Thursday, 29 September 2011

What a Waste

Wasting food has always been a difficult issue for people of my generation.  As kids, if we didn’t clear our plates at meal times we were always told to ‘think of the starving millions of Africa’.  Apart from the fact that it was hardly an aid to appetite to see pictures of emaciated children with distended bellies caused by kwashiorkor, I could never quite see the connection between the pile of cabbage on my plate and a child 6,000 miles away.  I remember a cartoon in Punch describing exactly that situation.  In the final frame, after the kid has been admonished by his mother and finished his dinner, he gets a phone call, and the voice at the other end says, “This is the starving millions of Africa. Thank you for eating your dinner.” Haha.  Today the connection seems much clearer to me.

Have you noticed that food is getting expensive?  If so, you are not alone.  According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, world food prices have risen in all but one of the past 5 years, and in August 2011 the Food Price Index (FFPI) stood 26% higher than the same month last year.  And now the bad news, this trend is here to stay.
The world’s population is forecast to rise to a peak of around 9 billion sometime in the middle of this century.  That’s an increase of almost 50% since the start of the century only 11 years ago.  Also, it may not feel like it, but people are getting richer.  Rich people demand a better, more varied diet with more animal protein, which is an inefficient way to feed humans.  For instance with grain fed cattle, it takes about 6 kilos of grain to produce one kilo of lean beef.
Meanwhile the world’s food resources are under huge pressure.   Only about 18% of the land mass is agriculturally productive.  The rest is made up of deserts, mountains, tundra, forests and so on.  That percentage cannot easily be increased without massive environmental impact.  In fact, it is declining.  70,000 square kilometers of agricultural land is lost to construction every year.  That’s an area roughly twice the size of the Netherlands.  All those new people need houses too.
Global warming and unsustainable cultivation methods are leading to increased desertification in many areas of the world including Africa, Asia and North America.  The Sahara Desert alone is expanding at a rate of 48km per year.
Meanwhile rising sea levels are threatening huge tracts of productive land and also many population centres.  A study in the April, 2007 issue of Environmentand Urbanization reports that 634 million people live in coastal areas within 30 feet (9.1 m) of sea level. The study also reported that about two thirds of the world's cities with over five million people are located in these low-lying coastal areas.  Displaced city dwellers add to the pressures on agricultural land.
If that weren’t bad enough we are actually diverting productive arable land and pasture which is currently growing food, to the production of crops for biofuels.  Many countries have set targets for the substitution of fossil fuels with renewable biofuels in response to peak oil and greenhouse gas emissions targets.  Presently around 2% of all productive land is used for biofuel production. But if current biofuels goals are to be met, it could require between 10% and 42% of existing arable land to meet 2020 targets, which is unlikely to be politically acceptable.  By the way, the variation is so wide because biofuels are often planted on pasture which has previously been considered unsuitable for growing crops, but that brings its own problems.
And if the land is under pressure, it is no use looking to the sea solve our food needs.  The oceans are also under stress.  75% of the world’s fish stocks are either over exploited or at maximum sustainable exploitation levels.  Some estimates say that edible fish stocks will reach total depletion by 2050 unless we alter our current rate of exploitation.  And it’s not just fishing.  We continue to use the sea as a dumping ground; we destroy fisheries by polluting them, extracting minerals from the sea bed and building off-shore installations and wind farms.  We really can’t expect the sea to provide the extra food we will need to feed the world.
What this adds up to is that food supply is currently static or declining.  In fact huge advances in agricultural productivity were made throughout the second half of the twentieth century in what is now termed the Green Revolution.  The trouble is we need to repeat that over the next 40 years and many scientists doubt whether that is possible.  In any case it was associated everywhere with huge environmental degradation which we could ill afford to repeat.
So with inelastic supply and a rapidly increasing demand, food prices can only go one way.  For the rich, developed world this is inconvenient.  We may have to spend more on food and commensurately less on other luxury items.  But for a large part of the world’s population, price rises and increased competition will mean poverty and starvation.  Finally globalisation has made the connection between the food on my plate and the diet of those starving masses.

Onions left in the field
Yet in spite of the rising prices and the growing shortages of food, we waste an enormous amount.  According to the FAO we waste around one third of all the food we produce.  In the UK alone we waste 16 million tonnes of food annually.
·         3.7 m tonnes never leaves the farm
·         3.6 m tonnes are lost in the supply train
·         700,000 tonnes are wasted in hotels and restaurants
·         This means fully half is wasted by consumers.

