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Turbinado Sugar, Explained
How to Use It
Buying and Storing
The number of sugar options on the grocery store shelf is vast—and exciting for people who like to cook and bake. Different sugars give you different textures and flavor profiles to play with. Beyond the standard light and dark brown sugar, you'll find a range of sweeteners in caramel hues. Among them is turbinado sugar. It's chunky, sparkly, and crunchy, and often labeled with words like "natural" or "raw." But it's not really a raw or natural version of brown or granulated white cane sugar—nor is it a healthier or comparable substitute. It is, however, a versatile ingredient with its own special uses.
To learn what turbinado sugar actually is and how you should and shouldn't use it, we consulted a pastry chef and a holistic nutritionist. They share their expert take on how to incorporate turbinado sugar to enhance your recipes—as well as your diet.
What Is Turbinado Sugar?
Turbinado sugar is derived from sugar cane, but contains some molasses from the refining process. This accounts for its caramel color, says chef and holistic nutritionist Tricia Williams, the founder and CEO of Daily Dose and Food Matters NYC.
Taste-wise, turbinado sugar has a caramel flavor, too; it's stronger than light or dark brown sugar. "The molasses taste makes it feel slightly rich, which is not an adjective I'd normally associate with sugar," says pastry chef Fany Gerson, the chef and owner of Mexican ice cream parlor and bakery La Newyorkina and Fan-Fan Doughnuts, and author of the cookbooks Mexican Ice Cream, Paletas, and My Sweet Mexico.
Turbinado's sugar crystals are larger than those in regular brown sugars, as well. "It has a granular texture to it," says Gerson, noting that this sweetener is layered in both texture and taste. "It's brown sugar with a bolder personality."
How to Use Turbinado Sugar in Recipes
Because turbinado sugar doesn't melt smoothly into other ingredients and retains its crunch, you shouldn't use it as a substitute for brown sugar in baking or other recipes unless you want a more crumbly or drier result.
"It's most commonly used as a crunchy topping," says Gerson. "I think of it as a finishing sugar." She uses it like a flaky sea salt and even loves it on fresh fruit. "I'll lightly sweeten whipped cream with confectioners' sugar as a topping, then sprinkle on turbinado. It adds a layer of sweetness and flavor," she says.
After brushing pie crust or challah dough with egg yolk, she'll sprinkle it on for crunch. "I also love it on top of a cobbler," she says. A dash can also elevate a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast.
Turbinado is also a great addition to a spice rub for poultry or pork, says Gerson. She also recommends topping sweet potatoes with a few of these crystals toward the end of roasting—or mixing the sugar into candied nuts for a textural contrast.
You can rim a coffee cup or cocktail glass with turbinado sugar to elevate these drinks, Gerson says.
Buying and Storing Turbinado Sugar
Like other brown sugars, turbinado has a higher moisture content than granulated white sugar and should be stored accordingly to prevent it from drying out. "It's not very forgiving," says Gerson. "Keep it in an airtight container."
If your turbinado sugar has hardened, try Gerson's trick for softening any brown sugar: "Put a piece of white bread in it," she suggests. "[The sugar] absorbs the moisture in a few days."
Is Turbinado Sugar Better for You Than White Sugar?
In a word, no. In this case, raw or natural doesn't mean better: "It's actually not raw at all!" explains Williams. It has trace amounts of calcium and antioxidants from the molasses, as well as trace amounts of antioxidants, but this isn't enough to make turbinado sugar a "healthy" part of your diet. "It may have a lower impact on blood sugar, but at the end of the day it's still sugar," says Williams. "It should be treated as a recreational treat."
To reduce the sugar spike you get from eating something sugary, Williams suggests this tactic: "Front load your sugar consumption with protein and fat, or go for a walk (or get some form of movement) after you consume it." That—and eating a moderate amount infrequently—is the best way to enjoy this sweetener and preserve your health.