It's sugar—but it's got character.
If you’re a fan of the flavor of molasses or caramel (Which, let’s be real, who isn’t?), you’ll love jaggery, a staple of South Asian cooking. For me, the same way that the smell of baking cinnamon and nutmeg conjures up those wintery holiday vibes, the deep flavors of this South Asian sweetener are synonymous with the decadent food of Indian festivals like Diwali and Makar Sankranti.
Jaggery, or gur as it’s called in Hindi, is a dark, unrefined sugar made from either palm sap or sugarcane juice, depending on the manufacturer and the region of South Asia it was produced. Especially common in South Asian cooking, think of the taste of dark brown sugar, but crumbly, buttery, with a little hint of bitterness, and way more character. While you can find it in powdered or granulated form, you’re more likely to see it sold it giant blocks, or cakes ranging from dark brown to a golden color, which you’ll need to scrape, grate, or hack at with a hammer or meat cleaver if it’s especially large and unwieldy. (The flavor payoff is totally worth it though, trust me.) From there, it’s used in tangy-sweet chutneys, stirred into rice pudding, made into sesame brittle, packed into bite-sized sweets called laddu—or eaten straight from the package like candy.
Even if you’re not planning on whipping up traditional Indian sweets on the regular, jaggery is totally worth stocking your pantry with. It’s versatile, and can add deep, caramel flavor notes pretty much anywhere you would use regular sugar. Next time you make apple pie, use finely grated jaggery instead of granulated sugar in the filling for a rich molasses-like flavor.
Sauces and glazes—even ones that you’d use over savory dishes like meat or veggies—could all benefit from a little of jaggery’s buttery richness. Mix some with fruit and plain yogurt for breakfast. Crumble some into your next banana bread batter. Instead of brown sugar or honey in your oatmeal, flaky, melty jaggery is a delicious substitute. Same goes for your tea.
As far as baking finicky, precision-dependent desserts though, it’s a little tricky to make a one-to-one substitution for granulated sugar because the moisture content of jaggery can be inconsistent from package to package. A general rule of thumb: The softer and more pliable the jaggery is, the higher the moisture, meaning the softer and cakier your dessert will turn out. If that block of jaggery you bought is hard and brittle, that means it has less moisture, and your baked goods may turn out crispier.
If you’re ready to take on some sweet experimentation with jaggery, check out your local South Asian grocer or Middle Eastern market, or search for it online. It may just be your new favorite sweetener.