This week’s question comes from Ray Ammon, who wants to know:
“I love crème brûlée, but have often wondered which is the best ‘sugar’ to use to get the best results. Demerara, turbinado, caster, or just plain?”
Every week, it seems, I discover whole new levels of cooking geekdom. I mean, who outside of a pastry kitchen knew there were so many varieties of sugar? I did some serious digging—otherwise known as Googling—and found the sugar.org site, which lists these types of white, brown, and liquid sugars: regular white sugar, extra-fine white sugar, fine white sugar, fruit sugar, bakers special sugar, superfine, (also known as ultrafine or bar sugar), confectioners (or powdered sugar), coarse sugar, sanding sugar, turbinado sugar, brown sugar, (light and dark), muscovado (or Barbados sugar), free-flowing brown sugar, demerara sugar, and invert sugar.
I suspect the sugar geeks out there can add even more to this list.
They don’t come much geekier than David Guas, the executive pastry chef for Passion Food Hospitality (which includes DC Coast, TenPenh, Ceiba, and Acadiana) who’s striking out on his own next month with DamGoodSweet Consulting Group. Oh, yeah, Guas is also publishing a dessert cookbook and opening Bayou Bakery next year. The dude knows sugar.
Ray’s question certainly cracked the sugar glaze on Guas’ brain, which immediately overflowed with advice for the at-home pastry cook. In the end, Guas says, the “best” crème brûlée is the one you like, and any one of the sugars that Ray mentions would work fine, depending on your preference. He personally likes his brûlée to emphasize the custard, not the crackly coating. So he tends to avoid the brown and coarse sugars.
“I love textured sugars. I love the raw, the turbinado. I love all of that for certain things,” Guas says. But the brown sugars, he adds, “have molasses in there, so it’s going to burn differently and caramelize differently. You’re also adding a different flavor, so the sugars take on different flavors even in the raw stage that you can pick up on after they’re burned. So, for me, the most sort of neutral [sugar] to use [is] just a nice granulated sugar—a cane sugar.”
“It’s just the most cleanest sort of flavor,” Guas continues, “It’s the most mild. It’s not full-bodied because usually when I’m doing brûlée, the actual flavors are inside the brûlée, and I don’t want them to be masked by a heavier sugar.”
And though you didn’t ask, Guas has other advice for your brûlée, Ray: Avoid superfine and ultrafine sugars because the custard will absorb their sweetness, and don’t sprinkle too much sugar on your custard otherwise you’ll be “left with a quarter-inch glass force-field that you have to take a jackhammer to crack open.” Also, if you’re making the dessert for a dinner party, prepare each hard-caramel coating separately.
“Sprinkle the sugar on each brûlée right before it’s torched,” Guas says. “Don’t, like, sit there and sprinkle all of them and then start torching them, because the custard immediately begins to absorb some of the sugar…It [then] won’t torch properly. It won’t give the clean burn of the sugar. It’ll end up…torching the custard.”
Ray, if you have any more questions, I suspect David Guas will be happy to answer those, too. As long as you say please, with granulated, non-superfine cane sugar on top.