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The sugar taboo in savory cooking


Fat Guy
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In pastry cookery, sugar is a given. Making a fruit tart, or sorbet? The fruit isn't particularly sweet today? Add more sugar to compensate. The fruit is particularly sweet? Add less sugar. No problem. Pastry professionals even use a specialized tool, the refractometer, to measure sugar so they can add sugar accordingly.

Yet, there seems to be a taboo among gourmets that says it's not okay to use sugar -- white, granulated, refined sugar -- in savory cooking. Why?

A little white sugar can go a long way towards improving a soup, a tomato sauce and many other dishes. It can bring dishes into balance when they're too bitter or acidic. Just a tablespoon can noticeably improve the flavor profile of a whole pot of chicken soup. My late father-in-law, who was one of the best soup cooks I've ever encountered, often added a bit of sugar to his soups. They were excellent without it, but even better with.

Yet I can remember cringing the first time I saw him add sugar to a soup -- it went against every gourmet instinct I had. Why? Is it because manufacturers of packaged foods use sugar and equivalent sweeteners with reckless abandon? In the US, is it a reaction to the stereotype that American food is too sweet?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I don't know. When I roast tomatoes, I always add a pinch of sugar and salt, plus some dried herbs. I do this because it was in my MIL's recipe and it works.

I also have no issue adding sugar to Thai dishes, that balance is very important.

Chicken soup, however, I have never heard of. Will have to try that come winter.

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i think it might be more of a cultural thing than anything else. salt and pepper = savory cooking; sugar = deserts. i find that using sugar and honey as balancing agents is indespensible especially when i am trying to make lower fat/lower cal sauces and marinades (frequently called for on my ongoing series of diets).

the most interesting part of the use of sugar and honey in savory cooking though is in my interest in historic cooking and old recipes. it is quite instructive to see how our ancestors were much more likely to mix savory and sweet. of course there are pockets of this left, mostly in the pacific rim and northern africa, but there is not much of it left in most of the cuisines most of us are familiar with and use as the basis for our cooking day to day.

edited to replace northern europe with northern africa.... sometimes my brain and fingers are on different continents...

Edited by maher (log)
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If one could characterize Shanghai cuisine with only one ingredient it would be sugar.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shanghai_cuisine

The use of sugar is common in Shanghainese cuisine and, especially when used in combination with soy sauce, effuses foods and sauces with a taste that is not so much sweet but rather savory. Non-natives tend to have difficulty identifying this usage of sugar and are often surprised when told of the "secret ingredient." The most notable dish of this type of cooking is "sweet and sour spare ribs" ("tangcu xiaopai" in Shanghainese).

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Right, the Asian cuisines have no self-consciousness about this. They'll use sugar to create sweetness wherever it's needed. But it seems that Western gourmets will bend over backwards to create sweetness in any way other than by adding sugar. It's nutty.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Thank the French again I guess, they really were the drive behind a move from sweet-sour to salt-sour around the mid-1600's. Couple this with a clear seperation in savoury verses sweet courses and I guess that it is easy enough to see how what you describe developed.

In the UK it took about 200 years to get this seperation of sweet and savoury, in transitional books you will have recipes for a "sweet chicken/lamb pie" and "savoury chicken/lamb pies", right at the end of this period some of the authors made comments like "many people do no like sweet pies now". Unless there was some serious evolution of English taste buds in this period, I think that sweet-sour v salt-sour preferences are largely a social function.

Are you talking about refined sugar only? A large amount of refined sugar goes into savoury items (like hamburger buns for instance), so I guess there may be social reasons why middle-class gourmets don't tend to put refined sugar into savoury dishes.

I tend to use sugar like salt in Western type dishes. If flavour isn't an issue then I might use a bitter honey like pine, but in other cases refined sugar. I guess it is about balance, like salt sugar balances bitter flavours, but mostly I use sugar in savoury dishes to balance out the salt.

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Polish, and hence some US cuisine is very sweet.

For a long time commercial food was loaded with sugar and salt, but modern health (and taste) has reduced these.

I still think commercial foods are too sweet. Ketchup tastes like candy to me!

I've often used sugar, albeit in small amounts to balance flavors in a soup or stew. Too much acidity can be corrected with it. Also honey in southwestern dishes adds something nice.

*****

"Did you see what Julia Child did to that chicken?" ... Howard Borden on "Bob Newhart"

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In the UK it took about 200 years to get this seperation of sweet and savoury

Has this seperation happened in the US yet? I see many Americans abroad, eating fried egg, crispy bacon, and pancakes with syrup all on the same breakfast plate. Is this just the people I get to see or is this a common thing?