This is a symptom of modern living.  Immediately after WWII when food was scarce the waste figure was around 2%.  Even 30 years ago it was estimated to be only 6%.  Part of the problem is that, in the developed world at least, although food prices are at an all time high, they are also at a historical low when measured against disposable income.  In the UK the average family spends only 7% to 10% of total income on food, although the global average is around 50% and some developing countries it rises to 80%.   But that is not to say that many families can afford to waste money.  On average each household could save £50 per month if they cut out all food waste which should be welcome to most people.
Of course it’s not just a waste of money.  The UK produces only 60% of its food and the rest is imported from all over the world, much of it by air.  For instance, salad products are among the worst cases when it comes to waste.  46% of all salad ends up being wasted, and much of that is imported from Spain. The campaign group, Love Food Hate Waste, estimates that  eliminating Britain’s food waste would have the same carbon impact as removing a quarter of all cars on the road.
Tips and recipes to reduce food waste - Love Food Hate Waste Their website offers recipes and tips designed to help consumers cut down on waste.  They offer useful advice on a range of subjects from measuring individual portions, food management and how to interpret shelf-life labels.

As for restaurants, the Sustainable Restaurants Association will launch a campaign among its members to help them cut down on waste starting next month entitled Too Good To Waste.  The SRA Food Waste Survey has calculated that by reducing food waste by only 20%, restaurants could save up to £1,700 per annum just on collection costs, and that’s not including the money spent on the food in the first place.
Like LFHW, the SRA web site offers advice to members on how to reduce spoilage, preparation waste and plate waste.  These include everything from having your fridge properly serviced to finding uses for trimmings including potato peelings and off-cuts from meat.

And for customers, why not ask for a doggy-bag?  It seems many diners in the UK are still reluctant to take food home.  This is not a problem in America where even top restaurants will be glad to box up leftovers.  After all, you’ve paid for it.  And every penny you save is a penny that doesn’t push prices up.  Every ounce of food saved has carbon savings.  And in this globalised world, there really is a connection between the food you waste and the starving millions of Africa.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Sweet And Sour

The original question that I set out to investigate about sugar was to do with its environmental impact, specifically the claim made by the cake maker Geraldene Holt on BBC Radio 4, that beet sugar was worse for the environment than cane sugar.
“Lovely natural Muscovado Sugar, this is healthy of course.” …”Well, I think it’s healthier for the environment; it’s not sugar beet.”
Since then, I have spent hours reading about sugar.  I have looked at its taxonomy, its cooking properties and above all the social and environmnetal effects.  Much of what I have discovered is truly shocking.  In ecology terms, sugar has probably done more damage to our environment than any other crop.  Habitat destruction, abstraction of water, intensive application of agrochemicals, discharge and run-off of polluted effluent and air pollution caused by the sugar industry continue to threaten many of the most precious ecosystems in the world.  Much of the damage is historical but sugar production is still growing and the environmental damage is getting worse.  However sugar beet and sugar cane are about as different from one another as two arable crops can be.  They grow in different parts of the world, present entirely different biological profiles and share almost nothing in common except a high sucrose content.  So let’s consider them separately.
Sugar Beet
Sugar beet is grown in temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere.  The biggest beet producers are The EU, USA, Russia, Ukraine and Turkey, with smaller quantities produced in Japan, Canada, China, and sporadically around the Middle East and central Asia.
I am quite familiar with sugar beet production.  There’s a field of beet growing no more than a quarter mile from my front door right now. I have watched it growing from the day it was planted and no doubt I’ll be around to see it carted off in trucks to the refinery 43 miles away in Bury St Edmunds.  Now I recognize that all economic activity has an environmental impact, and farming has a bigger impact than most, but it wasn’t clear to me that sugar beet, which looks so benign, was significantly worse than any other arable crop grown hereabouts.  What is it that makes sugar beet so ecologically damaging?  The clue came from another BBC broadcast where I heard Prof. Dennis Murphy of The University of Glamorgan make the following statement, “We grow sugar beet here [UK] which doesn’t make any sense at all environmentally.  We should be importing it from places where sugar cane grows which has a lower carbon footprint.”
OK so that’s the problem, the Green House Gas (GHG) emissions related to making sugar from beet.  So let’s examine that in more detail.  In 2008 British Sugar, which is the UK’s sole sugar beet producer, became the first sugar industry in the world to have its carbon footprint certified.  In partnership with the Carbon Trust it was independently benchmarked using the BSI’s PAS 2050 standard. They calculated that 1kg sugar produces 0.5kg of CO equivalent (COeq).  Almost half, 48.7%, is produced on the farm and includes the use of fertilizers, water, diesel etc;  27.4%, comes from the factory; while distribution, 8.8%, packaging, 7.9%, and transportation of raw materials, 7.2%, account for the rest. That does sound like quite a lot.  For every bag of sugar you buy you are also purchasing half a bag of GHGs.  However we need to put that in context.
The Carbon Trust estimates that the UK has a carbon footprint of 650 million tonnes of greenhouse gas. This means each person in the UK has an estimated footprint of about 11 tonnes a year.  According to a report by WWF and the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN), food is responsible for 30% of the UK’s total carbon footprint, or 217 million tonnes.  But where does sugar beet stand in that reckoning?  Well compared with other foods it seems it may not be too bad. 1Kg homegrown potatoes produces about 0.5Kg COeq, very similar to sugar beet.  That ratio turns out to be more or less true for most other native fruits and vegetables.  And when you look at some of the big GHG producers it is downright green.
A single cheeseburger produces about 5.18Kg COeq (Source)
A litre of milk produces 1.97Kg COeq (Source)
1Kg sheep meat produces 16.8Kg COeq (Source)
1 Kg tomatoes grown under glass produce 9Kg COeq (Source)
Furthermore the sugar industry has done more than most in recent years to improve its performance.  The industry’s own Sustainability Report, sponsored jointly by British Sugar and the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) makes a number of exceptional claims:
-          Yields per acre have risen by 60% in the past 30 years
-          Energy consumption per tonne is down by 25% since 1990
-          Since 1982 pesticide application has been cut by 60%, phosphates by 70% and nitrogen by 40%
-          Waste to landfill reduced by 50% since 2003
-          They also produce a range of byproducts from animal feed to electricity
All of these serve to reduce the carbon footprint, and nationally the industry is targeting a further reduction of 10% by 2020.  So overall it seems that sugar beet is no worse than other food products, but perhaps sugar cane provides a much greener alternative.  We need to do a comparison.
Sugar Cane
Fortunately Tate & Lyle, the UK’s biggest cane sugar producer, followed British Sugar’s lead and had its carbon footprint measured by the Carbon Trust in 2009, so it is possible to compare like for like.  And the result is…Tate & Lyle’s cane sugar has a carbon footprint of 380g COeq per 1Kg sugar, only 76% of the GHG emissions from beet sugar.

