over with the glaze, pouring remaining glaze over the ham. Return to the oven and bake, basting about every 10 minutes, until ham is hot throughout and caramelized on the outside, about 45 minute more.
Transfer ham to a platter and set aside to let rest for 15 minutes. Arrange oranges and cinnamon sticks around the ham and serve.
Broccoli with Honey-Lemon Dressing
Serve this salad dressing over fresh garden greens, steamed green beans, asparagus or broccoli.
Makes about 3/4 cup
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
- 3 tablespoons honey
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest
- 4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- 1 garlic clove, pressed
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper
- 1/3 cup olive oil
- 1 head of broccoli, steamed
Whisk together chopped fresh parsley and next 7 ingredients in a small bowl. Add oil in a slow, steady stream, whisking constantly until smooth. Use immediately, or store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. If chilled, let stand at room temperature 15 minutes. Whisk before serving. Pour over cooked broccoli before serving.
Gingerbread Squares (Molasses)
- 6 tablespoons canola oil
- 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/3 cup packed dark brown sugar
- 1/2 cup unsulfured molasses
- 2 large eggs
- 1/2 cup reduced-fat (1% or 2%) milk
- 4 tablespoons finely chopped crystallized ginger
- Cooking spray for the pan
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Coat a 9×13 inch baking pan with cooking spray and line the bottom with parchment paper, letting paper extend about 1 inch over the short ends of the pan. Spray the paper and flour the pan.
Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, ground ginger, cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg and set aside. With an electric mixer, beat oil and brown sugar together until light. Beat in molasses. Beat in eggs one at a time. In 3 additions, stir in flour mixture, alternating with additions of milk, beginning and ending with flour. Stir in 2 tablespoons of crystallized ginger.
Scrape batter into the prepared pan and level the top. Sprinkle the top with the remaining 2 tablespoons crystallized ginger. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Let cool on a rack. Lift gingerbread out with the edges of the paper and cut into 12 squares.
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The wild beet, the ancestor of the beet with which we are familiar today, is thought to have originated in prehistoric times in North Africa and grew wild along Asian and European seashores. In earlier times, people ate the beet greens and not the roots. The ancient Romans were one of the first civilizations to cultivate beets and to use the roots as food. The tribes that invaded Rome were responsible for spreading beets throughout northern Europe, where they were first used for animal fodder and later for human consumption.
The medicinal properties of the root were more important than its eating qualities and it was used to treat a range of ailments including fevers, constipation, wounds and various skin problems. At that time, the roots were long and thin like a carrot. The rounded root shape, that we are familiar with today, was not developed until the sixteenth century and became widely popular in Central and Eastern Europe 200 years later. Many classic beetroot dishes originated in this region, including the famous beetroot soup known as borscht.
The value of the beet grew in the 19th. century, when it was discovered that they were a concentrated source of sugar. When access to sugar cane was difficult to get, beets became the primary source of sugar. Around the same time, beets were also brought to the United States, where they flourished. Today, the leading commercial producers of beets include the United States, Russia, France, Poland, France and Germany.
You don’t hear much about beets, though. People rarely serve them. As a matter of fact, in the world of vegetables, beets are seldom even mentioned. Hopefully, after reading this post, you will be more inclined to try this vegetable.
Beets are low in calories but have a high sugar content when compared with all other vegetables. Beets also serve as a natural coloring agent in cooking. Try using pureed beets in a Red Velvet Cake recipe, instead of red dye. Beets are most often used in salads and soups or pickled.
Beets, also known as beetroot, are high in potassium, folate and fiber. Their edible leaves offer protein, calcium, beta carotene, vitamins A, C and some B vitamins. They are also a rich source of carotenoids and lutein/zeaxanthin and they contain magnesium, iron, copper and phosphorus. Beets are a source of beneficial flavonoids called anthycyanins. The beetroot fibers help in reducing cholesterol and triglycerides by increasing the level of HDL. Consumption of beets also helps to prevent cardiovascular diseases.
