We Have A Sweet Tooth
Most of us crave sweet foods and consume them in unhealthy quantities. If faced with food shortages or a breakdown of our infrastructure, we will have trouble getting our hands on refined white sugar. Why not start now and learn how to grow, process, and use some natural replacements that are much healthier?
What Do We Need Sugar For?
- Baking – if you want cookies, cakes and pies, you want them to be a bit sweet.
- Canning – sugar brings out the natural flavor of canned fruits, pickles, and tomato sauce.
- Jams and jellies – many will not gel properly without sugar.
- Sweeten tart foods – sugar makes some foods more palatable. Think rhubarb.
- Comfort foods – important to our psychological well being in a survival situation.
Natural Sweeteners And How To Process Them
There are a number of natural sweeteners that can be raised and processed for home consumption. Choose the plants that grow best in your region and start now. Some of these plants take a long time to reach maturity, so don’t wait!
Sweeteners For Cold Climates
It’s unlikely that you will raise sugar cane in a sunny window in northern areas, so check out these alternatives.
- Maple or Birch Sugar: Maple, birch, and box elder trees are tapped for their sap in late winter to make syrup and sugar. Cook sap in evaporator pans to remove moisture and create syrup. This takes a very long time and you’ll need an ample supply of firewood. Syrup can be stored by bringing up to 190 Fahrenheit, pour into sterile canning jars, screw lids on tight and set jars on their side to seal. To make sugar, bring syrup to 252-257 degrees Fahrenheit, skim foam off, then pour immediately into a large metal pan. Stir until sugar crystals begin to form. Cool thoroughly and grate for sugar. If the air is humid, the sugar will be sticky. Maple syrup can be used in canning recipes or baked goods to replace sugar. Use 2/3 cup syrup to replace 1 cup sugar and reduce liquid by 3 Tbs. The flavor will be somewhat different and the oven temperature should be reduced by 25 degrees. Replace white sugar with 2/3’s the amount of maple sugar in recipes.
- Honey: Let the bees harvest the sweets for you! It must be extracted from the honey comb to use in recipes. Honey is a delicious, all natural alternative to sugar and can be used in baking or canning. To replace white or brown sugar in baked goods use ¾ cup plus 1 Tsp honey for each cup of sugar. Reduce the liquid in the recipe by 3 Tbs (liquids such as milk, water, or oil) and add ¼ tsp baking soda to counteract the acidity of the honey. Reduce baking temperature by 25 degrees Fahrenheit. When using honey in canned goods, reduce to 3/4 cup (you can add the extra Tbs, but I don’t) for each cup of sugar. Keep in mind that fruits canned with honey will take on a darker appearance in storage. This doesn’t harm the flavor of the food. *Do not give honey to children 1 year old or younger, as there is a risk of honey botulism poisoning. If you’re allergic to bees, honey is probably not the sweetener for you, unless you can barter for it.
- Concentrated fruit juice: Old fashioned cider or grape presses can be used to squeeze apples, grapes, or other fruit to harvest the juice for sweetening foods. Cook over low heat for several hours to increase the sugar content. The resulting concentrate is poured into sterile jars and processed in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes for quart jars (at 1001-6000 ft altitude). It works great for sweetening canned fruits, tomato sauce, and pickles, or it can be used in place of water or milk in baked goods. Reduce sweetener to compensate. This may take a little experimentation. The amount of sugar in the concentrate will depend on how sweet the fruit was and how much water has been cooked out.
- Sugar Beets: Sugar beets grow just like any other beet, but store more sugar in their roots. Plant seeds as early in the spring as the soil can be worked. Harvest after the first frost for the highest concentration of sugar. Scrub all the dirt off the beets and cut off the beet greens with a little bit of the ‘shoulder’ to prevent dirt from getting into your sugar. Feed the tops to livestock or cook up greens for dinner. Cut or grate sugar beets into small pieces, barely cover with water. Cook over medium heat until the beets are tender. Line a colander with 2 or 3 layers of cheese cloth and place on top of a large bowl. Pour the beets and juice into the colander. You can eat the beets or squeeze the juice out of them for more sugar. Return liquid to pan and cook over low to medium low heat until thick like honey. Allow to cool and store in a clean container to crystallize. This process takes several months. The crystals can be strained from the syrup to use as needed. Or, you can cook the syrup down until crystals begin to form, speeding the process. Beet sugar has a different flavor than white sugar and it doesn’t caramelize. Replace white sugar with equal amounts of beet sugar in canning and baking recipes.