This provides an interesting reminder that food-miles alone are not a sufficient measure of sustainability when making purchasing decisions.  The carbon cost of sea transportation for sugar and sugar products forms a relatively small part of the overall footprint and therefore does not outweigh the lower cost of production on the plantation.
Unfortunately that’s not the end of the argument.  Sugar cane is grown in over 100 countries with wide differences in technology, education and geography and these greatly affect the environmental impact.  Also GHG emissions are not the only concern.
Among the most advanced sugar cane industries in the world is Australia’s.  There, researches from the University of Queensland led by Marguerite Renouf and Malcolm Wegener have carried out a whole Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of sugar cane production in Australia and compared it with sugar beet in the UK and Corn Syrup from USA. 
They found wide variations even within Queensland.  However looking at the state average their overall conclusion was favourable to sugar cane when considering solely the carbon footprints of these three crops.  On the other hand, when the wider environmental picture was assessed the findings were less favourable. To quote the report “Cane sugar is shown to have distinct advantages in relation to energy input, greenhouse gas emissions, and land utilization, but does not rate as well in relation to other impacts assessed (eutrophication and water use)". 

They are not kidding.  Another WWF report from 2004 entitled Sugar and The Environment, claimed that sugar may be responsible for more biodiversity loss than any other crop, due to its destruction of habitat to make way for plantations, its intensive use of water for irrigation, its heavy use of agricultural chemicals, and the polluted wastewater that is routinely discharged in the sugar production process. 
The list of natural environments cited by the report, which have been severely damaged by sugar production, reads like a list of the world’s most beautiful, important and sensitive natural habitats. 
The Great Barrier Reef, off the coast of Queensland, suffers from large quantities of effluents, pesticides and sediment from sugar farms, and the reef itself is threatened by the clearing of land, which has destroyed the wetlands that are an integral part of the reef’s ecology.” 
The Everglades in Florida are, seriously compromised after decades of sugar cane farming. Tens of thousands of acres of the Everglades have been converted from teeming sub-tropical forest to lifeless marshland due to excessive fertilizer run-off and drainage for irrigation.”
In Pakistan’s Indus Delta, a globally significant mangrove system,  “Of the 260,000 hectares of mangrove forest recorded in 1997, only an estimated 65 percent remains and is dominated by just one salt-tolerant species.” While the indigenous “Blind River Dolphin (Platanista minor), found throughout the Indus and its tributaries100 years ago, now exists in six totally isolated sub-populations.”
Soil depletion, salination and land clearance for planting cane continue to take their toll in Brazil, Papua New Guinea, Cuba, South Africa, Puerto Rico and many other places. 

