Brown sugar is a foundation of my kitchen pantry. It’s handy in savory dishes and essential in baking. During the busy holiday baking season, which in my world runs from September through December, I go through dark brown sugar and light brown sugar like crazy. Here are my top three reasons why I use brown sugar in my pies and tarts.
1. It adds flavor depth and complexity all in a single ingredient. Allow me to step back a minute and explain what brown sugar is. Today, commercial brown sugar is sugar with some molasses added back to it. Molasses is a product of the process of refining sugar. The amount of the dense, sweet, and earthy syrup added back to the processed sugar varies, as does the taste and texture of the resulting brown sugar. There are many types of brown sugar, but they all fall into a few categories. The reason you need to know what you are using is simple: your choice will determine the flavor and texture of what you make. In pie fillings, the textural differences are minor, but the taste can be quite different.
The first category is the commercial brown sugar we all know. It’s granulated processed sugar with some molasses added back in. The labels “dark” and “light” signify how much molasses has been added.
The second category is less processed and often darker in color, denser in complex flavors, and some are still not so easy to find unless you live near an ethnic community that uses them or you are an Internet shopper. These include jaggery and palm sugar, which are important in the pan-Indian and Southeast Asian cuisine and are made from the Asian sugar palm tree. Like the brown sugar that is more familiar in the United States, these also contain brown molasses. Demerara, Barbados, piloncillo, and other sugars used in the Latin America and the Caribbean have a coating of the natural molasses remaining from the original sugar cane. There are also some very lightly processed sugars, which are from sources other than sugar cane, like date sugar and maple sugar.
There is sort of another category that is an offshoot of the second. These sugars are partially processed, but have a very different texture and usage, like turbinado, with its thick grains and a very small amount of the sugar cane coating remaining.
I keep a few types of brown sugar on hand, in covered containers with those terra cotta disks that miraculously keep the sugar soft (soak the disks in water every few weeks). Each type has its own “personality,” and when I use them in my pies and tarts, they each make a statement that I can choose.
2. Brown sugars caramelize faster. This quality saves time and effort and makes it a wonderful ingredient for fillings; it works cup for cup for granulated sugar. If you use very dark-colored baking pans, you will need to be even more careful about timing than usual, as these pans bake faster and hotter. You might want to check whatever you are baking 10 minutes early to make sure it doesn't burn. If you aren’t sure you want to use all brown sugar, halve the amount of granulated sugar and add an equal measure of brown, and you are good to go.
3. Brown sugars remind us of where foods came from (read: food history counts). Sugar has a difficult history. It was part and parcel of aggressive colonialism and is deeply connected to slave-based economies. Sidney Mintz, a leading food anthropologist, studied sugar cultures over a lifetime, and has written about the history and economic anthropology of sugar in great detail. I have read his seminal book, Sweetness and Power, and if you want to know more, you should too. He also has an extensive library of other works. If you want a broader view of how sugar fits into food history, most food history books interweave the discussion of sugar along with tea and other foods. When I use brown sugar, I am humbly and oh-so sweetly reminded that I have much still left to learn and that sugar, especially the historically downgraded, unrefined brown sugars, remain a story worthy of my time.