- Sorghum: Sweet sorghum is grown in dry regions to produce sorghum syrup or sorghum molasses. Crush canes and squeeze through a press to remove the sweet juice. Bring juice to a boil in an evaporator pan, stir often and simmer for 2 ½ hours. As it cooks, a skin will form over the top and should be skimmed. When the sorghum reaches the consistency of honey, ladle it into sterile jars for storage. Sorghum syrup has a distinct flavor. It can be used in place of sugar, but is generally not recommended for replacing all of the sugar in a recipe for baked goods, as it will change the results. If you do replace all of the sugar with sorghum syrup, you will increase to 1 1/3 the amount of sugar with sorghum and reduce the liquid in the recipe by 1/3. Replacing sugar in canning recipes also requires the extra sorghum and will change the flavor.
Sweeteners For Hot Climates
Some of the above sweeteners can be grown and harvested in hot climates. Fruit juice, sorghum and sugar beets can be grown and honey bees will happily do the work for you in southern areas. The following list can also be grown in areas with warm winters.
- Sugar cane: Sugar cane can be grown in tropical areas to make raw sugar. To process the sugar cane, remove all leaves and husks, wash to remove any dirt, and chop into small pieces. Place in a large pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil over medium high heat, and immediately reduce to a simmer. Cook until the canes are tender, remove from heat. Strain through a colander and press to remove as much juice as possible. Return the juice back to the pan and cook over low heat for several hours, stirring often to avoid burning. When it reaches the consistency of molasses, turn heat off and allow it to cool slowly until just warm. Pour into clean containers to allow the crystallization process to begin. Strain crystals from the syrup as they form and allow to drip dry on a cloth to achieve a dry sugar consistency. The juice can also be used in canning recipes or baking to replace sugar by reducing the amount of liquid in the recipe. Follow the same instructions for sorghum and adjust if too sweet.
- Agave nectar: Agave grows in USDA zones 9-11, likes full sun and very sandy soil. To harvest for agave nectar, the plant will need to grow for 6-10 years. Cut it just before it flowers. The thick outer leaves must be cut away to expose the pina, or heart of the plant. Wash the pina thoroughly and chop into chunks. Arrange in a single layer in pans and roast at 118-160 degrees Fahrenheit for 40-72 hours. After 3 or 4 hours, pour out the bitter juice and return pans to oven. Care must be taken to check progress often. The process will be done when the pina turns a rust color. Pour off the resulting syrup and seal in sterile jars. When using agave nectar in baked goods and canning recipes, use 2/3 cup for every 1 cup of white sugar and reduce the amount of liquid by 1Tbsp. Reduce baking temperatures by 25 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent over browning.
- Stevia: Stevia is a sweet plant that can be grown outdoors in areas that are USDA zone 8 and warmer. In northern areas it can be grown as an annual. The leaves may be harvested and used to sweeten beverages, sauces, and some dairy foods. However, stevia is not suitable for replacing sugar in baked goods or canned goods, as high temperatures cause it to become bitter. Keep in mind that stevia does not provide calories, it only provides a sweet taste to your raw foods.
Having a few sweets to nibble on in the winter will help raise your spirits and provide energy for surviving in a post SHTF world. Raise several different crops to replace white sugar in case one crop fails or doesn’t provide enough sweetener for the winter. Start collecting the materials needed for refining your sweets and stock up on extra seed, plant more maple trees, or get started in bee keeping to provide your family with healthier natural sweeteners now.