Of course, just like beet producers, the cane industry, is also doing its best to become more efficient and more environmentally responsible.  The industry body Bonsucro describes itself as “A global multi-stakeholder non-profit initiative dedicated to reducing the environmental and social impacts of sugar cane production. It aims to achieve this with a Standard that measures these impacts accurately, and with the development of a system to certify that sustainable practices are being adhered to.”
The WWF report itself provides a long list of proposed improvements to land management practices, which can provide economic benefits for farmers and mill owners while addressing environmental degradation.  These include better use of water, more responsible use of additives and exploitation of by products. It seems there is a lot that can be done to make sugar much, much greener.
More than 145 million tonnes of sugar is produced per year in about 120 countries and annual consumption is expanding each year by about two million tonnes. But interestingly it is not the consumer’s sweet tooth that is driving the market so much as his car.  The high energy content in both sugar cane and beet make them natural crops for the burgeoning biofuels industry.  For instance Brazil today has over 12million cars and trucks that run on neat ethanol produced from cane sugar, and by Brazilian law gasoline must now be mixed with 25% ethanol.  In certain US states also gasoline is mandated to be blended with 10% ethanol.  Unlike fossil fuels, biofuels are renewable, politically secure and offer a lower level of GHG emissions.  Although they do occupy huge areas of agricultural land, and contribute both directly and indirectly to deforestation or the use of other virgin land such as Brasil's cerado.
Interestingly, a report on the Bonsucro site by Dr. Peter Rein, Professor Emeritus of Louisiana State University, claims that, “pressure for sustainable production [of cane sugar] has come largely from the importers of ethanol from sugarcane. This has focused attention on sustainable production in the sugar industry in general.”  Specifically he mentions the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive RED as a driver of improved standards.
In other words it is the biofuels sector which is forcing sugar producers to clean up their acts not sugar retailers or consumers.  That is all well and good but maybe next week we will consider how to feed 9 billion people, when so much of the earth’s productive land is given over to producing biofuels.
All of which seems a very long way away from Geraldene Holt and her carrot cake.  So to answer my original point from all that time ago, go ahead and use your ‘lovely, natural muscovado sugar’.  It’s not a healthy option, but I bet it will taste delicious. The 10oz you put in the cake will save 36g of CO₂eq compared with beet sugar, and in the big picture it won’t matter a fig.  What is more important is the 5Kg of Co2eq generated by driving an average (1800cc) petrol car for 25Km to the supermarket and back.  So perhaps the best thing is to put the sugar in your car after all.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Green Tomatoes

Green Tomatoes
I heard on the evening weather bulletin that this has been the coldest summer in the UK since 1993.  Now I have no reason to disbelieve the man from the Met but I can’t say that I have any meteorological recollections of that year. You see my second child came in to the world in April 1993 literally kicking and screaming, and if memory serves me right, she didn’t stop either activity until well in to the autumn.  That summer, if I wasn’t driving her round the neighbourhood in my Renault Chamade at all hours, ostensibly to induce sleep, but actually to give the neighbours a break and share the pain equally between all the denizens of west Kent, then I was probably comatose while ‘her-indoors’ took a turn at the wheel.  However one thing I am sure of, I was not attempting to grow tomatoes.

If I had been, I might have been better prepared for the more or less total failure of my tomato crop this summer.
When I arrived here back in April, a couple of tomato plants were among the first things I bought. Moneymaker is a variety I have grown under glass several times before with great success.  It is a high yielding plant bearing good tasting, mid-sized fruits on fast growing vines.   In my old greenhouse I produced literally pounds and pounds of tomatoes and filled the chest freezer with bags of delicious salsa pomodoro.
As is often the way of things, shortly after I bought these plants a friend gave me some more, although these were different.  In addition to my Moneymaker I now had a couple of Big Boys, which again is a variety I have grown before, and a single plant of Sun Gold which was entirely new to me.
Big Boy is one of the most popular tomatoes in Britain.  With sweet, red, smooth-skinned fruit that can weigh up to a pound or more, they are strong growing plants with good disease resistance, and they have never been out of fashion since their introduction 60 years ago.
Sun Gold is listed as an orange coloured cherry tomato, exceptionally sweet and adaptable to most climates or soil types.
All the plants grew well and produced reasonable amounts of fruit, but the ensuing weeks just didn’t bring enough sunshine to ripen them.  I hung on all through the summer, keeping them watered, snipping off lateral trusses, pinching out growing tips and tying the plants in to the fence.  Above all I kept repairing them through some unseasonably windy weather. But for all my efforts, all I got was more and more green tomatoes, with one exception, the Sun Gold.
Sun Gold

