Posted by: oysterculture | February 25, 2009

Sticky Sweet

Let’s face it, anything tasty and sweet seems to require a sticky component, as if to require us to leave evidence of our indulgences.  I was curious about liquid sweeteners, and started listing the ones I was aware of, and let me say this post quickly took on a life of its own.  The numbers quickly swelled as I encountered more products in my research.  I am sure this list is not definitive, so if you know of other syrups, please share. 

Many cultures share a love of gooey goodness, and I found it interesting how many of the sweeteners were developed based on similar procedures, so the recipes may have jumped between cultures.  Indeed, I discovered while writing this post that English treacle is the same as golden syrup, and if it is boiled multiple times converts to molasses for Americans.  Ah, so much to learn, so little time. 

photo from

photo from

Agave Syrup

Agave syrup is made from the sap of various agave plants (related to the cactus family)  Agave syrup is often substituted for sugar or honey in recipes.  Agave nectar is sold as light, amber, dark, and raw. Light agave nectar has a mild, almost neutral flavor, and is sometimes used in delicate tasting foods and drinks. Amber agave nectar has a medium-intensity caramel flavor.

Dark agave nectar has stronger caramel notes, and imparts a distinct flavor to dishes.  Both amber and dark agave nectar can be used as a topping for pancakes and waffles. Raw agave nectar also has a mild, neutral taste. It is produced at temperatures below 118 degrees F to protect the natural enzymes, making it the preferred sweetener by raw foodies.


photo from missouriexchange

photo from missouriexchange

Honey is produced by honey bees and is derived from the nectar of flowering plants.  Most microorganisms do not grow in honey because of its low water activity.  However, the risk of some dormant endospores of a specific bacteria that can harm infants results in a warning not to feed honey to children under the age of three, as their digestive systems are not fully developed to handle the bacteria should it be present.
 The specific composition of any batch of honey depends on the mix of flowers available to the bees that produced the honey.  Generally, honey is identified by the floral source of the nectar from which it was made. Honeys can be from specific types of flower nectar, from indeterminate origin, or can be blended after collection.  Most honey is a blended mixture of two or more honeys from differing floral sources, color, flavor, density or geography.

Honey is either polyfloral or monofloal.  Polyfloral honey, also known, as wildflower honey, comes from the nectar of many flowers.  The taste vary from year to year, and the aroma and the flavour can be more or less intense, depending on which bloomings are prevalent.  Monofloral honey is made from a single flower (for the most part).  Different monofloral honesy have distinctive flavors and colors.  Honey, as it is processed today, can never be guaranteed monofloral because the possibility exists for the bees to frequent other flowers.  Monofloral honeys include: clover, orange blossom, sage, eucalyptus, tupelo, buckwheat, and chestnut, to name a few.  I even have a monofloral in my kitchen made from broccoli blossoms.

Honey grading is based on USDA standards.  The quality of honey is based on a variety of factors including: soluble solids, water content,  flavor, aroma, clarity, absence of defects, and color.  The honey grade scale is:

  • Grade A – Good
  • Grade B – Reasonably Good
  • Grade C – Fairly Good
  • Substandard – Poor, Failing

High quality honey is distinguished by fragrance, taste, and consistency.  In jars, honey should appear as a pure, consistent fluid. A fluffy film on the surface of the honey (like a white foam), or marble-coloured or white-spotted crystallization on a containers sides, is formed by air bubbles trapped during the bottling process, and indicates a high quality honey, filled without pasteurization.

Mizuame (photo from

Mizuame (photo from


This Japanese sweetener literally means “water candy”  Mizuame is mademuch like corn syrup, with a similar taste.  Mizuamemaking  can involve two methods used to convert the starches to sugars. The traditional method is to take glutinous rice mixed with malt and let the natural enzymatic process convert the starch to syrup.  This method is called barley mizuame and is considered more flavorful than the potato version.  The second and more common method uses potatoes or sweet potatoes, with an acid.

