Introduction: Making Sugar From Sugar Beets
I've always enjoyed learning new skills, and especially learning about how to do or make things that I take for granted. As I've gotten more into canning and preserving food, I noticed just how much sugar I was using. In addition to being a sweetener, sugar is useful for dehydrating fruits and is itself a preservative.
There is some research and information online about using liquid sweeteners such as honey in preserving, but most recipes call for granular sugar. Syrups such as maple syrup or sorghum are typically not used, as they impart a strong flavor on whatever is being preserved.
I looked around online for a few years trying to find good information on creating sugar from beets at home, and didn't come up with much. A few blogs that posted about this process were sorely lacking on specific information and pictures. Nevertheless, their information was a great starting point into the process.
However, I figured the best way to learn was to take the plunge and just do it myself.
I tried two batches of beet sugar- the first was a failure, and is not included here. The second was relatively successful, and I think is a good starting point to anyone who wants to try to do this themselves. This working recipe is what follows here.
Step 1: A Little Bit About Sugar Beets
Sugar beets aren't your standard round, purple beets like you find at the store or the farmer's market. They are a separate species grown specifically for their high sugar content- they average approximately 15% sucrose by weight. Traditionally they are used for animal fodder, which leads some people to think they are not fit for human consumption.
The beet greens are edible and supposedly similar to swiss chard; I did not try this myself, however. The beets themselves were like taking a bite out of any other raw beet.
I purchased the seeds online from Pine Tree Seeds; with some research they should be easy to find, though they are not common. I planted the beets in 3 rows in a patch approximately 18" by 5 feet, in sandy clay soil. I watered them regularly throughout summer and waited until after the first hard frost in November to harvest them. Waiting until after a hard frost is supposed to convert a lot of starches in the roots and leaves into sugar. The beets were dug with a regular spading fork, and in total weighed around 30 pounds.
Step 2: The General Recipe
After searching online for how to make beet sugar, I found a number of similarities between techniques. The basic method is as follows, with a few modifications of my own. It is largely complied from other sources:
- Wash, peel, and remove bad parts of beets. I chose to remove the green skinned parts of the beets, as they seemed to be much darker and softer on the inside (see picture).
- Shred or dice beets, then cover with water in a large pot.
- Bring to a boil, then simmer until beets are tender. This was between 1 and 2 hours for me.
- Drain the liquid from the beets. Collect the beet pulp in a strainer lined with cheese cloth or similar material.
- Press liquid from the beet pulp and combine with the rest of the sugar water.
- Reduce sugar water until it turns amber brown and has a consistency like honey.
- Allow to crystalize.
The industrial method for creating beet sugar is much more complex than this. I would also like to mention that the method above will create something very much like raw sugar or brown sugar. That is, it creates sugar that has not had its molasses separated out. I was unable to find good information on how to do this without a large industrial centrifuge. As a result, it will not taste anything like regular white sugar.
A large part of industrial beet sugar production involves removing minerals and impurities from the sugar water. In an effort to reduce the amount going in to my test batches, I chose to skin the beets and remove any parts of the beet that were brown on the interior. Unfortunately, this resulted in discarding a large portion of my beets by weight- over one third.
Step 3: Preparing the Beets and Boiling the Pulp
I picked out 10 pounds of beets for a batch of sugar. After peeling and trimming off the bad parts, I was left with about 5 pounds of beets.
I washed, peeled, and trimmed the beets as in the previous step. I decided to shred the beets using a cheese grater instead of slicing them. A food processor could also make this go quickly. I thought it would allow for a higher surface area of beet for creating the sugar water.
I filled a stock pot with shredded beet and topped with water, then brought to a boil. I simmered the beet slivers until they were very soft and falling apart, stirring regularly.
I strained the sugar water out of the pot, then squeezed the beet pulp in a cloth to get more liquid out. This took a while, as the beet pulp clogged the cloth and left some liquid behind. A press of some sort would probably be more efficient, but I was using equipment I already had on hand in my kitchen.
The resulting sugar solution can be seen in the glass in the last picture. It had something of a beet aftertaste, but was already very sweet and pleasant on its own.
Step 4: Reducing and Cooling
Next, I poured all of the sugar water into a clean stock pot and brought it to a simmer/low boil. I boiled it down until it was greatly reduced, a fairly thick carmel-colored liquid, as shown in the first picture. It was very much the color and smell of molasses.
I poured the molasses into aluminum foil pans- a first (failed) batch got stuck to a good baking tray, so I wanted to something I was less attached to. Two of the pans I seeded with a sprinkle of regular white sugar; the other two I left alone. The purpose of the added sugar (barely any) was to provide the sugar already in the syrup something to grab onto and crystallize. I had heard about this method and wanted to see if there was anything to it.
Step 5: Sugar Is Formed
After 2 days, the molasses had already begun to thicken- it was pulling away from the edges of the pan and was very viscous when I tipped the pans on their sides.
After about 2 weeks (15 or 16 days) the molasses had almost completely crystalized, as shown in the third picture. This pan was one which had added sugar. You can see the hard crust of sugar which has formed across the top of the entire pan. The fourth picture shows a pan without added sugar, and the difference is striking. Adding seed sugar to the molasses after it's cool clearly makes a difference.
One pan had a strange bull's eye formation in it, shown in the last picture. I'm not sure what caused this- to be safe, I chipped it out and threw it away.
Step 6: Processing the Sugar
One of the trays was accidentally filled much thicker with molasses than the other three, and was also seeded with sugar. It had the interesting effect of allowing sugar to crystallize below the top crust, as shown in the first picture. Next year, I'll experiment with seeing how depth of the molasses matters when the sugar is forming.
The second picture shows a close-up of some pieces of the top crust of the sugar. Notice the crystal structure forming all over. Some pockets had molasses mixed in with the sugar, while others (as on the right) seemed to be much more pure sugar.
To process the sugar down, I broke small pieces about the size of a fingertip out of the trays. Because the trays were aluminum, I could just flex the bottom and it broke up well on its own.
At first I tried pounding the sugar apart by putting it in a plastic bag and hitting it with a meat tenderizer. This left me with a small amount of finely powdered sugar, a lot of large pieces, and a ripped-up plastic bag.
I settled on using a clean pepper mill (the kind you find full of whole peppercorns in the grocery store) and this seems to work pretty well. It's time-consuming, however; a flour or grain mill might also work if you have one of those. The pepper mill gave me a well-ground sugar about the size of regular sugar crystals.
From the 5 pounds of beets I started with, I wound up with just under 1 pound of sugar, which is right in that 15-20% sucrose range you can expect from sugar beets.
Step 7: In Conclusion
So there you have it, how to make your own sugar at home using sugar beets. I encourage you to give this a try yourself- just seeing how much work goes into producing sugar was an eye-opener for me.
The sugar itself tastes more strongly of regular molasses than of beets. This is because there is, in fact, molasses still in the sugar. However, it is sweet and crunchy, which I think is the most important thing.
This coming year, I will experiment with other methods of growing sugar beets, as well as trying to separate the molasses from the sugar to make a more refined, sweeter sugar.
I will also be doing a side-by-side comparison using my own beet sugar against store-bought sugar for use in canning fruit preserves, so look for that sometime this summer.
Thanks for reading! If you have any comments or ideas, I would love to hear from you.