This variety, that I had never heard of, has produced good quantities of the sweetest cherry tomatoes I’ve ever tasted.  They never turn red, just a beautiful orange colour, but don’t have any concerns that they aren’t ripe because they certainly pack taste.  It was also a nice compact plant which could easily be grown indoors on a window cill.  I will definitely seek out this variety in future.
For the rest however I was faced with a couple of kilos of green tomatoes, and with the weather starting to feel more autumnal every day I lost faith that they would ever ripen.  The other issue that I was facing was a quantity of fairly skanky apples slowly rotting in the box where they are stored.  These are mainly windfalls from a neighbour’s tree plus a few ‘wild’ apples that I found growing on the edge of a local wood.
So, reluctant to waste anything, I searched out the following recipe and yesterday I picked my green tomatoes and spent a couple of hours making a vat of green tomato chutney.
Green Tomato & Apple Chutney
1 kg green tomatoes, chopped
250g apples, cored, peeled & chopped
125g raisins, chopped
320g onions, peeled and chopped
20g root ginger, peeled and chopped
2 fresh chilies, chopped
1tsp salt
1/4 tsp allspice
250g brown sugar
300 ml vinegar (I used cider vinegar)
Simply place all the ingredients in a large pot or preserving pan and bring to the boil. Don’t worry that there isn’t enough liquid at the start. More will come out of the fruit as it cooks. Stir well until all the sugar has dissolved, then turn down the heat and let it simmer slowly for about one and a half hours.  This is important to make sure that the fruit softens properly and that all the flavours run together. The finished chutney should be a rich dark mixture with the consistency of thick jam.
Chutney has the consistency of thick jam

I’ve never used this recipe before but early tastings were encouraging.  A good chutney should be a complex mixture of flavours, sweet, sour, fruity and spicy all at the same time.
This is now packed away in sterilised jars to improve with age.  I won’t even think about them again for three months, when I will broach one for Christmas and hopefully I’ll have something tasty to go with the cold cuts on Boxing Day.  I would like to think that something special might come out of all my love and hard work in the early part of the summer, just as it did eighteen years ago.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Beet or Cane?

One of the questions I set myself to answer when I started my sugar odyssey was is there really any difference between sugar made from cane, and sugar made from beet.  Frankly I had never considered this question before. To be honest I regarded sugar very much as a commodity and bought it entirely on price, although I did know that in Britain the market is pretty much a duopoly between Tate & Lyle which produces only cane sugar, and British Sugar which exclusively processes domestically grown sugar beet.   These two brands take over 90% of the UK market.

Sugar beet plants

Looking around the world.
Beet sugar has a hugely dominant market position in much of Europe, including France, Germany, Switzerland and Austria all of which have internationally renowned reputations for patisserie or other confectionary products.
In the USA the market has changed in recent decades.  Sugar cane has gone from a dominant market position to hold only about 40% to 45% of the market while sugar beet has 55% to 60%.  American Sugar Refining of Yonkers NY is the biggest cane producer with brands that include Domino, California & Hawaii (C&H), Florida Crystals and Redpath.  Crystal Sugar based in Minnesota is the largest beet producer.
In Canada Lantic produces about 10% of the country’s sugar from sugar beet in Alberta, but overall the market is 90% cane sugar divided between Redpath and Lantic.
Australia is a big cane sugar producer and exporter.  The CSR brand has approximately 60% market share in Oz and 80% in New Zealand.
Elsewhere it seems that countries are more or less divided by climate.  Sugar cane cannot survive in temperate zones and beet does not do well in hot climates.  Yet globally sugar beet has 30% to 35% market share.
However, a quick trawl of the web casts up a litany of accusations aimed at beet sugar and clearly in some people’s minds sugar cane is real sugar, and sugar made from beet is some sort of synthetic imposter.
Claims include:
·         Beet sugar doesn’t set jams. “That’s why people in Europe or North America need to use pectin.”
·         Beet sugar cannot be used in fine baking.  One contributor claimed to have “done several recipes both ways and the beet are tough and mealy”.
·         Martha Stewart, allegedly tested cane vs. beet sugar in various trials and “didn't notice a discernable difference except in fine baking, especially cakes.”
·         Several people claim that beet sugar smells.  One describes the smell as “like old tobacco smoke”.
·         Beet sugar doesn’t caramelise like cane sugar, while cane sugar turns golden-brown under a blow torch, beet sugar almost immediately turns black.
Now one difference I am aware of is in brown sugar. Brown sugar made from cane is partially refined to leave a greater or lesser amount of molasses in the sugar.  Molasses derived from sugar beet is not considered palatable to humans so brown sugars made from beet sugar are normally refined white sugar that has been ‘painted’ with molasses from sugar cane. The painting process coats the granules but does not necessarily penetrate them, and supposedly it can be rubbed off in certain situations as the grains grind against each other.
When it comes to refined white sugar however, this is almost entirely pure sucrose whatever the source.  EU regulations specify that it be 99.7% pure which means any variation in taste or behaviour would have to be caused by something in the remaining 0.3%.  I am bound to say I was skeptical, but let’s consider the claims one by one.
Well the first one I know is false.  I have used both beet and cane sugar to make preserves with equal results.  Recipes usually stipulate added pectin (or more often pectin rich fruits such as lemons or apples) to be added whenever the main fruit is lacking in pectin, such as strawberries, apricots or cherries.
Berlin's Cafe Opera

