Rose Levy Beranbaum knows from baking. The author of the million-copies-sold The Cake Bible spends most days thinking about what to do with flour, butter and sugar. That task became even more satisfying about eight years ago when she discovered a fleet of organic and unrefined sugars that have distinct flavors. "Sugar is no longer just a sweetener," she says of this new class of specialty sugars from exotic locales like Costa Rica and Paraguay. "It's now a flavoring ingredient that brings a whole new spectrum to the artist's palette of taste."
Recently, these sugars have made their way onto the shelves of health-food stores like Whole Foods and gourmet specialty outlets like Trader Joe's, Williams-Sonoma and Dean & Deluca. As a result, home cooks can now take advantage of the caramel, crunchy tang of large-crystal, raw-cane demerara from Malawi or the toffee-infused taste of dark, sticky muscovado from Mauritius. Simon Cutts, bulk-foods manager for the Wild Oats national specialty chain of natural-food stores, says the consumer demand for these sugars mirrors the organic-food boom, with sales growing at a rate of 25% a year. "Once customers taste these sugars," he says, "they find it shocking to go back to the plain white stuff."
Conventionally refined sugar is snowy white because all the natural molasses has been extracted from the cane, leaving behind fine, pearly, sweet crystals. Often sugar is made especially white by filtering it through charred bovine bones--a refining process that causes vegetarians and vegans to seek other options. And while brown sugar is ostensibly brown because of the molasses content, much of the brown sugar sold in supermarkets (especially sugar that comes from beets) is really what's called painted sugar, or white sugar that has been sprayed with a brown-colored syrup.
Unrefined and organic varieties come in many different colors and crystal shapes. There are dark, rich gooey browns, sticky blonds and even fine-grain off-white varieties. They may be new to Americans, but they have been available in Europe for decades. British chefs like cookbook author Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver, host of the Food Network's The Naked Chef, have regularly used them in their sweet and savory recipes. Lawson applauds their arrival in America, saying "If you bake, you're really limiting yourself by using just white or brown sugar. And if you're an adult with a sweet tooth, you want something that's more than sweet. You want something with strength and flavor." She loves to use a light muscovado sugar for her butterscotch layer cake ("You get the butterscotch flavor by doing nothing except using that sugar") or for marinades ("The big flavor of smoky muscovado is brilliant for barbecue").
Some of America's top restaurants are also eschewing conventional white and brown sugars and favoring varieties that are less refined and chemical-free and subsequently easier on the environment to produce. "I make a real effort to buy legitimate brown sugars as opposed to those that are dyed," says Mary Canales, pastry chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., which has a reputation for supporting small organic farmers and using minimally processed ingredients. Canales suggests using large-crystal demerara to add a crunchy topping to muffins or cookies; she also recommends dark brown muscovado as the perfect complement to simple baked fruit.