Instead of conventional refined white sugar, Shauna Sever, author of Real Sweet, bakes with everything from muscovado sugar to maple syrup. "I think of [muscovado] as dark brown sugar on steroids," she says. "This has the crave-worthy molasses full flavor that we really want when we're using dark brown sugar."

David Leite: What is the difference between natural sugars, unrefined sugars and refined sugars?

Shauna Sever
Shauna Sever

Shauna Sever: It's a jungle out there. I talk about things in terms of unrefined, less-refined and refined.

I use the example of white refined sugar to give a baseline -- to help people understand the sugar refining process. When you pull cane sugar out of that process at different points, you get different levels of color and flavor. You get everything from evaporated cane juice, which is basically a non-chemically treated version of granulated white sugar, to turbinado sugar, which still has a little bit of molasses. We know that as Sugar In The Raw, that brand name people are familiar with. It's coarse, sparkly and lovely. Or you could get something like dark muscovado sugar, which I refer to as the "bad boy" sugar of the book. It's so flavorful and has all of the molasses in it. It really just depends on what point in the cane sugar refining process they pull that sugar out.

But there are also sugars from other sources. There's honey, maple syrup and maple sugar, which is divine, and coconut sugar, also known as coconut palm sugar, which is becoming really trendy.

DL: What are some of your favorite natural sugars?

SS: Let's pick a few that I always have in my pantry.

I always have dark muscovado sugar. For me, this is a gateway sugar to understanding how wonderful natural sugars can be. This can be a one-to-one swap for the conventional dark brown sugar that you find in the supermarket. I think of this as dark brown sugar on steroids. This has the crave-worthy molasses full flavor that we really want when we're using dark brown sugar. This is just a natural version of it. I always have that because it's really easy to swap.

I love using turbinado sugar instead of white granulated sugar in recipes. But like I say in the book, you have to know how to treat it. If you're making a cake that requires you to cream butter and sugar at the beginning of the recipe, you're going to need a few more minutes to let that turbinado dissolve and aerate your butter. You may end up with a really interesting texture at the end because it doesn't completely break down. But that's the charm of baking with turbinado.

DL: Will that give you a little bit of a crunch?

SS: It does, depending on how you do it. You can use it with candy making, where it will melt completely.

But if you're going to use it in something, a great example is the Next-Level Chocolate Chip Cookies in the book. This was the recipe that let me know that I had a book on my hands once I nailed the chocolate chip cookie recipe with dark muscovado sugar, turbinado sugar, whole wheat pastry flour, bittersweet chocolate and a good hit of salt. These are chocolate chip cookies for grown-ups (although my kids will eat an entire batch of them). But really what we have is the chocolate chip cookie of your dreams: that deep brown sugar, brown butter and a little bit of crunch from that turbinado remains in the cookie at the end, which gives it a wonderful crunchy, chewy combination.

DL: These natural sugars are adding layers of flavor and in some cases texture to the baked good.

SS: That's exactly it.

I think sometimes when people try to swap in a natural sugar -- say, if you're trying to use honey instead of white sugar -- you're not going to get those crisp edges. You're not going to get the thing that you expect.

But when you are thinking about it in terms of swapping one sugar for another that's similar, you're going to get much more in the direction that you want. You'll be satisfied with the results from the get-go. The easiest thing to do if you're trying to convert a recipe is to use dry sugars for dry sugars and liquids for liquids. That's going to be the most foolproof approach.

But I would say if you want to use honey or maple syrup, go for baked goods that are going to have a soft, moist texture. Liquids are never going to give you crisp edges. That's just science. I'm not a scientist, but you will be much happier if you're making muffins, quick breads or soft baked cookies with liquid sweeteners like honey or maple. When you want those crisp edges, something like a turbinado, evaporated cane juice or even maple sugar is going to be great.

There's a maple sugar butter cookie in the book, which is the sugar cookie I've had every Christmas for my entire life. It's normally a white sugar cookie. But when you swap in that maple sugar, you still get that crispness and the sandy texture of a butter cookie, but you get maple flavor through the roof.

DL: What about some of the softer things? You have a chapter on spoonable desserts and frostings. How do natural sugars work with those?

SS: What's wonderful about liquid sweeteners like honey, maple, agave or brown rice syrup is that they naturally lend a soft, spoonable texture to things, particularly ice creams. When you put in that liquid sweetener, it never freezes completely firm, so it will give you a scoopable texture. There are several ice creams in the book -- vegan, even -- that use things like agave. There's a caramelized honey and sea salt gelato, which is most definitely not vegan but is the best ice cream in the world.

DL: When we're talking about all these different sugars -- muscovado and plain old white sugar going all the way down to the syrups -- there's a whole range of sweetness.

SS: That's absolutely correct. If we're talking about cane sugars, the more molasses that's in a sugar, the more bittersweet quality it's going to have. Honey is actually twice as sweet or sometimes three times as sweet, depending on the honey that you're getting, as white sugar. You can use less sugar overall in a recipe when you're using something that's sweeter.

David Leite

David Leite is the publisher of the website Leite's Culinaria, which has won two James Beard awards. He is the author Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Manic Depression, as well as The New Portuguese Table: Exciting Flavors from Europe's Western Coast, which won the 2010 IACP First Book/Julia Child Award. His writing has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appetit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Pastry Art & Design, Food Arts, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Sun-Times, The Washington Post and the Charlotte Observer. His awards include a 2008 James Beard award for Newspaper Feature Writing Without Recipes, a 2006 Bert Green Award for Food Journalism, and Association of Food Journalists awards in 2006 and 2007.