Category Archives: Syrups

Chinese Golden Syrup

Chinese golden syrup is something of an odd duck in the syrup world. It’s an invert caramel syrup that flows at room temperature, even when undiluted with milk or water. That’s a very odd thing, since in order to get sugar syrup to caramelize you have to heat it well past the point at which it will flow once it cools. So how is this accomplished? Simply put, what you see here is a syrup made on top of a syrup, a dark caramel syrup for color and flavor, and a soft-ball stage syrup for flow. I’ll show you how it’s done.

First put half a cup of sugar in a saucepan and add about a quarter cup of water. The amount doesn’t matter much since it will cook out anyway.

Swirl it over high heat.

After a few minutes it will start to turn golden…

…then dark. You want this smoking a bit. Quite brown in the middle.

When you hit your desired darkness (since it’s really up to you), remove the pan from the heat and pour in about a cup of boiling water. Again the precise amount isn’t important here since you’ll cook most of it out later (temperature is as much a measure of a syrup’s water content as it is a gauge of how hot it is). Watch out as it will splatter some. The hot water will at once cool the caramel and keep it from turning instantly into candy.

Scrape up any hardened sugar that’s on the bottom of the pan and return it to the heat.

Add a full cup of sugar…

…then about a tablespoon and a half of lemon juice. A pinch of tartaric acid (cream of tartar) will also work here. This plus the heat will help break the un-caramelized sucrose molecules into pieces. The caramel you already made is acidic, but a little more acid will speed the process along.

Stir all that up and let it cook again for a minute or two…

…until it’s up to the soft ball stage, about 235 degrees Fahrenheit. It will bubble more than this when you’re actually cooking it. Watch your fingers!

While it’s still hot pour it through a sieve to remove any bits of lemon flesh.

Cool and you’re done!

For those of you who are curious, this homemade syrup is the functional equivalent of a refiner’s syrup like Lyle’s Golden Syrup, which is to say it’s a thick, golden invert syrup. It is not a taste equivalent, however. To get that you’ll need to pay up for the real thing!

For those of you who are wondering why a syrup made of caramel and soft-ball syrup still flows at room temperature, it’s all those broken molecules. Those little single sugars simply tumble over each other more readily than the bigger sucrose molecules from whence they came. Which is cool.

This is a very handy thing to know how to make should you ever need a high-viscosity corn-syrup-like syrup but can’t make it out to the store. All you need is sugar, water and acid. Bingo!

Filed under:  Chinese Golden Syrup, Chinese Golden Syrup, Pastry | 23 Comments

Glucose Syrup

“Glucose syrup” is what some in the English-speaking world call corn syrup. Indeed this incredibly thick and sticky stuff is corn syrup, just a rather special kind. In what way? It’s exceedingly low in moisture, which makes it handy for all sorts of confectionery work where you want to keep the finished product flexible without adding extra water to it. It also has a much cleaner taste than grocery store corn syrup because it has fewer of the thickening long-chain starch molecules in it.

Rarely does a baker use glucose syrup, save in caramels and fondants. The fascinating thing about it is that despite being nearly 100% glucose it doesn’t taste very sweet compared to conventional syrups, even though it’s made of the simplest of sugars and the general rule is that the simpler the sugar, the sweeter it tastes to humans. It does of course have every bit as many calories. Even more really, since most syrups are about 20% water. Just one of the quirks of the way our taste buds work. Curious indeed.

Filed under:  Glucose Syrup, Pastry | 12 Comments

Invert Sugar Syrup

I’ve referenced invert sugar quite a bit over the last week. But did you know that you can actually buy it in a jar? You can. I did. Then I took a picture. This is nothing more than a plain ol’ everyday sucrose syrup that’s been heated and treated with an acid (tartaric or citric, probably). You can make this yourself of course, but some bakeries and/or confectioners would just as soon buy it pre-made. Who am I to argue?

Filed under:  Invert Sugar Syrup, Pastry | 6 Comments

Honey

Nature’s most skilled and experienced syrup makers are the bees. They’ve been making syrup out of plant nectar for millions of years. The process they use is the same one we employ for making syrup out of tree sap or cane juice: reduction. They start with a thin 80-20 water-to-sugar solution that they extract from flowers, then slowly reduce it until it has a moisture content right around 18%. At that point they deposit the syrup in a cell in the honey comb, cap it off with wax and await the winter (or the beekeeper).

