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Ask Paul: What’s So Great About Corn Syrup?

Why not just use sugar?
By Published Mar. 2, 2022

Mac asked: Is corn syrup just sugar from corn?

To turn corn into a sweetener, manufacturers start with the starch of the corn. 

Starch is a polymer: a molecule made up of many identical sub-molecules linked together. Each individual unit making up a starch molecule is a glucose molecule, a simple sugar. When the glucoses are  all strung together, the polymer is too big to fit into our sweet taste receptors, but if glucose units are separated from the starch, they taste sweet.

Using acid or enzymes that snip the bonds between the glucose units, manufacturers convert each chainlike starch molecule into many smaller lengths. Similar conversions take place in our bodies when we digest starch; when fruits ripen; and when beer is brewed. 

To make standard supermarket corn syrup, starch is broken down into short chains of various lengths, as follows. Fifteen percent or so is glucose; another fifteen is maltose (which consists of two glucose molecules and is less sweet) and the majority is chains such as maltotriose, which are made up of three or more glucose units, and are not very sweet at all. Those larger chains give corn syrup its viscosity, which makes it a great addition to baked goods, ice cream, candy, and other recipes: It adds chewiness, slows down the formation of unwanted ice and sugar crystals, and gives appealing body to frozen treats and beverages.

Supermarket corn syrup typically comes in light and dark versions, which differ in flavor: Light corn syrup is flavored with vanilla, and dark corn syrup has a mild molasses taste from the addition of cane-sugar-refining byproducts.

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Supermarket corn syrup tastes less than half as sweet as an equal weight of white sugar—so it’s not sweet enough to be the main sweetener in sweet foods. But an additional enzymatic treatment step can be used to convert some of the glucose in the syrup to fructose, another naturally occurring simple sugar that tastes sweeter than glucose. The inclusion of fructose makes a syrup known as high-fructose corn syrup that has the same sweetness level as white sugar. Because it’s cheaper and easier to work with than white sugar, high-fructose corn syrup is extremely popular in food manufacturing.

There are plenty of other sweetening syrups in the kitchen—honey, cane syrup, maple syrup, molasses, to name a few—but none of them have those longer chains, so they don’t have the magical viscosity of corn syrup. Simple syrup, which is just white sugar dissolved in water to make it easier to use, adds nothing but sweetness to a cocktail (much more sweetness than corn syrup would). Cocktail nerds have been known to add a tiny bit of powdered gum acacia to simple syrup, to make gum (or “gomme”) syrup: The gum’s viscosity gives a pleasing smooth body to drinks.

Ask Paul Adams, senior science research editor, about culinary ambiguities, terms of art, and useful distinctions: paul@americastestkitchen.com

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JC
JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.