Does beet sugar produce tough and mealy cakes?  Again I have used beet sugar for years, as did my mother, and never had any complaints.  Anyone who has ever drooled over the cakes in a German kaffeekonditorei, or eaten a delicious Sacher Tort in Vienna will know this to be false.  Those countries use almost exclusively beet sugar.

I couldn’t find the Martha Stewart experiments so will have to defer judgement on that one.
I have spent several minutes with my nose stuck inside various bags of sugar and I can’t tell any difference at all in the smell.  All of them are pretty much odour free.  Neither can I discern any difference by a simple taste test.  I also employed some younger noses than mine, and they were similarly unable to detect any difference.  However it seems this claim may have a foundation in reality.
Harold McGee, the great food writer, says claims about smell “may be an undeserved legacy of the early 20th century, when refining techniques weren't as effective". He attributes the smell to poor storage during which bacteria and mold can grow on the beets and contribute off-flavors”.  Sugar cane by contrast doesn’t keep and so it is always processed immediately after cutting.  Whatever the cause this problem seems now to have been solved.
The last claim about caramelisation intrigued me, so the only thing to do was to conduct my own experiment.  I made Crème Brûlée  and set them in individual ramekins to allow me to vary the sugar topping.  On one I used a measured quantity of Tate & Lyle Granulated sugar (pure cane) and on the next one I used an identical quantity of British Sugar’s Silver Spoon Granulated sugar (pure beet).  On a third batch I used Silver Spoon Caster sugar just because I had it available.  I normally use a blow torch to caramelise crème brulee, but on this occasion I decided the grill would allow me to get a consistent duration and heat and avoid any unconscious manipulation by me.  The results were as follows.
Crème Brûlée , L to R Caster / Beet / Cane

The Silver Spoon Granulated took longer to caramelize and there was a small amount of unmelted sugar even though this ramekin was in the centre of the grill.  The other two caramelized completely and both had patches of black and gold, but the Tate & Lyle retained a glossy sheen while the caster sugar took on a kind of egg-shell finish.  They all tasted delicious although there was a clear order of preference amongst my panel with the cane sugar coming top and the caster sugar coming third.  The caster sugar gave a finer crust but this was felt to lack bite.

So in conclusion, I could discern no real difference between cane and beet with the possible exception of the crème brulee test.  On that evidence I probably would chose cane sugar in future when making caramel but I certainly would not be deterred if I could only buy beet sugar.
I have been criticised for not including more recipes in this blog, so my recipe for crème brulee is included below.  Crème Brûlée uses 5 egg yolks and so obviously I had 5 egg whites left over, as well as a lot of sugar!  So I made a Pavlova too, and took the opportunity to enjoy a few more of this year’s marvelous summer fruits.  That recipe is included as well.
Crème Brûlée
450ml / 16fl oz double cream
50ml / 2fl oz milk
A few drops of vanilla extract
5 large eggs
75g / 2½ oz caster sugar, plus more for topping
1.       Heat the oven to 150C/300F/Gas Mark 2
2.       Put the cream, milk and vanilla in a heavy saucepan and bring to a simmer
3.       Separate the eggs and blend the yolks only with the sugar to form a paste
4.       Just before the cream boils, take it off the heat and pour it quickly into the egg mixture stirring briskly to prevent it from cooking.
5.       When all the sugar is dissolved ladle the mixture into ramekins or if you prefer, one large oven proof dish.
6.       Place the Crème Brûlée  dishes in a deep baking tray and fill the tray with hot water until it comes half way up the outside of the dishes.  Then place in the centre of the oven.
7.       Cook until the Crème Brûlée  is set but still wobbles when shaken. In my oven this takes about 45 minutes.
8.       Allow the Crème Brûlée  to cool.  (In fact you can refrigerate them at this point and serve them later)
9.       Just before serving, sprinkle sugar moderately over the surface, about half a teaspoon to each ramekin. Then caramelize the sugar to form a thick crunchy topping.  British cookers come with an overhead grill. If you use this set the grill as high as it will go, they only take a minute or so.  Elsewhere you will need to invest in a blowtorch, available in good cookery shops.
Crema Catalana dish
The best dishes to use are wide, shallow, teracotta dishes from Spain traditionally used for the Catalan version of this dish.  They look attractive and give a large surface area so you get lots of delicious caramel in each serving.

