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cane vs beet sugar

I heard once that there is a difference in which you use, particularly for caramelizing. Is there?

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  1. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article...

    ...But I personally have never noticed a difference.

    1. Unless the sugar you buy at the store is 100% cane, you could possibly have a mix of them anyway, so I wouldn't worry about it.

      1 Reply
      1. re: katecm

        Nope...at least that's not my experience...
        or the experience of other baking pros with whom I've discussed this.

        I regularly make creme brulee and caramel. Beet sugar will burn in a brulee, cane sugar will caramelize. Caramel made with beet sugar will crystallize and never form caramel -- cane sugar works brilliantly. Boiled icing is a mess made with beet sugar. I'm a C&H cane sugar girl all the way. The SFGate article Egg mentions above is a good article. If the package of sugar doesn't say cane,
        it's beet.

      2. I find that 100% cane is best for pulled sugar work, either kind works well for caramel and, frosting and candies.

        1. For starters, I simply don't like beet sugar. I swear I can taste a difference. But I've also had bad results with beet sugar in icings and candy. As a result I only buy cane sugar, almost always C&H. For the record, I don't think I've ever seen a confectioner's sugar made from beets. That should say something, even if it's only that I'm blind. But I don't think so.

          10 Replies
          1. re: Caroline1

            do European chefs have the same preference for cane sugar? It's my impression that beet sugar is more common there, with countries like France and Germany being big producers.

            paulj

            1. re: paulj

              I don't know the answer to your question, but I would guess not. Beet sugar is very unreliable for confectionary work, and I don't think that has anything to do with what continent you''re on when you use it. '-)

              As far as I know, beet sugar got an impetus during the U.S. food rationing program of World War II. At that time, most U.S. sugar was grown in Hawaii, and the use of fuel for shipping to the mainland was severely limited as part of the war effort. I don't think there was enough Caribbean sugar cane available at the time, but I'm not sure of this. Anyway, home grown beet sugar became the patriotic thing to use. In Oregon, there was even a program that brought Japanese AMERICANS out of those stupid internmnet camps to work in the sugar beet fields. Don't know which was worse: You can stay locked up, or you can break your back working in the beet fields.

              1. re: Caroline1

                Its impetus in the USA might date from then, but its start in Europe dates from the Napoleonic wars when England cut the Continent off from sugar from the West Indies. Ever since then sugar beet growers have benefited from import quotas.

                Does the French 'bible' (LG) have anything to say about sugar from different sources? LaVarenne Pratique says there's no difference in taste and cooking properties.

                paulj

                1. re: paulj

                  The gist of what Larousse Gastronomique says about beet sugar is that a German chemist names Marggraf, discovered sugar in beet juice in 1747. One of his followers, a French refugee names Achard, set up an experiemental factor but basically went broke, then started up again in France at the instigation of Napoleon, in response to the Continental Blockade. From that time it grew into a "big industry."

                  LG gives a lot of information about saturated sugar solutions, the stages it goes through during boiling (soft thread, large thread, small ball, large ball, small crack, hard crack, caramel), as well as the degree of saturation that can be attained at different temperatures.

                  It does say that originally there was a lot of backlash against beet sugar in Europe, with claims it doesn't taste good, isn't as sweet as cane sugar, and other complains (though not working in candy making isn't menitioned) until a fellow named Chaptal showed by "irrefutable experment" that beet sugar and cane sugar are identical. After that, beet sugar was accepted and "today" (1960's) is "almost" as big a source for sugar as cane. No mention of beet sugar acceptance or rejection by the general public in the New World.

                  At the personal experience level, I did believe I percieved in a difference in taste and function between beet and cane sugar some forty or so years ago. But I can't remember the last time I saw anything labeled "beet sugar," so rather than give it another try, I'll just stay with the easily found C&H cane sugar...

                  1. re: Caroline1

                    Beet sugar is never labeled as such in the US. If you're buying sugar that isn't labeled cane sugar, then you must assume that there is a fair to sure possibility that what you are buying contains at least a percentage of beet sugar.

