Finding a Better Sweetener
My journey into chocolate grew from an ongoing quest to fill my table with nutrient-dense, traditionally produced, whole foods of all sorts. I was having trouble finding chocolate that met my standards, so I decided to make it myself.
The biggest challenge and driving force was finding a more natural replacement for the refined sugar used in almost all chocolate, including high-end and organic chocolates (remember, organic does not mean unrefined). I had already made the switch to whole, unrefined cane sugar in my cooking and baking, and wondered if I could use it in chocolate as well. To test my idea, I bought a small chocolate grinding machine and started experimenting. The answer was clear: absolutely.
Adding whole cane sugar to a batch of dark chocolate.
Whole cane sugar is easy to find in most sugarcane-growing countries, but it takes effort to track it down here in the United States, which grows some sugarcane but only makes refined sugars. For that reason, I source most of my whole cane sugar from Central America, the closest region producing it.
The Benefits of Whole Cane Sugar
Whole cane sugar is simply dried sugarcane juice. Unlike most sugars you find in the grocery store, it is never spun in a centrifuge to remove its natural molasses content. That means it retains cane juice's full flavor and nutrients. It's sugar in whole-food form, and it's the only sweetener used in my chocolate.
Unrefined cane sugars from India (left) and Paraguay (right).
In addition to its nutritional benefits, whole cane sugar opens up new flavor possibilities. Unlike refined sugar, which is merely sweet, unrefined sugar has both sweetness and complex flavor that varies across producers.
Remember, a 70% dark chocolate bar is 30% sugar. Even a super-dark 85% bar is still 15% sugar. That means sugar is a huge part of the chocolate you eat. Ask yourself: do you want the sugar in your chocolate to be flavorless and devoid of nutritional value beyond calories, or to be a rich, flavorful, whole food? I know my answer.
Making Sure it's the Real Deal
Over the years, I've encountered products on the market claiming "whole" or "unrefined" cane sugar as an ingredient, only to discover that the producer is actually using refined sugar. It could be an honest mistake, or deceptive marketing.
To be sure of what you're eating, ask the producer to see a picture of the sugar they use. If it has small, uniform, pale crystals, it's not unrefined cane sugar--even if it's slightly golden-brown in color or "organic." Such sugars are highly refined, and in some cases little more than purified sucrose with a touch of molasses sprayed back on for color.
Some sugars, including "turbinado" sugars, are partially refined. They're an improvement over white sugar, perhaps, but refined nonetheless, and to an extent you can't really know. Better to stick with completely unrefined sugar.
As you can see in the picture above, truly unrefined cane sugar has bold, regionally variable color and irregular natural crystals. It's prone to clumping. It is nothing more than a ground-up block of solid dried cane juice, and should look the part. For that matter, it should smell the part too--whole cane sugar is fragrant like honey or maple syrup or dried fruit or the top layer of crème brûlée.
In the absence of a visual, ask the producer if they are using panela, sucanat, rapadura, piloncillo, or jaggery--all regional or brand names for whole cane sugar. (The technical term for this sugar is non-centrifugal cane sugar (NCS), but that's a mouthful and you don't hear it much, so try the others first.)
If they don't have a picture or know the names, odds are they're not using truly unrefined cane sugar, which is much more expensive and difficult to source than refined sugars. When a producer makes the effort to obtain the real thing, they'll know, and they'll want to share it with you.
Questions about whole cane sugar? Send me a message.