Mizuame eating appears to be an art form and some day I hope to try, because on my last trip to Japan, I enviously watched its consumption, but had unfortunate images of me covered from head to toe in a stickiness. 

photo from

photo from

Corn Syrup

Corn syrup starts as corn starch after it under goes not one but two enzymatic reactions, which is really all that can be said.  Corn syrup, at least in my house does not get a lot of use, and really only gets retrieved from the cabinet around the holidays.  Recently, Corn syrup, specifically high fructose corn syrup has gotten a lot of bad press for health concerns. 

Corn syrup is identified as either light or dark.  Light corn syrup is a mixture of corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup (which increases sweetness – because you can never have it sweet enough), salt and vanilla. It is clear and colorless.   Dark corn syrup contains some refiners’ syrup (a type of molasses derived from sugar cane), caramel flavor, sodium benzoate (a preservative), salt, and caramel color.  Dark corn syrup has a medium brown color and a much more assertive flavor.

Both light and dark corn syrup function similarly in recipes and may be used interchangeably. The use of dark corn syrup adds more flavor to a recipe.

With the bad press, and possible reluctance to use the store variety, try this substitute.

Corn Syrup Substitute (can keep for 2 months)

1 c water                   
2 2/3 c granulated sugar
2/3 tsp cream of tartar or lemon juice
dash salt

Mix ingredients in a sauce pan, heat to 235-240 degrees F.  Do not stir, or wipe down the crystals that develop on the sides of the pan with water.  Cover and let the steam do the work.  When the mixture reaches a roiling boiling, remove lid, and remove from heat.  Bring to room temperature.  If crystals form, strain syrup to remove. 

probably the most famous golden syrup (photo from Wiki)
 (photo from Wiki)

Golden Syrup

Golden syrups are inverted sucrose sugar syrups made by splitting each sucrose dissachridemolecule into its components of monomers, glucose and fructose.  (I know… more information than needed).  The splitting is achieved through the action of an invertase or the introduction of an acid.  This process results in a syrup sweeter than the original solution. 

Golden syrup was made in 1883, when Abram Lyle discovered it was a delicious by-product in his sugar refining factory in East London.  He developed Lyle’s Golden Syrup which is still sold today (see picture).  In 2006, the Guinness Book of World Records declared Lyle’s Golden Syrup England’s oldest brand.

Golden Syrup is very popular in the UK and parts of Europe, New Zealand and Australia as well as South Africa.  In North America it is less common, especially if you do not live in Canada or Louisiana where it is used in Cajun cooking.

The golden color gives the syrup the appearance of honey.  Golden syrup can substitute for honey or corn syrup.  

photo from Wiki

photo from Wiki

Sweet Sorghum

Sweet sorghum is a variety of sorghum with a high sugar content.  African slaves introduced sorghum to the United States in the late 17th century.  At that time it was known as Guinea corn.  It crested in popularity as a sweetener in the early 1900s, with the US producing some 20 million gallons annually.  However, the syrup is very labor intensive to produce, and production dropped dramatically following World War II, as agriculture based jobs declined.  It is still made in small batches, and used like corn syrup.  As I recall, it imparts a distinctive flavor.





photo from ninecooks

photo from ninecooks


In the United States molasses comes mainly from sugar beats or sugar cane.  In the Middle East, the varieties expand to include carob, grape, date, pomegranate, or mulberry.  If you’ve never tried any of these varieties, may I suggest you start now.  Pomegranate molasses has an incredible rich flavor that marries well with chicken.  The flavors are varied and add a lot of depth to whatever you are cooking, and if you’ve tried making Middle Eastern food using American style  molasses, and felt you came up short, this could be the reason why.

If your recipe calls for molasses and you are short, here are some suggested substitutes:   for a cup of molasses the following may be used: 1 c honey, or ¾ c firmly packed brown sugar, or 1 c dark corn syrup, 1 c granulated sugar with 1/4 c water, or 1 c pure maple syrup.  Remember to account for the fact that the moisture content is thrown off by some of these substitutions.