Types of Beets
Red beets are the beets most of us think of when our minds turn to “beets.” Look for beets with their fresh, leafy greens still attached, if possible – then you’ll know they are fresh. The great thing about red beets, however, is that they are great storage vegetables. Getting a bit less tender as they are stored, perhaps, but also gaining sweetness along the way.
Golden beets are a bit less sweet than red beets, but also have a more mellow, less earthy flavor all around. If nothing else, golden beets add a bright, zesty yellow color when served roasted or in salads.
Chioggia Beets (Striped Beets)
Chioggia beets are naturally striped – some are a subtle yellow-and-orange combination, while others come with a brilliant red-and-cream candy cane effect. Use them as you would other beets and know that the striping often fades when cooked.
Any beet can be sold as a “baby beet.” They are simply the beets that are pulled to thin the field and make room for other beets to grow. Smart farmers sell these small specimens as a specialty item. They are very tender and tend to have beautiful, fresh greens.
White beets lack the earthy, strong beet flavor that colored beets embody. They also lack the red and yellow pigments that colored varieties possess. What Baby White beets do have is a high level of sweetness. The beets are comprised of a round tapered white root with pale green shoulders, crunchy midribs and wavy broad green leaves.
How to Cook Beets:
To roast beets (the most flavorful method): Trim the greens off the beets to within 1 inch and scrub the beets. (Reserve the greens for another use, such as the Sauteed Beet Greens recipe below.) Arrange the beets in a small roasting pan, add 1/8 inch water, and cover loosely with foil. Roast at 450 degrees F. for 30 to 45 minutes, until they are tender when pierced with a knife.
To boil beets: Place in a saucepan with 2 inches of cold water to cover. Bring to a boil and cook until tender, about 30 minutes for baby beets to 1 hour for large ones.
To microwave beets: Place in a microwave-safe dish with 1/4 cup of water; cover. Microwave on high 10 to 15 minutes until tender.
When cool enough to handle, peel the beets: Cut off the stem and root ends and scrape the thin layer of skin off with a knife. I wear latex gloves and put a piece of parchment on the cutting board to reduce staining.
The Italian Beet
The Chioggia beet is an Italian heirloom variety established circa 1840. It was named for the town in which it was first cultivated, the island fishing village of Chioggia, near the Lagoon of Venice. Chioggia beets grow best in a cool climate, though they can tolerate some heat. They should be well weeded though, as beets that fight weeds for growing space, can become woody and stringy.
The Chioggia beet can be roasted, steamed or braised. Roasting the beet will bring out the most flavor. Chioggia beets can be served raw, cold or hot. They are a great salad beet, whether served alongside greens or as the main ingredient. Chioggia beets pair well with other beets, bacon, apples, butter, cheeses such as, goat, gorgonzola or aged pecorino-romano, cucumbers, creme fraiche, hard-coked eggs, fennel, mustard, oranges, parsley, smoked fish, shallots and vinegars, especially balsamic, sherry and red wine. Chioggia beets can also be preserved by pickling them.
Chioggia Beet Salad with Ricotta Salata and Hazelnuts
When sliced crosswise, Chioggia beets have a stunning red-and-white bull’s-eye pattern. Compared with common red beets, Chioggia beets don’t bleed much color, so they’re ideal for mixing in salads. Choose small beets if you’re planning to eat them raw–they’re more tender.
Use a mandoline, if you have one, to slice the beets super thin.
Serves 6 to 8
- 1/4 cup lemon juice
- 1/4 cup hazelnut or olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
- 6 small uncooked Chioggia beets, peeled and sliced very thin
- 1/2 cup crumbled ricotta salata cheese
- 1/4 cup torn mint leaves
- 1/2 cup roughly chopped toasted hazelnuts
Whisk together lemon juice, oil, salt, and pepper in a large bowl. Add beets and toss to coat evenly. Sprinkle with remaining ingredients.
Beet Leaves – Italian Style
This is a good side for grilled flank steak.
Wash 1 bunch of beet leaves very well. Do not use any discolored leaves which can appear yellow. You want the deep green leaves. You can keep the stems too.
Chop the leaves and stems and set aside.
Crush 2 cloves of garlic and saute the garlic in 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, for about 3 minutes over medium heat, in a pan that will be large enough to hold the leaves. Do not let the garlic burn, this will ruin the whole dish.
