How to Make Sugar Even Better
Sugar is glorious. If you're a person who has already decided that sugar is Satan in granulated form, I don't have the emotional wherewithal to argue with you; perhaps consider upgrading your nuts or butter instead. The rest of us will be over here chatting about how to make the sweet stuff even better.
You are an informed human who knows of and possibly deploys varieties like Turbinado, Demerara, muscovado, and the like. (Don't come at me with stevia. An accidental taste will lead me to consider self-amputating my tongue.) But there's a whole sugary world out there patiently waiting for you to get hip to it. Sweet onion sugar packs all the visceral pleasure of a meticulously caramelized pan of alliums—minus all the stirring and patience required to achieve it. Maple sugar, shockingly enough, conveys the delight of maple syrup without the stickiness, and non-melting deglet noor-derived date sugar delivers a creamy heft and distinctive taste to baked goods and smoothies. Japanese black sugar is the gothest of all sweeteners, and South Asian jaggery brings a deep, rich, almost butterscotch note to whatever it touches. This is the tip of the sugarberg, and you owe it to yourself to explore.
Sugar is something of a chameleon. It readily picks up the flavors of whatever is nearby, making it a natural base for all kinds of infusions. You've almost certainly seen a jar of white sugar with a halved vanilla bean hanging out in it, but again, you've got options aplenty. Start with your favorite sugar and for every cup, add two tablespoons of oven-dried citrus zest. The drying is crucial because the oils in the zest will cause everything to get a bit sludgy, but this is not a fatal error—just add more sugar. If you felt like tossing herb sprigs, coffee beans, or hard spices like star anise, cloves, cardamom, or cinnamon sticks in there, that would go well for you. Dried edible flower petals look pretty gorgeous in addition to bringing in a pleasant complexity, and dried chiles offer a whole lotta whoa. Play around and see what brings you bliss—then jar it and give it out for the holidays.
There's no reason you need to stick to one single sugar when there's a whole world of sweet out there. Stir Japanese black sugar together with date sugar. Pair coconut sugar with maple sugars. Toss in a pinch of your favorite salt, or ground spices and see what happens. Just like you might come up with a custom barbecue rub or a savory meld of herbs, find the sweet blend that hits your happy place, and again—that stuff racks up the holiday gift oohs and ahhs like nobody's business.
Serious Eats' pastry wizard Stella Parks gets all the credit for this technique. It entails a fair amount of diligence, as you need to make sure that the sugar heated in a skillet in the oven stops cooking just short of liquefying. It brings down the sweetness level considerably, Parks says, and brings in an almost umami note.
Even if you own a cold smoker, this is tricky to pull off, so go with a bit of a cheat. Plenty of clever kitchen purveyors sell quick-aging kits to add campfire notes to liquids with the addition of a bourbon barrel stave. Take a dry route instead, and pop that piece of charred wood into a sealed container with your sugar, give it a shake every few days, and you've got smoky sugar. If you'd like to be a little more DIY about it, smoke a vanilla pod, cinnamon stick, nutmeg pod, star anise, or some other woody spice and have at it.