 Molasses has some great non-culinary uses too; it can remove rust, act as a source of carbon for in situ remediation of  hydrocarbons, act as the base fermentation material for rum, and even used as a minor component for brick work.  I had some suspicions about that last use when I struggle to get the last bit from the jar. 

photo from

photo from


Technically treacle is a generic word in Britain for any syrup made in the process of refining sugar cane, and runs the gammit from very light to very dark. In practice, the lighter syrup which is produced when the sugar cane juice is first boiled, is called light treacle or golden syrup (also identified in this post).  The word treacle comes from the French word triacle hailing from the Latin word theriaca meaning an antidote against poisons.  Medieval pharmacists used sugar syrups as a base for their drugs, I assume to disguise the nasty taste.

A second boiling produces a darker syrup, which British cooks call treacle and Americans call molasses (also identified in this article).  A third boiling produces blackstrap molasses (this will put hair on your chest!), which is very dark and somewhat bitter, and mostly used to feed cattle.  The dark color is from the extreme carmelization of the remaining sugars. 

photo from

photo from


In Europe, the ancient sweet syrups were not made from cane sugar but from fruits such as grapes.  Italian saba is freshly squeezed grape juice (must) cooked until the water evaporates leaving a concentrated viscous syrup.  Grape must contains many of the sugars naturally present in the grape, and when it is slowly cooked into a syrup, it can be used in a variety ways. Saba is associated with Abruzzese cuisine in Italy, although it is used in other regions of Italy as well.

This food has been made since Roman times, when it was known as defrutum or sapa. Cooks made sapa by cooking huge batches of must over an extended period of time in large cauldrons, allowing the mixture to slowly develop into a syrupand controlling the process so that the sugars did not burn. The basic tradition has not changed for thousands of years, although the cooking pots no longer contain lead (which added sweetness to the syrup, but had nasty side effects like insanity and death), a common component of cooking utensils in Roman times.

Saba, also known as mosto cotto, has a wide range of uses. One popular use for saba is as a dressing for desserts, ranging from figs to cheeses to fresh ice cream. Saba keeeps a slightly acidic flavor from the grapes pairs nicely with sweet foods. Saba can also be baked into desserts, and added to sauces and dressings.  Some regions of Italy, add saba to soda water as a refreshing drink in hot weather.  Mosto cotto is also used in the production of balsamic vinegar, where it is allowed to ferment.

The natural sugars in saba prevent it from going bad.  As a general rule, unopened bottles can be stored in a cool dry place for several years, and once opened, it should be refrigerated and used within a year.

photo from - shows different grades

photo from - shows different grades

Maple Syrup

Apologies in advance – got a bit carried away here, but I found it very interesting.  Maple syrup is made from the sap of the maple tree.  Production is centered in northeastern North America, and is associated with Quebec (Canada) and Vermont (US), but, given the correct weather conditions, it can be made wherever maple trees grow.  A maple syrup production farm is called a “sugar bush” or “the sugarwoods”.  Sap is boiled in a “sugar house” (also known as a “sugar shack” or cabane à sucre), a building louvered at the top to vent the steam from the boiling sap.

Traditionally, maple syrup was harvested by tapping a maple tree through the bark and into the wood phloen, then letting the sap run into a bucket, but this method required daily collecting.  Less labour-intensive methods such as the use of plastic pipelines have superseded the phloem, in all but cottage-scale production.

Production is most intense from February through April, depending on the weather. Freezing nights and warm days are required to induce sap flows. The change in temperature from above to below freezing causes water to be absorbed from the soil, and temperatures above freezing devlops stem pressure, which, coupled with gravity, causes sap to flow out of tapholes in the stem or branches. To collect the sap, holes are bored into the trees and taps are inserted. Sap flows into buckets or plastic tubing.  A hole must be drilled in a new location each year, as the old hole will produce sap for only one season because the tree starts to heal itself and seals the wound, called walling-off. 

Approximately 40 L (10 gal) of sap is boiled down to 1 L (1 quart) of syrup. A mature sugar maple tree produces about 40 liters of sap during the 4-6 week sugaring season. Trees are not tapped until they are 24 cm (10″) in diameter at chest-height and the tree is at least 40 years old. If the tree is more than 45 cm it can be tapped twice on opposite sides. 

