How to CookIndian

Take a Break From Brown Sugar & Use Jaggery Instead

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Commercial brown sugar, the type we add to our oatmeal, mix into cookie dough, and layer into coffee cakes, is made from refined white sugar; a controlled amount of molasses is added back in for flavor and moisture. It’s soft, moist, packs easily into measuring cups, and behaves well in recipes. But if you love brown sugar (who doesn’t?), you might fall even harder for its bolder, less predictable, and unabashedly unrefined sister—jaggery.

Jaggery is natural brown sugar made either from palm sap (from coconut, date, sago, or toddy palms) or from sugar cane juice. The sap or cane juice can be boiled and reduced to a crystalline syrup before being poured into molds to harden, or vigorously mixed and scraped so it becomes granulated. Either way, it retains that brown hue, as well as loads of flavor—think fruity, earthy, almost spicy caramel, or buttery toffee, possibly with notes of smoke. All of this depends on the cane or sap itself, the locale, and methods used to produce it.

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Nik Sharma, the San Francisco–based blogger behind abrowntable and author of Season: Big Flavors, Beautiful Food tells me that the merchants around here (where we both live) bring in cane jaggery because they hail from parts of India where cane is the norm, whereas in coastal areas, including his native Goa, palm is preferred. Always in pursuit of flavor, I went looking for jaggery at the four Indian stores in Berkeley, hoping to taste both the cane and the palm varieties. I found plenty—but I also found some confusion. Most of the labels list “cane juice” as an ingredient, even when “palm jaggery” is touted on the front label. That may be because jaggery production is generally a cottage industry, and not highly regulated—this may explain the inconsistent labeling. Regardless, I brought home a lot of jaggery.

Jaggery comes in cubes, half dome shapes, pyramids, or amorphous lumps that vary in hardness—and, less often around here, in granulated form. Color varies from golden brown to a color darker than commercial dark brown sugar. Some go soft if you squeeze or knead them in your hands—others remain hard and must be shaved, grated, or hacked with a knife before using. The stuff is delicious right out of the bag—and begs to be eaten like candy (which is how a lot of South Asians I know like to eat it).

Jaggery Shortbread
Jaggery Shortbread

One of the best tasting-brands, Anand, offered light or dark cubes made from cane, according to the ingredient label. I chose dark (why go light when you can go dark, methinks) and used them successfully to replace the brown sugar in my brown sugar shortbread recipe. Another delicious one (with palm sugar in the ingredient statement) was also fairly hard, but had a finer, more tender, melt-in-your-mouth texture than the others—exactly like a giant chunk of pure maple sugar. If palm jaggery is to the palm tree what maple sugar is to the maple tree, perhaps that finer texture is one of the distinguishing characteristics of palm jaggery? I still don’t know for sure (yet!)—but that didn’t stop me from experimenting with jaggery.

Here are the obvious, no-brainer, ways to enjoy jaggery: Definitely sweeten your coffee or tea with it. Definitely put a giant lump atop your porridge! Serve jaggery with strawberries and yogurt or sour cream, use it in fruit compotes and salads. Anywhere you might sprinkle or sweeten with white or brown sugar, try some jaggery instead. You can replace brown sugar with jaggery to make toffee sauce, or can replace the dark muscovado sugar with dark jaggery in my Flan with Muscovado Sauce.

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I suspect you can (and I plan to) substitute jaggery for the brown sugar fillings in sticky buns, coffee cakes, babka, and pull-apart bread, as well as the saucy mixture at the bottom of pineapple and other upside down cakes. I also see no reason why jaggery couldn’t be used to sweeten the fruit portion of crisps, crumble, and cobblers.

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However, baking jaggery—as in, times where jaggery would need to be mixed into a batter or dough—can be trickier. I’d love to say that it substitutes perfectly for regular brown sugar and just makes everything better and more flavorful. It’s not that simple.

Jaggery contains more moisture than ordinary brown sugar and its moisture content (and possibly its acidity) varies among brands. This makes it unpredictable, but not impossible, to bake with. Cookies that are normally a bit crispy or crunchy (even just at the edges) or even chewy may come out softer or cakier or they may spread more when jaggery replaces brown sugar. If you are willing to experiment and can tolerate a few surprises and a little imperfection—jaggery is worth playing with. I can’t imagine many “failures” that won’t taste good enough to eat in some fashion. Choose recipes where the flavor of the jaggery will have the most impact. I tried chocolate chip cookies and found that the chocolate overpowered the jaggery and I didn’t love the extra soft cookie that it produced. On the other hand, I found a whole new cakey spice cookie when I substituted jaggery in my otherwise chewy-with-crunchy-edges ginger cookies.

Maybe Sprinkle Some On This?

I found that relatively hard cubes of jaggery (harder = less moisture, I reasoned!), whether grated or smashed, worked well in my brown sugar shortbread. My original recipe with pecans, brown sugar, and rum has a very Western—as in hemisphere (otherwise Southern, actually!)—flavor profile, and did not include any spices. Once I tasted it with jaggery, I instinctively reached towards the spice drawer for cinnamon, to which I added options for nutmeg and then cardamom. I think that’s the jaggery speaking to me.

Or, I think that’s the jaggery speaking!

Jaggery Shortbread

Jaggery Shortbread

Alice Medrich Alice Medrich
Makes 25 small squares
  • 12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks/170 grams) unsalted butter, melted and warm
  • 1/2 cup packed (100 grams) grated dark jaggery (or 100 grams of jaggery chunks, pounded until lump-free)
  • 1 tablespoon dark rum, optional
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt (I use fine sea salt)
  • 1 1/2 cups (190 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2/3 cup (75 grams) pecans or salted roasted cashews, very coarsely chopped
  • 1 piece jaggery for grating/sprinkling on top
  • 1 or more spices for grating/sprinkling: whole nutmeg, cinnamon stick, cardamom seeds crushed with a mortar and pestle
Go to Recipe

Are you a jaggery fan? Tell us how you like to eat it!

Tags: Dessert, Tips & Techniques, Alice Medrich