White sugar is really good at making things sweet, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of flavor. This is what drove Shauna Sever—an avowed sugar lover who once wrote a whole book on marshmallows—to investigate and ultimately embrace natural sweeteners like maple syrup, honey, agave nectar and coconut sugar. It’s not about diet, says Sever. It’s about flavor.
Sever found that alternative sweeteners could create better, more nuanced versions of her favorite desserts. Her newest cookbook, Real Sweet, offers a tremendous amount of advice—and delicious recipes—to anyone interested in ditching white sugar. Here, Sever answers our questions about coconut sugar.
What is coconut sugar?
Coconut sugar is the evaporated and granulated sap of the flower of the coconut palm tree. It typically comes from Southeast Asia—specifically Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines—where it’s been the main sweetener for thousands of years. “It’s just new to us,” says Sever.
What does coconut sugar taste like?
“Coconut sugar tastes nothing like coconut,” insists Sever. “You have to put that out there, because coconut is one of those polarizing foods—like cilantro.” Sever likens the flavor to that of brown sugar, but describes it as fuller, slightly toasted and with appealing smoky and musky qualities. She finds coconut sugar to be slightly less sweet than white sugar, which isn’t a negative, just something to keep in mind.
Why should I use coconut sugar?
While there are some health benefits loosely associated with coconut sugar (it’s considered a low-glycemic-index sweetener, and because it’s less processed, it may retain more nutrients), the best reason to use it is to create new and different flavor experiences. “I’m always looking for ways to put a twist on classic desserts, and this was really the next step for me,” says Sever.
When and how should I use coconut sugar?
Packages of coconut sugar tend to say it can be swapped 1:1 for granulated white sugar in any recipe. It’s unlikely to be a disaster if you follow this rule, but Sever thinks coconut sugar has a drying quality that makes it better suited to recipes with plenty of fat or moisture. She recommends starting with banana bread. “You’re going to have some kind of oil or butter, and then you’ve got all that banana purée, which has tons of moisture, so it’s really hard to mess up.”
Sever also likes to use coconut sugar to make toffee and caramel because for candy, less moisture is actually a good thing. Keep in mind that coconut sugar burns at a lower temperature than white sugar, so stick to candies that are cooked only to the soft-ball (234° to 240°) or soft-crack (270° to 290°) stage, and keep a close eye to make sure the coconut sugar doesn’t burn. “It smells like burning tires, and that’s the worst smell ever,” warns Sever.
Where can I buy coconut sugar?
Natural food stores always carry coconut sugar, but Sever has also seen it at Costco and says it’s showing up at more and more supermarkets. She recommends Wholesome Sweeteners—which you can find at major retailers like Whole Foods, Albertsons, Kroger and Walmart—and Madhava Sweeteners, another widely available brand. Coconut sugar isn’t the cheapest of sweeteners, but buying in bulk is a great way to save money. If you can’t find it locally, coconut sugar is easily available online.
Read the label carefully to make sure you’re getting coconut sugar (also called coconut palm sugar) and not palm sugar, which comes from various types of palm trees and is a different sweetener. Coconut sugar should be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry place, just like regular brown or white sugar. It has a tendency to get clumpy, but any clumps break up easily.