                    1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                      Thanks, Caitlin. I can't remember a time when I didn't exclusively buy and use C&H Cane Sugar. My mother did the same. But I did have beet sugar at someone's house when I was a kid... No idea whose, just that beet sugar was presented with pride, and I thought it tasted strange. That was a very very long time ago, and I have to assume that refining processes have changed a great deal. On the other hand, if I haven't tasted beet sugar since that long ago occasion, why should I leap to such a shaky conclusion? Maybe the power of my expectations made it taste strange? '-)

                      1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                        "Beet sugar is never labeled as such in the US."

                        Perhaps not "labeled as such" on the FRONT of the package, but I have a 10 pound bag of 'Great Value' brand sugar which lists on a side panel: "Ingredients: Beet Sugar."

                        ETA: I'm in the PNW/USA...daughters ex room mate did a lot of baking and left behind several packages of various sugars. Evidently roomie couldn't recall whether or not she had enough of a particular sugar on hand, so bought more.

                        1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                          At least here in Michigan, beet sugar is often labeled as specifically beet sugar, with a little picture of a beet. And this is for store brands, like Meijer's, WalMart, etc. Certain locally produced brands produced by the Michigan Sugar Growers Coop aren't labeled per se, buts its pretty obvious.

                    2. re: Caroline1

                      my dad worked on a beet sugar farm in nebraska before entering service during ww2.
                      when losses decimated volunteer japanese american units in europe men were drafted out of camps as replacements. units were segregated then.
                      my brothers fil makes chocolate commercially and insists on c&h cane sugar.
                      i just got some brown sugar on sale not my usual c&h. it has a very strong smell though i haven't tried it yet.

                  2. re: Caroline1

                    You can find confectioners sugar made from beet sugar in the US. One particular company, Big Chief, here in Michigan makes it with wheat starch instead the typical corn starch. I can find it occasionally under their own name brand, but most often they pack it for others as the store brand. I stock up whenever I can, since I'm allergic to corn/corn starch, and I don't want to pay the ridiculously $$$ amount for confectioners sugar made with tapioca starch...$4/lb+shipping or $1.25 for a 2 lb bag locally, which reminds me, I need to buy some more when I go shopping this afternoon.

                  3. I'll try to dig up some threads on this for you - there has been some discussion of this and I remember Candy weighing in - particularly about baking w/ one vs. the other.

                    Edit - http://www.chowhound.com/topics/445574

                    http://www.chowhound.com/topics/439864

                    http://www.chowhound.com/topics/381439

                    http://www.chowhound.com/topics/436925

                    http://www.chowhound.com/topics/321569

                    1. i live in ND, where sugar beet is grown by the ton. there is chemically no difference between the two sources, they just come from different plants, just like fructose is found in many fruits and lactose is found in different animals (and human) milk. There can be slight variations in the way the sugar is extracted and processed that can affect the taste/quality. Moisture levels at harvest for either can differ, making a slight difference. most people would never notice this as it's so very slight.
                      however, since cane sugar isn't grown as extensively in the US cane sugar growers like to hype their product as being somehow better such as "grown in soft tropical breezes" ...yeah, like in TEXAS??? not so tropical. they also attack lower quality brands of beet sugar for their flaws, ignoring there are many low quality cane brands. one i heard was that beet sugar can't be really brown sugar, it's just sprayed with dye. any kind of brown sugar is white sugar mixed with molasses, which both plants produce. in fact, to get molasses from cane sugar it has to be further refined, extracting it from the less refined and quite untastey, bitter sludge called sorghum. if this process isn't done perfectly, the molasses can be impure.
                      either sugars can be made into powdered sugar, or super fine, etc. it's only a matter of grinding. you can make your own powdered or super fine at home using a coffee grinder, food processor or mortar and pestle.....if you make it at home you can avoid the anti caking additives store bought powdered sugar has in it.
                      also, there's no requirement to state what source the sugar comes from. some may be either or if they're a generic brand. generally it's name brand cane sugars that like to draw your attention and wallet to "PURE CANE SUGAR"
                      also, just fyi...cane sugar grown in many tropical places, since it's such a "superior above ground crop" are subject to the attentions of many pests, including a venomous cane toad....the cane workers in lower tech growing areas love those...and the burning of the cane they have to sometimes do if there's a boom in the toad population, just so they can run them out and go back to cutting the then burned cane and taking it to be processed without getting bitten. ...or they just poison them. beets are safe underground until the mid to late fall when the temps get colder, as the sugar content improves in colder conditions, making us northern states and countries ideal growing areas. we have plenty of cold to go around. ...plus the left over plant matter from the sugar beets is used as a wonderful and highly prized cattle feed. nutritious and delicious, too! so every part is used in the beets. how nice! even better, no cane toads! :)

                      8 Replies
                      1. re: kota

                        There are slight but important chemical differences between beet and cane sugar, and these differences are responsible for the differences in the way beet and cane sugar behave in cooking and baking.