Starting in the mid 80’s, northern communities in Quebec opened the “Cabaneà Sucre” or Sugar Shacks to the public. These sugar shacks were generally located on large maple farms and built solely for tourist purposes. These sugar shacks serve maple syrup and maple syrup inspired meals and treats.

In Canada, there are three grades containing several color classes, ranging from Canada #1, including Extra Light (sometimes known as AA), Light (A), and Medium (B); through #2, Amber (C); and finally #3 Dark (D).  Extra-light syrups are used in maple sugar candy, pancakes and waffles; Light is for French toast, desserts and cereals; Medium for glazing, sweetening, or eating on its own. Number 2 grade syrups are used for baking and flavouring.  Number 3 grade syrup is heavy, and restricted for commercial flavourings.

The United States uses a similar grading standards. Maple syrup is divided into two major grades: Grade A and Grade B. Grade A is further broken down into three subgrades: Light Amber (sometimes known as Fancy), Medium Amber, and Dark Amber. GradeB is darker than GradeA Dark Amber.  The grades roughly correspond to various times within the season when syrups are produced.  Canada #1 Extra Light and U.S. GradeA Light Amber are early-season grades, while Canada #2 and #3 and U.S. Grade B are late-season grades.  Typically #1 Extra Light and GradeA (especially GradeALight Amber) has a milder, more delicate flavor than #3 or Grade B, which is very dark witha robust flavor.  The dark grades of syrup are primarily used for cooking and baking.

Trader Joe’s used to offer a maple syrup sampler, and it afforded a great opportunity to compare the different grades.  I found that I preferred the B grade for the extra flavor.

Maple syrup was used during the American Civil War and by abolitionists, prior to the war, because most cane sugar and molasses was produced by Southern slaves. During World War II, people in the northeastern United States were encouraged to stretch their sugar rations by sweetening foods with maple syrup.

In Quebec (eastern Ontario) and New England the process is ingrained in the culture. One tradition is visiting sugar houses (cabanes à sucre) in early spring for meals served with maple syrup-based products, especially the dish known variously as Tire sur la neige (in Quebec), maple taffy (Canada), and sugar on snow (in the US), which is thickened hot syrup poured onto fresh (this is important) snow and then eaten off sticks as it cools.  As a kid, I had heard about maple syrup in the snow, but did not know about the heating part, so I just poured it directly on the snow – that works too! 

photo from
photo from

Sugar Beet Syrup – Zuckerrubensirup

In Germany, a substitute for golden syrup is Zuckerrubensirup (literally “sugar-beet syrup”).  This syrup has been around for over 100 years, and is especially popular around the area of Cologne.  Products made from sugar cane are not as common.  The syrup is made by cooking shredded sugar beets for several hours, then pressing the resulting mash and concentrating the juices until it reaches the consistency of honey.


  1. WOW! I’ve just learned so much. So here in the UK they have this thing called treacle tart, but I always wondered why they used golden syrup to make it because I thought treacle was molasses. Now I know its about how many times its boiled. Thanks especially for the honey and maple syrup info as those are my two most favorite liquid sweeteners.

  2. A great round up of sticky sweet goodies – some my favorites and some new ones. Thanks for the info!

  3. What a well-done list of sweeteners. I, myself, cannot stomach the artificial ones. They all have that terrible aftertaste. I much prefer the real deal sweet stuff.

  4. I’m with you, artifical is out, especially when so many natural products exist.

  5. My pleasure, be prepared for a part II, there was just too many interesting topics to explore

  6. I know, I too had always thought that treacle = molasses. I plan on a seprate post on honey, but once I started I could not stop. I need to practice more control.

  7. I love to read your search results. I learn a lot from them. In Turkey, we don’t have that syrup culture. Among the ones above, I’m just familiar with honey and molasses. And we consume these two in our breakfast, or in some desserts. Among the other kinds, grape molasses is the most famous one and I love it with tahini. Come visit that post in my blog.

  8. So informative! Of course, we don’t use even half of these in everyday American cooking–sugar and honey are the biggest contenders. We have some agave in the pantry just waiting to make its debut.

  9. Excellent roundup of sticky stuff! I usually have a tin each of lyles golden syrup and black treacle in the cupboard, as my mother always did before me 🙂

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