"Don't be shy, just give it a try!"

Nungkysman: Food for the Body and the Soul.

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I was just reading through a report in the London Times about the new Michelin three star ratings for France, full article here:

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_...icle1421194.ece

the interesting part of it, though, was a comment that illustrates exactly the point about European Haute Cuisine shunning sugar:

"... But the purists still disliked the hint of sugar in her fish, Le Monde said. "

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I like to use mirin, especially to balance out salty character. I will also tweak things with refined sugar as a remedial measure if the natural sugar that "should" be in something - like a less than optimal roma - is missing, and I'm out of luck for a better choice (as happened in the hinterland from time to time). I also use it in things like a fennel poach, with the fennel intended for marriage with "sweet" meats like shellfish.

-Paul

 

Remplis ton verre vuide; Vuide ton verre plein. Je ne puis suffrir dans ta main...un verre ni vuide ni plein. ~ Rabelais

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In the UK it took about 200 years to get this seperation of sweet and savoury

Has this seperation happened in the US yet? I see many Americans abroad, eating fried egg, crispy bacon, and pancakes with syrup all on the same breakfast plate. Is this just the people I get to see or is this a common thing?

That's a common American breakfast, however there are sweet components of breakfast all over Europe: fruit preserves, pastries, etc. None of the divisions really make any sense. That's not exactly what I was talking about, however. My question isn't about sweet food as such. It's about the use of sugar in small, mostly unnoticeable quantities, as a flavor enhancer or to balance savory food's bitterness, acidity or other unsweet characteristics. It's such a simple fix, yet many gourmets (as Maher's apropos quote indicates) look down on this.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I don't know, honey glazed ham comes to mind immediately. There are various sugar cures on smoked meats. In the south, for home cooks, it is pretty common to toss some sugar in your canned tomatoes, in any vinegar dressed salad, in the pot of greens if they are too bitter. I seem to remember an aunt who made a savory corn fritter and rolled them in powdered sugar. Southerners tend to create the complexity on the plate, serving sweet dishes and savory as parts of the main meal - sweet potatoes come to mind as an example.

Everyone knows only yankees put sugar in the cornbread, though. :wink: Really not totally true. I've seen cornbread consumed with cane syrup by some of the old folks.

I think some Brunswick Stew recipes call for a bit of sugar, and of course BBQ sauce. Many recipes for brining concoctions call for a sweetener of some kind. Then there is pepper jelly and I always put a bit of sugar in my pepper sauce, cause that's the way Grandma did it and I like it that way.

I think it is in the home. I too do not understand the disdain for the method, as other's have noted it is pretty common practice around the world.

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My question isn't about sweet food as such. It's about the use of sugar in small, mostly unnoticeable quantities, as a flavor enhancer or to balance savory food's bitterness, acidity or other unsweet characteristics. It's such a simple fix, yet many gourmets (as Maher's apropos quote indicates) look down on this.

I think there's a perception that sugar is used in this way to cover up less than perfect ingredients and is therefore shunned by those in the know. Adding sugar to your tomato sauce? Perfect tomatoes don't need sugar!

Martin Mallet

<i>Poor but not starving student</i>

www.malletoyster.com

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I don't know, honey glazed ham comes to mind immediately. There are various sugar cures on smoked meats. In the south, for home cooks, it is pretty common to toss some sugar in your canned tomatoes, in any vinegar dressed salad, in the pot of greens if they are too bitter. I seem to remember an aunt who made a savory corn fritter and rolled them in powdered sugar. Southerners tend to create the complexity on the plate, serving sweet dishes and savory as parts of the main meal - sweet potatoes come to mind as an example.

Everyone knows only yankees put sugar in the cornbread, though.  :wink:  Really not totally true. I've seen cornbread consumed with cane syrup by some of the old folks.

I think some Brunswick Stew recipes call for a bit of sugar, and of course BBQ sauce. Many recipes for brining concoctions call for a sweetener of some kind. Then there is pepper jelly and I always put a bit of sugar in my pepper sauce, cause that's the way Grandma did it and I like it that way.

I think it is in the home. I too do not understand the disdain for the method, as other's have noted it is pretty common practice around the world.

Maybe it's a regional difference in the U.S.

Down here in New Orleans, Galatoire's serves its fried eggplant appetizer with a side of powdered sugar to cut any bitterness in the dish.