                        Most notably, beet sugar will not caramelize; it burns instead.

                        The molecular differences are in the carbon atoms of the molecule: C4, C3 differences, and in the ratio between the 13c and 12c isotopes. These differences are slight, but enough to cause differences in the way the two sugars react chemically in recipes. The lack of caramelization and beet sugar's tendency to crystallilze when making buttercream frosting (among other examples) are described in the San Francisco Chronicle story linked to above. They look similar when ground, of course -- therein lies the rub.

                        1. re: maria lorraine

                          Can you point us to more in depth discussion of how isotopic differences affect chemical processes like this. I know that isotopic differences affect physical processes like evaporation and condensation, and the flow of gases. But I thought isotopes behaved the same in (most) chemical processes, since those are controlled by the electron, not the weight of the nucleus.

                          Even where isotopes affect physical processes, the differences are so small that it requires sensitive equipment to detect or utilize them.

                          1. re: paulj

                            Here's are two science links that talk about the chemical differences between
                            cane sugar and beet sugar:

                            http://www.google.com/search?tbs=bks%...

                            http://www.google.com/search?tbs=bks%...

                            1. re: maria lorraine

                              "In terms of chemistry, biochemistry, human nutrition and health,
                              there is no difference between cane and beet sugars once they have
                              been purified to the colorless crystalline materials we recognize
                              as granulated or caster sugar."
                              Food: the chemistry of its components By Tom P. Coultate

                              It goes on to say that mass spectroscopy can be used to distinguish
                              between the two sugars via the isotopes, and this can be used for
                              regulatory purposes. But why would expensive mass spectroscopy be
                              needed if the carmelization properties were vastly different?

                              The differences are isotopic, not chemical.

                              1. re: paulj

                                There are profound differences in chemical *reactions* when cane sugar vs. beet sugar is used. What causes the differences? Help me find out. I don't
                                have the answers and am curious.

                                Are they due to the plants being entirely different species -- sugarcane (Saccharum spp.) vs. sugar beets (Beta vulgaris)?
                                What makes beet sugar blacken and burn rather than turn brown and caramelize like cane sugar does?
                                Are these differences in chemical reactions due to isotopic or molecular differences, or differences in trace minerals between the two sugars?
                                Why does cane sugar have a lower melting point?
                                Why does beet sugar tend to come out of solution and crystallize or get grainy?

                                As nearly every professional baker know, the differences in results between the two sugars are obvious. If you can provide some help in finding the answers, I'd be most grateful.

                                1. re: maria lorraine

                                  The informed opinion in this eGullet thread is that differences between the sugars are due to refining details, most notably crystal size.

                                  http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?/...

                                  As best I can tell, all claims of a real difference between the sugars trace back to that 1999 SFGate article.

                                  1. re: paulj

                                    Paul, I edited my post above.

                                    I don't believe the eGullet posters in your linked thread, except for the poster who contributed the processing link and the hard candy maker, are informed on the latest-known differences between the two sugars.

                                    I've encountered several executive food technologists at major manufacturing companies who insist on cane sugar on the production line because of the problems listed above with beet sugar.

                                    So far I have not come across the answer to why the two sugars behave vastly different in recipes -- there has to be a physical explanation. Any home cook attempting to make buttercream frosting with beet sugar or who has tried to caramelize beet sugar, knows beet sugar does not work for these techniques. Again, the question is why.

                                    http://www.practicallyedible.com/edib...
                                    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/2953...
                                    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/375081
                                    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/295325
                                    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/2797...
                                    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/6330...

                        2. re: kota

                          Kota, if you've ever seen a fully loaded beet truck along with it's fully loaded pup go screaming through a red light at the intersection of Gratiot and Wheeler in Saginaw with no intention of ever slowing down or stopping, you would rather face the toads.
                          Bob