4 egg whites
225g / 8 oz caster sugar (make the Pavlova bigger or smaller by using more or fewer eggs. Just use 2oz sugar for each egg you use!)
1 tsp cornflour
1 tsp white wine vinegar
284ml / 10fl oz double cream
450g / 1lb fresh fruit (strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, etc.)

Icing sugar for dusting
1.       Heat the oven to 160c /325F / Gas mark 4
2.       Line a baking sheet with parchment and oil it lightly
3.       Whisk the egg whites until they form shiny peaks.
4.       Add the sugar a little at a time until it’s all incorporated and then continue whisking until the meringue is stiff and glossy.
5.       Add the cornflour and vinegar
6.       Spoon the mixture onto the parchment and spread with a knife to make a circle about 20cm/8inches wide.
7.       Put in the centre of the oven and immediately lower the temperature to 110c / 225F / Gas mark ½ and cook for 1½ hours.  At the end of the cooking time turn the oven off and leave the meringue in the oven to cool.
8.       When completely cold remove the parchment and place on a serving plate (don’t worry of it cracks). Spread the whipped cream over the meringue then simply bundle the fruit over the top. Finally dust with a little icing sugar.

Strawberry and Raspberry Pavlova

The meringue should be crisp on top and soft and light on the inside.  This dessert was created in the 1920s in honour of the famous Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova, during one of her tours down-under.  However the exact provenance is hotly contested by both Australia and New Zealand.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Sugared Words

Sugars occur naturally throughout the plant kingdom and beyond.  Honey, corn syrup, maple syrup are only a few of the popular sugars we enjoy that do not come from sugar cane or sugar beet.  I may get around to looking at them one day but for now this is a list of terms used in the traditional sugar trade, meaning sucrose.

Chemically the word sugar describes any of a wide range of carbohydrates also known as saccharides. While several sugars are used commercially in food manufacturing, including glucose, fructose, lactose, dextrose etc. in domestic terms sugar normally refers to sucrose produced from either sugar cane or sugar beet.
Granulated Sugar – also known as Table Sugar is the most common form of sugar.  It’s an odourless, white refined crystalline product sieved and graded for an average grain size of 0.5mm.  Chemically it is over 99% pure sucrose.
Selectively sieving granulated sugar gives other products with varying crystal sizes for different household applications.
Pearl Sugar, also known as Sanding Sugar, Decorating Sugar or Sugar Nibs are coarse grained sugars designed for decorating cakes, cookies etc.  The large crystals, 1mm across or more,  reflect light and add what is known professionally as ‘sparkle’. 
Preserving Sugar is granulated sugar with a larger than average grain size, around 0.7mm.  This alters the behaviour of the sugar when used for jam or jelly making.  The larger crystals dissolve more slowly and do not lie on the bottom of the pan or cause the preserve to froth.  This avoids the risk of burning, reduces the amount of stirring needed and makes it easier to skim impurities off the surface.
Gelling Sugar, also known as Jam Sugar or Jelly Sugar is different from preserving sugar because it contains added pectin to help jams set.  It sometimes also contains citric acid as a preservative.
Caster Sugar, known in America as Superfine Sugar, has a crystal size of 0.35mm.  Originally designed to fit through the holes of a sugar caster or sprinkler, it is now more usually used for baking, the smaller crystal size means that it dissolves more quickly.
Icing Sugar, also known as Powdered Sugar or Confectioners’ Sugar, is a milled to a fine powder and used principally for icing cakes or making sugar based decorations.  It normally includes small quantities (1% - 3%) of starch from corn or wheat, or tri-calcium phosphate to prevent caking and help it flow.
Various manufacturers add different ingredients to powdered sugars to give them special properties.  For example in the UK, British Sugar produces Fondant Icing Sugar containing dried glucose syrup which is supposed to give “a smooth, glossy, soft iced finish”, and also Royal Icing Sugar containing dried egg white, which produces a harder icing capable of holding its shape in piped or moulded decorations.
Sugar Loaf