Todd A. Price aka "TAPrice"

Homepage and writings; A Frolic of My Own (personal blog)

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My perspective appears narrower and narrower, though it may be that the use of sweeteners in Southern cooking, which in many ways is looked upon as low class by Northern elites, is part of the explanation for the sentiment. What I should say is that there seems to be a foodie subcultural trend that runs through New York, London, Paris that says it's verboten to add white sugar to your savory dishes -- that it's cheating, that if you do it you're not a "purist."

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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My question isn't about sweet food as such. It's about the use of sugar in small, mostly unnoticeable quantities, as a flavor enhancer or to balance savory food's bitterness, acidity or other unsweet characteristics. It's such a simple fix, yet many gourmets (as Maher's apropos quote indicates) look down on this.

I think there's a perception that sugar is used in this way to cover up less than perfect ingredients and is therefore shunned by those in the know. Adding sugar to your tomato sauce? Perfect tomatoes don't need sugar!

Yeah, I know that argument. But if it were a perfect world, all tomatoes would be perfect...

:rolleyes:

I think sauteed or carmelized onion or green pepper is used for a sweetener pretty commonly as well in savory dishes. It's still sugar, even if it is a result of heat applied to the ingredients. The buttermilk component in a fried chicken preparation is loaded with sugars as well.

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My perspective appears narrower and narrower, though it may be that the use of sweeteners in Southern cooking, which in many ways is looked upon as low class by Northern elites, is part of the explanation for the sentiment. What I should say is that there seems to be a foodie subcultural trend that runs through New York, London, Paris that says it's verboten to add white sugar to your savory dishes -- that it's cheating, that if you do it you're not a "purist."

You are probably right. I don't think it is commonly understood that the addition of sugar is used in a discretionary manner rather than an obligatory one in many cases. The cook always samples the pot likker before she pulls out the sugar jar and adds a pinch, or not.

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I think this debate all boils down to the use or definition of one word "Gourmet". If we take it to have the old fashioned meaning of 'a person who appreciates good food', it doesn't really seem to matter if sugar is added to balance, finish or highlight the food, if we take the more modern meaning of a 'food snob' it does seem to.

I have to say that I am in the first group, and have been known to add a 1/2 teaspoon of sugar to fresh minted peas!

"Don't be shy, just give it a try!"

Nungkysman: Food for the Body and the Soul.

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Sugar and red wine adds great flavor to tomato sauce or ragu. More than sugar, I use honey as a sweetener in savory dishes. Recently, I've added it to a borscht-like soup which had red wine vinegar and sauerkraut. It balanced the flavors beautifully. And, I've been tinkering with a chipotle pork chili to which honey balanced the heat of the pepper. It was perhaps the best, and most unusual chili I've made, but now will be my signature twist on an old favorite.

Great discussion about refined sugar in savory dishes. We in America are bombarded with the message that refined sugar is the enemy, and will lead to obesity and poor health. So, it's interesting and educational to see it's use around the world, in great and health cooking.

I'm still pondering it's use in chicken soup......never would have seen that comming.

Edited by monavano (log)
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I think it must be more regional, FG. I'm not aware of that stigma, although for health reasons and because there is so much of it in processed foods, most people I know tend to use something other than refined (white) sugar. Turbinado or something less refined (I think there's another thread going on about alternative sweeteners even as we speak).

So "refined sugar" has joined "jumbo shrimp" in the list of food-related oxymorons, it seems. :wink:

Judy Jones aka "moosnsqrl"

Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly.

M.F.K. Fisher

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Sugar and red wine adds great flavor to tomato sauce or ragu. More than sugar, I use honey as a sweetener in savory dishes. Recently, I've added it to a borscht-like soup which had red wine vinegar and sauerkraut. It balanced the flavors beautifully. And, I've been tinkering with a chipotle pork chili to which honey balanced the heat of the pepper. It was perhaps the best, and most unusual chili I've made, but now will be my signature twist on an old favorite.

Great discussion about refined sugar in savory dishes. We in America are bombarded with the message that refined sugar is the enemy, and will lead to obesity and poor health. So, it's interesting and educational to see it's use around the world, in great and health cooking.

I'm still pondering it's use in chicken soup......never would have seen that comming.

To me, I think it's too obvious to hide in a clear broth chicken soup. And now that I'm old enough for my own health to have crashed (like so many others') the bombardment seems at the least reasonable. I have used it previously in spaghetti sauce, though, and it does do wonders. I would switch to honey if I felt it necessary.

I like Tristar's clarity on 'gourmet' versus 'food snob'. And 'food snob' might be better illumined by the phrase 'food police'.

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