Sugar in Non-sweet Foods
Caramelization of Meats and Vegetables
Sugar enhances browning and flavor development in sautéed vegetables and meats. Caramelization is the process of cooking sugar, to the browning stage. During sautéing, sugar helps brown vegetables and enhances their flavor. Sugar also increases the browning of meats, adding a depth of flavor to stew dishes featuring well-browned meat. Add sugar judiciously to sautéed vegetables and meats. Sucrose begins to brown at 338°F. Most foods will brown only on the outside and only through dry-heat methods (sautéing, roasting, grilling or broiling), which reach the high temperatures at which browning occurs. Foods cooked with moist-heat methods alone, as in some poached and braised recipes, do not become hot enough to brown or caramelize.
Sugar enhances or brings out the flavors that are already in the barbecue sauce. It enhances the tomato, vinegar or lime flavors that may be present in the sauces. Through its ability to caramelize, sugar also contributes to the browning process, which an artificial sweetener can’t do.
Sugar has an optimum taste between 100°F and 125°F and tastes better when heated. Because sugar can withstand high temperatures, it is a good choice for barbecue sauces. Additionally, sugar provides superior taste, consistency and performance over other sweeteners in barbecue sauce applications.
Sugar creates a shiny, savory glaze on cooked vegetables. Glazing refers to cooking vegetables in a small amount of liquid (stock or water, usually with a little sugar and butter) over medium-low heat until the vegetables release juices, then reducing the liquid until it’s thick. Sugar tenderizes the vegetables and helps create a shiny, savory glaze.
Sauces and Salad Dressings
Sugar balances sour, bitter and spicy components in hot and cold applications. Sour sensations come from acids such as lemon or lime juice, tomato products and vinegars. Salty sensations come from sodium chloride and other salts. Bitterness is a reaction to alkaloids such as quinine and caffeine. The body is more tolerant of sweet sensations than sour, bitter or salty ones. The addition of sweetness to sour, salty and bitter foods can make them taste better. That’s why sugar is added to acidic dressings, salty brine solutions and coffee.
The interaction of taste and temperature produces various flavor sensations. Sucrose has an optimum taste between 100°F and 125°F. Fructose, the major component of honey, exhibits poor sweetening ability when hot, yet tastes very sweet in cold preparations.
Sugar softens and balances the flavor of delicate fish, poultry or meat in brine solutions. A brine is a very salty marinade that tenderizes foods, adds flavor and moisture, and reduces cooking time. Most brines have approximately 20% salinity or 1 pound salt per gallon water. Brines often contain sugar, herbs and spices. Other additions can include wine, beer, fruit juices and vinegar.
The chemistry behind brining is simple: Meat naturally contains salt water. By immersing meat in a liquid with a higher concentration of salt, the liquid (and its flavorings) is absorbed into the meat. The sugar in a brine also draws out some blood remaining in raw fish, beef and poultry. The longer a food is brined, the stronger the flavor will be. Poultry and seafood do not need to be brined as long as denser meats. After brining, the meat (or fish or poultry) contains extra moisture which will remain after cooking, producing a moist finished product.
Sugar adds flavor to salt-cured raw foods. Salt curing is the process of surrounding a food with salt or a mixture of salt, sugar, curing salt, herbs and spices. Salt curing dehydrates the raw food, inhibits the growth of bacteria and adds flavor. It preserves meats such as ham and makes it safe to consume raw. Sugar adds a sweet flavor to cured foods and balances the salt flavor. Most often used with pork or fish, salt curing is NOT a quick procedure and must be carefully managed to meet food safety regulations.
Sugar enhances flavor, browning, and crusting of meat, fish, and poultry, and contributes to osmosis during the smoking step in the barbecue process. A dry rub or dry marinade is a mixture of sugar (often white and brown), salt, and crushed herbs or spices that’s applied to a protein’s surface prior to cooking. Other additions such as minced garlic, onion and grated citrus zest can be added to form a paste which will adhere well to meat, fish or poultry. Unlike a wet marinade, a dry rub remains on the food during cooking.
A dry rub is an important flavor-building component of smoking, which is the first step in traditional barbecue. Through osmosis, the salt in the rub draws moisture from the surface of the meat. The dry surface, combined with the savory rub, create a crust that adds flavor, texture and eye-appeal to the cooked meat. Sugar contributes to osmosis and so to the creation of the crust as well as caramelization and flavor enhancement.
Dry rubs are recommended over marinating for large pieces of meat such as briskets and pork butts because a dry rub will not sear or burn on the grill the way marinades can during the long, slow cooking required for these large cuts. Marinades primarily flavor the surface of meats, and that’s sufficient for small cuts, which have large surface areas; but large meat cuts, with their smaller surface-to-interior ratios, benefit from the deeper flavor penetration of rubs.
Sugar balances acid flavor and helps maintain the texture of pickled vegetables. Pickling means preserving food in a brine or vinegar solution. It is one of the oldest methods of food preservation, perhaps starting with the Chinese in the 3rd century.
Pickled vegetables can be brined (fermented), which involves curing at room temperature for several weeks. Or pickles can be “quick” (unfermented), made in a day or two by adding vinegar to the brine solution. It’s critical to add enough vinegar to prevent bacterial growth.
Sugar is an important component in pickling. Besides balancing the flavor of the vinegar, sugar helps strengthen vegetable cell structures and makes vegetable fibers firmer. Either brown or white sugar can be used. Brown sugar produces a darker brine.
Sugar speeds browning in bread coatings. A combination of sugar and protein in a coating spurs browning. However, sugar must be carefully incorporated into a breading formula. Too much sugar can cause an onion ring coating, for example, to become overly brown before the onion has cooked.
Other Sugar Resources
- Calories in Sugar
- Sugar and Your Diet
- Frequently Asked Questions
- How We Get Sugar
- Types of Sugar
- Other Caloric Sweeteners
- The Other 26 Sweeteners
- Why Sugar is in Food
- Sugar in Bakery Foods
- Sugar in Jellies and Preserves
- Sugar in Canning and Freezing