Sweet is not a flavor. Like salty or sour, it describes a sensation, not a particular taste. Honey has a flavor, as does maple syrup—and sugar does, too, at least until the refiners get hold of it and turn it into dull, generic sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup and granulated white sugar. But in recent years, a growing array of flavorful unrefined sugars have appeared in the market, causing some local cooks and bartenders to look at sugar as a distinctive ingredient.
There are many interesting sugars available these days—like maple, palm, coconut, and date—each primarily produced and used in areas where those plants grow. For pure sucrose, which is the sugar found in most kitchens, there is beet sugar, discovered several hundred years ago and grown in colder climates, and cane sugar, the oldest form of sugar and by far the most widely used. Since its discovery a few thousand years ago, cane sugar (extracted from a tropical grass) has been traded, taxed, hoarded, and fought over. “Sugar is an incredible ingredient,” notes Thad Vogler, bar manager at Camino. “No wonder the world changed after it was discovered.”
A visit to Cuba in 2003 transformed how Vogler thought about sugar and its role in drinkmaking. “The country was like a place out of time,” he says. “There were all these bars that were basically untouched since the ’50s. The bartenders made wonderful drinks with local unrefined sugar, rum, and lime. The cocktails had such a strong sense of place. When I got back [to San Francisco], I wanted to source sugars like the ones I tasted there.”
At Camino, Vogler uses several types of sugar, including evaporated organic cane juice, whose name is a clever bit of marketing semantics. All cane sugar begins with a syrup made with cane juice and water—the difference is in the processing. Raw sugar, also called sucanat, turbinado, or demerara, is simply dehydrated syrup. The evaporated organic cane juice Vogler uses is formed by heating the syrup until it crystallizes, then spinning the medium-coarse crystals in a centrifuge at high speed to remove most but not all of the natural molasses that gives unrefined sugar its off-white color and complex flavor. Refined sugar is subjected to extensive mechanical processing, which sometimes includes chemical treatments and/or screening through charred animal bones (which is why some vegetarians avoid it) to remove all traces of color and character.
“White sugar smells like chemicals,” says Caitlin Williams, formerly of Miette Pâtisserie, who thinks that evaporated organic cane juice makes her food taste better. But not everyone feels that it makes much of a difference, such as local artisan June Taylor, who includes only organic ingredients—both fruit and sugar—in her preserves. (Taylor does note, however, that the evaporated cane juice she uses slightly alters the color of the finished preserves.)
Vogler’s ideas of flavor and beauty have evolved to embrace the specific qualities of the sugars he uses. “I’ve come to love earth tones,” he jokes, referring to the golden tint of syrups made with unrefined sugar. This compromise between cook and ingredient is so much at the heart of our local food culture that I was surprised to discover how many restaurants in the Bay Area still use refined white sugar. Including, inexplicably, my own.
If Vogler’s sugar epiphany came wrapped in the gauzy glow of an authentic cultural experience, mine was accompanied by a deep sense of shame. “How about you,” Williams asked me. “What kind of sugar do you use?” In that moment, I thought of my restaurant, with its carefully sourced organic produce, pastured meats and eggs, exquisite spices—and there, sitting in our pastry room, 50-pound bags of C&H white sugar. She made a funny face when I told her, and followed with a question for which I had no good answer: Why?