Monday, June 21, 2010

Homemade Sugar

Sugar, as we all probably know, is sucrose... and we get it from sugar cane. Usually the sugar we get is refined and filtered in many steps to a pure white, although raw cane sugar is a light tan color. Cane sugar was often hard to come by, and expensive, in earlier times in this country. When I was a child during WWII, sugar was rationed and almost impossible to get, so I didn't get a birthday cake until I was five, and then it was only 5 inches across. In those earlier times of scarcity and expensive prices, our great-grandmothers may have made their own sugar from sugar beets (or sugar maples, depending on where they lived), which are the same form of sugar: sucrose. Even today 30% of the sugar produced in the US is still made from sugar beets, sadly mostly GMO sugar beets. :(

Sugar beets are not those red globular things we grow in our gardens. Regular beets have only a low percentage of sucrose. Sugar beets, Beta vulgaris 'altissima' or Beta vulgaris 'saccharifera', are white beets with an elongated root, and 12-15% sucrose (by weight). Unlike sugar cane, beet sugar is free from uncrystallizable invert sugar but does contain a small amount of the sugar raffinose, which humans do not digest. (The result may be a slight form of gas, like eating beans.) You can still get seed to grow sugar beets, with diligent searching. One source I found is J.L. Hudson, Seedsman, in California; they carry open pollinated, non-F-1 hybrid, non-patented sugar beet seeds. I have emailed 2 other companies to find out if they also have open pollinated heirloom sugar beet seeds, which I think they might. I will post them when I get an answer.

I am, of course, concerned because Monsanto has a patent on a GMO sugar beet, now used by 95% of commercial sugar beet farmers in the US since the introduction 3-4 years ago.

As it happens, there is a "shortage" of GMO sugar beet seed. Capital Press, an informative weekly agricultural newspaper, ran an article on the front page of their November 13, 2009 issue about sugar beets and how commercial growers will be affected "by a recent decision to halt the sale of the genetically modified Roundup Ready sugar beet seed until the USDA produces an environmental impact statement. Without GMO sugar beet seed on the market, commercial farmers are forced to go back to conventional seed—but finding conventional sugar beet seed is going to be a problem."

My heirloom seed-saver friends say to sow sugar beet seed in May and pull the beets in October, after the first hard frost, when they are sweeter. They are a good cool weather crop, and can be sown as early as soil can be worked. Sow 1/2" deep in rows 1 foot apart. Thin to 4", using the tender seedlings as early greens. A rich, light sandy loam, kept moist, is best for growing crisp, tender beets. Mature roots are about 8" long, some longer, weighing 2 - 5 pounds.

Sugar beet is a temperate climate biennial root crop. It produces sugar during the first year of growth in order to see it over the winter and then flowers and seeds in the second year. It is therefore sown in spring and harvested in the first autumn/early winter. The beet stores the sucrose in the bulbous root which bears a strong resemblance to a fat parsnip. Beets being biennial, they will produce seeds rather than beets the second year. If you plant some early in the spring for use that same year, you can plant more later in the summer, then you can save the summer beet plants to produce seed the following year. (They will flower the first year but no seeds.) In mild winter areas you can leave beets in the ground all winter.

In severe winter areas, you can dig the beets before the first frost and save some with the best roots to replant the following spring.To store them, treat them like carrots: cut off all but an inch or two of the tops and store them in a root cellar in damp sand or sawdust and fully covered. Not too wet or they will rot. These may be replanted in spring, where they will grow tall again, produce a flower, then a seed pod. Cut the stalks when the seed pods are dry to the touch, and hang upside down in a dry, ventilated area. You can cover the seedpods with a paper bag to collect the seeds as they dry and fall out, but some pods may need some help giving up the fully dry seeds...

The basic home procedure for obtaining sugar from sugar beets is just like making any other sweet syrup, whether cane syrup, ribbon cane syrup, maple syrup or sorghum molasses (all are sucrose), except beets do not readily crush at home to exude juice (unless you have a hydraulic press). The easy way is to shred the beets (clean well, remove green shoulder and any soft or bad spots), put them in a pot or pan, add a little water and cook until they are soft.

From there it is just like cooking down any sugary liquid into a thick syrup. Strain the juice through several layers of muslin or cheesecloth, squeeze the pulp to extract as much juice as possible. Put the filtered juice in a heavy pot and cook long and slow over low heat, keeping it below boiling. Any impurities will rise to the surface where they may be skimmed off. When it is as thick as molasses, let it cool, then transfer to a container (wider will make removal easier later on) with a loose cover for storage. (The loose cover is to let it continue to evaporate, and to keep it clean.)

Check it often. If there's too much moisture still in it, it could mold on top. If that happens, scrape the mold off and cook more of the moisture off. I have read to use a tight lid rather than a loose lid. I guess it depends on how much you have cooked it down.

The syrup will very slowly crystallize over time, just like cooked honey does, and quicker of course in a dry storage area. If some of it becomes hard, you could pound it into small chunks or crystal flakes. I suppose if you were most careful, you could probably cook it down almost to crystals instead of a thick syrup, but I'd be afraid of scorching it, tainting the taste of the whole batch.

Here's a link to the basic commercial beet sugar process.

One thing you may try as an experiment that will fascinate the kids (and make a good science project) is to make rock crystal candy. Put some cooled syrup in a jar with several inches between the top of the syrup and the top of the jar. Place a pencil across the top, and run a string from the pencil down into the syrup a few inches. Coarse cotton string like butcher's twine works best, and it's food-grade. Cover with a paper towel to keep clean. Store in a cool dry place. The sugar should precipitate crystals on the string, and they will continue to grow. (Growing rock candy crystal candy is dependent on the sugar saturation of the liquid. You may have to take some and dilute it to grow crystals. Trial and error?)

Our great grandparents may have used this beet syrup as a sweet spread on bread, perhaps as an 'icing' on a cake, to sweeten tea... In all likelihood, they used it in the curing of meats for the winter, and since sugar is topically antiseptic they probably used it in this manner too. In fact sugar was only used as a medicine (particularly in China and India) for centuries, and didn't became a 'common food' until well after the Spaniards introduced it to the West Indies.

I have read commercial processing of sugar beets into sugar is more complicated than the process for cane sugar, partly due to the odor, the presence of about 1.25% nitrogenous matter, and a comparatively large amount of salts (like magnesium salts). Molasses from sugar beets is about 50% sucrose. The objectionable odor and taste can be eliminated during home processing by completely removing the green shoulder (the part growing above ground) of the beets, avoiding cooking the juice in a copper pot, and storing the beets longer covered but frost-free before processing.

Other options for making sugar or sugar syrup at home include sorghum (sweet sorghum aka cane sorghum, not grain sorghum) and sugar maples. I have a friend in the next county who taps several kinds of trees for syrup: birch, box elder and black maple (the last 2 are maples just not the sugar maple). The process is all the same.

Making your own sugar from sugar beets, cane, sorghum or sugar maples (if you have access) may not be ideal, but if there is NO sugar available at all, it may come in handy.


  1. Just curious... what can be done with the pulp that is left over from the squeezing? Can it be used for anything useful or in some food recipe?

  2. my in-laws give beet pulp to their horses, although I don't know what their reasoning is for it (alternative feed? I don't know.. my horses were spoiled and unabashed junk food thieves.)

    Awesome post! Black walnut also can be tapped for syrup! (I think quite a few hardwood trees can be.)

  3. There is a lot of nutrition in the mangels (a type of beet) grown for livestock feed.


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