The process by which bees convert nectar to honey is fascinating, and it begins at the moment a honey bee extracts the nectar from a flower. The nectar, which can be made of sucrose, glucose, fructose or any combination, flows into an organ called a honey stomach. There enzymes go to work on it, breaking any sucrose molecules (and other more complex sugars) down into simple glucose and fructose. When the forager bees arrive back at the hive they pass the nectar to other workers who first suck the honey into their own honey stomachs then begin a process of repeated regurgitation. They hold a small droplet of nectar just under their tiny mouth parts which exposes it to the air, causing some of the moisture to evaporate. They re-ingest the droplet and do it again. All the while enzymes continue to work on the honey, continuing the sugar breakdown and converting some of the glucose to gluconic acid (the reason for which I’ll explain in a moment).

After about 20 minutes of this, the worker deposits the nectar — which by this time is down to about 50% water — on the surfaces and the edges of the open honeycomb. There it’s left to evaporate further, a process that’s facilitated by other workers who beat their wings to create air flow through the hive.

Having been a beekeeper (Mrs. Pastry and I used to keep a few hives on a building in Chicago) I can say I’ve witnessed this behavior and it’s stunning. The humming sound that issued from our hives at night rivaled that of the HVAC units on nearby rooftops. Holding your hand out in front of the hive entrance you could feel the warm humid air flowing out, like the breath of some large animal. It gives you chills.

Once the honey has been reduced down to less than 20% moisture, it’s deposited in the comb and capped. The whole process, start to finish, takes about three weeks. The big question is: why do bees do this? Why do they expend so much time and energy creating the 5-1 syrup that the rest of the world knows as honey? The reason is: to prevent their nectar harvest from being plundered by microbes. For indeed syrups much over 20% water will eventually ferment in a warm environment. The concentration of sugar — combined with the gluconic acid I mentioned a few paragraphs ago — is enough to keep honey from spoiling indefinitely.

And when I say indefinitely I mean it. It’s been reported that an Egyptologist by the name of Theodore Davies found an urn that contained crystallized but still usable honey that was over 3,000 years old. Maybe that’s true maybe it isn’t, but suffice to say bees can successfully keep their harvest out of the hands of greedy microbes for a long, long time. Now if those poor bees could only do the same with greedy beekeepers…

Filed under:  Honey, Pastry | 18 Comments

Maple Syrup

Human beings around the world have harvested sweet tree saps for eons. Most of us in the Northern Hemisphere automatically think “maple” when we consider tree syrups, but in reality there are many other types of sap-giving trees. Birch trees, for example, which Alaskans and Scandinavians have long tapped for their sweet nectar. Hickory and elm trees also contain sap, though it’s less sweet and delivered in smaller quantities, so it takes more time and work to collect it and reduce it down to a syrup.

The process of making syrup from sap is a simple one: you simply boil it to evaporate off some of the moisture. Native Americans accomplished the task by heating rocks in a fire then — carefully — putting them in a bucket of sap. The process today is much the same in “sugar houses” on farms all around North America, only fire-heated cauldrons are usually employed.

Tree syrups are between 25% and 35% water, though more water is common since very dry maple syrup crystallizes easily due to all the sucrose it contains. As a general rule, you can assume a typical maple syrup is 2 parts sugar to 1 part water.

Filed under:  Maple Syrup | 4 Comments

Sorghum

Sorghum is, generally speaking, something you only see in households in the upper Midwest. Sorghum, like sugar cane or wheat, is a grass. It produces heads the size of corn ears that contain small seeds, about the size of millet. Farmers once grew sorghum for cattle feed. The grain itself is nutritious, and the stalks can be stored and fermented into silage, i.e. edible compost that cows can live on during the winter.

Yet sorghum stalks have uses for humans too. Like sugar cane they can be broken up and boiled to extract their sap, which can then be reduced into syrup. Like cane juice, sorghum sap is composed primarily of sucrose, yet the boiling process creates a high enough proportion of invert sugar that it doesn’t crystallize easily.

These days sorghum is a minor crop in the US, though worldwide it’s still the fifth most abundant cereal crop. Being extremely hardy, it’s popular with subsistence farmers in Central America, Africa and Asia.

