Brown sugar has a long history, being the earliest recorded sugar used. It has been grown all over the world, and reached a popularity peak in the 1700s with the rise of Atlantic sugar plantations. It comes in several types, and while it originally was an unfinished form of refined sugar, now it is more often created by adding molasses to white sugar (for better consistency). It has almost identical food properties to white sugar, but adds a molasses-like flavor to foods.
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Brown sugar is made from sugar cane or sugar beets. Cane stalks or beets are cut and squeezed for their juice, which is boiled until it thickens to molasses. Sugar crystals settle out of this mixture, and are stripped of the molasses through centrifuging and drying. If the process is taken to its conclusion, white, refined sugar is the result. Brown sugar is made by leaving some of the molasses on the sugar crystals.
Sugar cane was first cultivated in southwest Asia, where Marco Polo reported in his famous journals that the Chinese used dark brown sugar freely, but did not refine it further. Sugar cultivation spread to the Middle East and the Mediterranean trade circle in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In the fourteenth century, the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean was the location of major sugar farms, using Syrian and Arab slaves as labor. Sugar cane cultivation was made a science in the fifteenth century in Sicily, with the invention of the roller mill, which speeded up the cane processing and freed up slaves to increase the volume of sugar refined. In those times, brown sugar was a byproduct of the sugar refining, and was not used widely in cooking until the sixteenth century.
1700s Sugar Trade
Brown sugar came into popular use with the rise of European sugar plantations in the Caribbean in the 1700s. It was widely used as a sweetener in England and its American colonies, because it was much cheaper than white sugar. The use and export of brown sugar from the islands rose in conjunction with the infamous “triangle trade.” The Triangle trade refers to a three-legged trade route that saw much intercontinental shipping trade in the 1600s and 1700s. Manufactured goods were traded from Europe to Africa, where men, women and children were enslaved and taken to the Caribbean islands, where they were sold as slaves to Southern colonies or island plantations, the second leg of the triangle, or the “Middle Passage.” The third leg was to trade slave-produced goods like sugar, tea, cotton, tobacco and coffee to the colonies and back to Europe.
In the 1400s, sugar cane boomed on Portuguese and Spanish Atlantic Ocean islands: Madeira, the Azores, the Canaries, Cape Verde and Sao Tome all were sugar producers before the triangle trade with the American colonies arose, Sugar plantations that produce brown and white sugar grew up in the “West Indies,” as they were called at the time, or Caribbean islands, in the 1700s. Cuba, Jamaica, and Barbados were top locations for sugar plantations. Santo Domingo and Puerto Rico were among the earliest sugar islands, in the early sixteenth century. Brazil also had many sugar-producing plantations, as early as the late 1500s, and continues to be a leader in sugar production. In modern times, Hawaii, Australia, Europe, Thailand and South Africa are major sugar producers.
Brown sugar historically was used to sweeten drinks, bake breads and pastries, and make candies and sauces. It is used now to add the rich flavor of molasses to baked goods and other recipes, and light brown sugar can still be used as a substitute for white sugar in almost every case. It is also a popular ingredient in body scrubs, because its granulated texture works to exfoliate dead skin cells and dirt form the skin’s surface, and the scent is pleasant.
The common brown sugar used in baking comes in two kinds, light and dark. According to the Sugar Association, it is not completely refined as white sugar is, retaining some molasses syrup flavor. Dark brown sugar has a darker color and a stronger molasses flavor, and is used in gingerbread, mincemeat, baked beans and other heavier-flavored foods, while light brown sugar is most often used in baking, and in making glazes, condiments and candies. Turbinado sugar, which is partially unprocessed, or raw, sugar, in large, light brown crystals, is often used to stir in tea or coffee. Muscovado, or Barbados sugar, is very dark brown and strongly flavored, and has larger crystals and a stickier texture than regular brown sugar. Demerara sugar is another specialty sugar with large, light brown crystals and a sticky texture.
The less processed brown sugars are popularly thought to contain slightly more vitamins, calcium and iron than refined white sugar, and are coming back into favor for this reason. However, brown sugar still has the same calories and negative effects that white sugar does on teeth, blood sugar and weight. Whether brown sugar has any health benefits is a theory that remains unproven.