Next add the beet leaves along with 1/4 cup water. The water will help create steam for cooking the greens.
Lower the heat to low. Cover the pan and cook until the leaves are wilted and soft, stirring frequently. Add additional water as needed to prevent leaves from sticking to pan.
Season with salt and pepper. Serve warm.
This dish can be served as a side dish with Italian-style breaded chicken breasts.
Roasted Beets with Garlic–Potato Spread
Serves 4 – 6
- 4 medium red beets (about 1 1/2 lbs.) trimmed and cleaned
- 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 1⁄4 cup finely ground toasted walnuts
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- 6 cloves garlic, smashed and minced into a paste
- 2 medium Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1″squares and boiled until tender
Heat oven to 425°F. Put beets in an 8″ x 8″baking dish and drizzle with 2 tablespoons oil. Season with salt and pepper and pour in 1 cup water. Cover pan tightly with foil and crimp edges to form a seal. Bake beets until a knife inserted into beet slides easily into the center, about 1 hour. Transfer pan to a rack, carefully uncover, and let cool for 30 minutes. Peel beets and cut into 1″–2″pieces; set aside.
Put walnuts, vinegar, garlic and potatoes into a medium bowl and mash until the potatoes are smooth. Vigorously stir in remaining oil and season with salt and pepper. Transfer beets to plates and serve with some of the potato spread on the side.
Italian Roasted Beets and Asparagus
Serve with baked salmon fillets (if desired) seasoned with Italian herbs (instructions below).
- Kosher salt
- 5 large red beets
- 12 spears jumbo asparagus
- 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
- Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, for shaving
- 1 lb. salmon fillets, if using
- Chopped Italian herbs (basil, rosemary, parsley, thyme), if using
Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
Sprinkle kosher salt on a cookie sheet large enough to hold the beets and place the unpeeled beets on the salt. Place in the oven and cook for 45 minutes. Meanwhile, cut off the woody bottom inch of the asparagus and set aside.
When the 45 minutes have passed, open the oven door and carefully lay the asparagus around the beets on top of the salt. Return to oven and cook 15 minutes more. Remove the cookie sheet from the oven and remove the asparagus to a platter. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons olive oil and sprinkle with a bit of the salt from the cookie sheet.
If baking salmon to go with this dish, do not turn off the oven. Place the salmon in an oiled baking dish, top with chopped fresh herbs, and place the dish in the oven for about 15 minutes while you prepare the beets.
Allow the beets to cool 5 minutes and then peel them. Cut the peeled beets into 1/4-inch dice and place in a kitchen bowl. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons olive oil and season them with salt and pepper.
Arrange the beets over the asparagus and shave Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese over the vegetables. Place the salmon on top if using.
Roasted Beet Risotto
- 3 medium beets (1 1/2 lbs. with greens), trimmed, leaving 1 inch of stems attached
- 6 1/2 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 3 garlic minced
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 cups Arborio rice (14 oz)
- 2/3 cup dry white wine
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 oz grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (1/2 cup)
Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 425°F.
Tightly wrap beets in a double layer of foil and roast on a baking sheet until very tender, 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours. Cool in the foil package, about 20 minutes.
When beets are cool enough to handle, peel them, discarding stems and root ends, then cut into 1/2-inch cubes.
Bring broth to a bare simmer in a 2- to 3-quart saucepan. Keep at a bare simmer, covered.
Cook onion in oil in a wide 4- to 6-quart heavy pot over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and rice and cook, stirring constantly, 1 minute.
Add wine and simmer briskly, stirring constantly, until absorbed, about 1 minute. Stir in 1/2 cup broth and simmer briskly, stirring constantly, until broth is absorbed. Continue simmering and adding broth, about 1/2 cup at a time, stirring constantly and letting each addition be absorbed before adding the next, until rice is just tender and creamy-looking, 18 to 22 minutes. (Reserve any leftover broth.)
Stir in beets, salt and pepper (mixture will turn bright pink) and cook, stirring, until heated through. Thin as necessary with some leftover broth, then stir in cheese and remove from heat.
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