As for the syrup, it has a flavor you really need to grow up with to appreciate. I didn’t, and I find the stuff rather, um…pungent. Still, once upon a time it was the only syrup some Midwestern folks could afford. Not all that long ago it was common to find a jar or bowl of it on the kitchen table where it served as a general-purpose household sweetener.

Filed under:  Pastry, Sorghum | 12 Comments

Malt Syrup

The Chinese have been making malt syrup for thousands of years. In fact up until the mass adoption of cane sugar, it rivaled honey for its popularity. The technique is pretty neat. It involves the “malting” — which is to say “sprouting” — of barley grain in pans of water. Once the seeds have germinated, the sprouts are dried and ground up to make a powder.

What’s the point of this? Simply that sprouted grain is rife with starch-digesting enzymes. It’s those enzymes that are responsible for disassembling the starch in the seed, which is the fuel that the sprout needs to grow. However those enzymes can be hijacked and put to other purposes…like breaking down rice or wheat starch. And that’s exactly what the Chinese did with it, creating sugar solutions out of mashed grain and malt powder that they’d boil down to thick syrups.

Malt syrup is similar to other sugar syrups in that it contains lots of glucose, maltose and other longer-chain sugars. It isn’t used all that much anymore, though bakers use it to spike their bread doughs with both sugar and enzymes.

Filed under:  Malt Syrup, Pastry | 30 Comments

Treacle

Reader Naomi reminds me about this British term. It can refer to either molasses or refiner’s syrup, depending on who you’re talking to.

Filed under:  Pastry, Treacle | 7 Comments

Refiner’s (a.k.a. “Golden”) Syrup

Refiner’s syrup (also called “golden syrup”) is made, as the name implies, at a sugar refinery, not at the sugar mill which is where molasses is produced. It’s a by product of the making of white sugar, the final “molasses” that’s produced when white sugar is centrifuged. It contains mainly sucrose and water when it’s first spun out, but is treated with acid (or sometimes the enzyme invertase) to create a proportion of invert sugar. For more on sugar refining, see my (now integrated) primer on sugar making.

Refiner’s syrup can make a fine alternative to either molasses or corn syrup depending on the application, though since it tastes every bit as sweet as table sugar you need to be careful about overloading your recipe with sweetness. Lyle’s can be hard to locate in stores in the US, but you can make its functional equivalent at home by following these instructions.

Filed under:  Pastry, Refiner's Syrup | 2 Comments

Molasses

Molasses as you know is a by-product of the sugar making process. It can be made from either cane or beets, though beet molasses isn’t used much here in States (Europeans do use it some, however). As was mentioned in the sugar posts from last week, sugar is made by adding “seed” crystals to a volume of long-cooked, drastically reduced cane juice. The mixture forms crystals and the whole mess is then spun in a centrifuge (basically a big basket lined with cloth) and the thick liquid molasses is pulled out via centrifugal force.

All molasses has at least some uncrystallized sucrose in it since the crystallization process is never entirely successful. It also has plenty of other stuff: long-chain (non-sucrose) sugars, proteins, minerals, and bits of cane plant. The extended cooking of the juice browns the plant bits and caramelizes some of the sugars, and those are what give the molasses its color.

The cooking also does something else: it creates invert sugar. Cane juice is acidic to begin with, but only becomes more so as it cooks, since the brown, broken molecules that result from caramelization are also acidic. Combine that with heat and sucrose and you get a sucrose-glucose-fructose syrup that’s remarkably resistant to crystallization.

The act of crystallizing and centrifuging sugar is called a “strike” in the industry. The molasses that the “first strike” produces is called, unsurprisingly, “first strike” molasses, or more succinctly “first” molasses. It’s the lightest and sweetest of the three molasses varieties as it contains the most residual uncrystallized sucrose. It’s sometimes called “Barbados” molasses.

If that batch of first molasses is subjected to a second strike, the result is “second” molasses, which as you might expect, is a bit darker and less sweet. After that there is often a third strike, which removes virtually all the remaining sucrose. What’s left is a highly concentrated goo of complex long-chain sugars (which because of their molecular configuration don’t taste especially sweet on our tongues) and assorted and sundry browned stuff. This is what’s known as “black strap” (stroop) molasses. It’s the cheapest of the three, but also has the most nutrients (especially iron).

Molasses was the corn syrup of the industrial age, but does have a very strong flavor relative to corn syrup, which is why we tend not to use it so much anymore.

Filed under:  Molasses, Pastry | 7 Comments