A Sugar Loaf is a normally conical mass of crystalline sugar weighing anything from 3 or 4 lbs up to 30lbs.  The shape derived from the moulds used in the final stage of refining. Liquid sugar was poured in to the wide end of the mould and impurities were allowed to escape through a hole in the pointed end.  The resulting loaves were then exported.  This was the normal form of sugar retailed in Europe until the early 20th century when granulated and cubed sugar became available.  Traditionally, lumps of sugar are broken off using specially designed Sugar Snips.
Cubed Sugar was first produced by the German sugar company JJ Langen & Son at their plant in Cologne in 1875.  Henry Tate, founder of Henry Tate & Sons, bought a licence that same year and started production at his Liverpool refinery.  Sugar Cubes are made by compressing granulated sugar, and offer the benefit of easy handling and a standardised quantity, especially for addition to tea or coffee.
Rock Sugar, also known as Rock Candy or Candied Sugar is a form of confectionary produced by letting a super-saturated solution of sugar crystalise on a suitable surface, traditionally a stick or string.  The resulting large crystals are sometimes coloured with food colouring and scented.  This type of confectionary is very old, at least 1,000 years, and originates in India and Persia.  Rock sugar is sometimes added to tea or coffee.
Low Calorie Sugar, also known as Half Spoon Sugar or Light Sugar is white granulated sugar with added artificial sweeteners aspartame, acesulfame-k etc.  The sweeteners make the sugar sweeter than normal so you can use less, (half a spoon!), although the resulting loss of volume can be a problem in baking so some low cal sugars add maltodextrin, a flavourless and easily digested food starch, to add bulk.
Grades of sugar

Brown Sugar refers to any number of refined sucrose products which contain a residue of molasses.  Molasses are present in raw sugar juice and sugar refining is all about separating the sugar from the molasses through successive steps of boiling and filtering in order to produce pure White Sugar.  However molasses contain all of the mineral nutrients in sugar and also provide colour and flavour, so that brown sugar products, produced by ending the refining process prematurely, have always been popular for cooking and addition to coffee; the darker the sugar the higher the proportion of molasses. Molasses produced by sugar beet are normally considered unpalatable to humans so that sugar produced from beet is normally refined to white sugar and then coated by artificially adding cane molasses back in to the refined product.  Brown sugar produced from cane is therefore sometimes described as Natural Brown Sugar.
Light Brown Sugar typically contains around 3.5% molasses and comes under a variety of names.
The adjective Golden applied either to granulated sugar or caster sugar is a comparatively recent piece of marketing.  Sometimes described as ‘unrefined’ it is of course partially refined to the same general level as other light brown sugars and contains small quantities of molasses.
In the UK natural light brown sugar is often referred to as Demerera Sugar after the Demerera colony in present day Guyana, which was formerly the main source.
In the USA it is often referred to as Turbinado Sugar after the centrifuges or turbines used to refine it.
Darker sugars contain a higher proportion of molasses up to about 7%.  They are often called Soft Brown Sugar since the increased moisture levels make them denser than most sugars and cause the crystals to stick together instead of flowing. This kind of sugar has a pronounced flavour of molasses and for that reason and the increased moisture level it should not be substituted for any other sugar unless the recipe calls for it.
Muscovado Sugar, also known as Barbados Sugar, is a particularly rich, dark brown sugar popular in the UK where it is used in baking.  The name is derived from the Portuguese word mascavado meaning separated and refers to the refining process.
Molasses is the residue produced when the juice of the sugar cane or beet is refined and the sugar removed.  Just as sugars are available with varying levels of molasses still included, molasses is produced with differing levels of sugar left in, which obviously affects its sweetness.  It is normally sold as a dark brown or black viscous liquid with a rich but bitter taste.  It is used in baking, for example in gingerbreads, parkins or Christmas pudding.  It is also used as the base for dark rum and dark beers including stouts and porters.
Technically Treacle is any uncrystallised syrup produced during sugar refining which would include molasses.  In fact Harold McGee says in his great work, On Food & Cooking, that molasses is called treacle in the UK.  Molasses comes from the late Latin word mellaceus meaning ‘like honey’.  Treacle comes via the French triacle from Latin theriaca, which means a ‘antidotes against poison’ and refers to the medieval practice of using sugar and syrup as medicine.  Once again commercially available treacles are sold in different grades from light amber coloured treacles to thick black viscous treacles.
Golden Syrup
Golden Syrup is a product traditionally made by British sugar refiners, Tate & Lyle, although now owned by American Sugar Refining Inc.  It was invented by Scottish sugar refiner Abram Lyle in 1883 as a byproduct of sugar refining.  A light, golden coloured treacle it is exceptionally sweet owing to a high proportion, 35%, of inverted sugar.  Inverted sugar is produced by splitting the disaccharide sucrose into its constituent monosaccharides, glucose and fructose.  Inverted sugar tastes sweeter, is moister and is less prone to crystalisation than sucrose.  Golden Syrup is popular in baking, especially syrup sponge and treacle tarts and is also used like honey on bread or toast.

Black Treacle is a form of dark molasses popular in the UK.