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Ask Paul: What Are the Different Styles of Brown Sugar?

Muscovado, turbinado, demerara, oh my!

Published Feb. 16, 2022.

Nic asked: "What's the difference between turbinado, demerara, and muscovado sugar?"

Turning sugar cane into sugar takes numerous steps. The thin, sweet juice pressed from the cane is clarified; concentrated into a thick, dark-brown syrup; and encouraged to form crystals. Those crystals are then spun in a centrifuge to separate them from the remaining syrup, which is now called molasses.

At this point, the crystals are coarse and deep in color, and have a palpable flavor of minerals, molasses, and grass. Known as "factory sugar," these raw sugars were once shipped directly from factories in the cane-growing regions where they were made, such as Demerara, a county in Guyana. Other historical factory sugars included muscovado, made in Barbados—its name derived from a Portuguese word meaning "unrefined"—and turbinado, named for the spinning of the centrifuge.

There are still brown-hued sugars sold under those names, but they're no longer factory sugars. Today, the cane-pressing factories send the majority of their raw sugar and molasses syrup, not to be used as is, but to refineries, where several additional steps are used to create "refinery sugar." The sugar and molasses are recombined and recrystallized, to draw more sweetness out of the syrup, producing a darker, more concentrated blackstrap molasses. 

The crystals extracted from this stage are still brown and have lingering traces of the syrup, but they are sweeter and more delicate than factory sugar. Referred to in the industry as "soft" brown sugar, these sugars are marketed, with more or less of their residual molasses removed, as demerara, turbinado, and muscovado sugars, all sometimes called “raw.” Those labeled demerara and turbinado are similar, with large grains cleaned of molasses till they're golden in color and dry enough to pour freely. Muscovado is darker, finer-grained, and stickier, with more of its molasses color, flavor, and texture remaining. 

Alternatively, the refinery crystals can be dissolved in water and filtered to remove as much residual color and flavor as possible, thus creating white sugar. This filtration is typically done using porous, absorbent charcoal made from animal bone, which is why white cane sugar is considered non-vegan.

After being refined, white sugar can then be painted with varying amounts of molasses, creating sticky "coated sugars" that include the familiar supermarket light brown and dark brown sugar. The water-attracting ability of the molasses is what makes brown sugar tend to clump.

Ask Paul Adams, senior science research editor, about culinary ambiguities, terms of art, and useful distinctions:

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