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Why you shouldn’t fear a little sugar in savoury cooking

WASHINGTON (THE WASHINGTON POST) – Sugar is among the most talked-about ingredients we use in cooking, right up there with salt. Often, it’s downright contentious.

Over the years I have been publishing recipes, I’ve come to expect questions, comments and criticism about the amount of sugar, the type of sugar and even its very presence. That’s especially true any time a savoury dish calls for sugar.

The reactions range from genuine curiosity – what purpose does it serve? – to hostility, along the lines of: “Why does sugar have to be in everything?!”

As I’ve written about baking, the purpose of sugar is not just to make food taste sweet.

Whether you add that pinch of sugar to a savoury recipe is up to you, but here’s why you shouldn’t fear it – and why you should strongly consider it.

A little sugar has its place in savoury cooking. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Sugar can mask undesirable flavors and enhance others

Sweet is one of the five basic tastes, along with salty, sour, bitter and umami. “Sugar has some desirable flavour interactions,” including softening or masking sourness and bitterness, says Paul Wise, an associate member at the Monell chemical senses centre.

Sugar can also counteract saltiness, especially if you’ve over-seasoned your dish, as my colleague Daniela Galarza wrote.

Sugar, whether granulated or another form such as honey, maple syrup or molasses, does more than just one-on-one combat with other tastes. “A dash of sugar in savoury dishes has a complex, indirect impact on flavour, amping up tastes that might otherwise fade into the background,” Cook’s Illustrated writes.

“A little bit of this and a little bit of that makes a whole lot of something,” says Danielle Reed, associate director at Monell, in describing the X-factor of a dish’s “overall yum.” “One of the unsolved mysteries of taste is what happens when we say something enhances flavour.”

She and Wise offer a few possibilities. One is that because the sweet and umami receptors on the tongue have one part in common, sugar may also partially activate the umami taste, the mouth-filling savoury, satisfying sensation often associated with ingredients such as MSG, soy sauce, tomato paste and more. Wise says that sugar may be “tickling secondary mechanisms” in the tongue’s taste cells that mimic mechanisms in the gut, sending additional signals to our brain. There’s also a possibility that even subtle sweetness can enhance aromas, in part because of the learned association between the way certain foods smell and taste, Wise says.

Sugar can improve mouth-feel

Just as it may enhance flavour, sugar “can impart a nice desirable mouth-feel,” Wise says. How sugar affects the physical sensation food creates in our mouth is as unclear as its overall impact on taste.

Sugar is effective in even small amounts

If you’re well-practiced in seasoning your food to taste – and you really should be! – you’ll know that whether it’s sugar, salt, pepper, vinegar or whatever, you want to add a little bit at a time until it tastes right to you. At a certain point, that final pinch or splash will make everything click. And it won’t necessarily take a lot.

“The tongue is one of the most amazing chemical detectors on the planet,” Reed says. It is sensitive to the concentration of a micromolar, or one-millionth of a mole per litre. (I could try to explain this with exponents, but trust me, it’s very small.)

Scale and portion size are important for keeping perspective, too. In my Sausage, Spinach and Goat Cheese Lasagna, I call for one teaspoon of granulated sugar (plus more to taste) to take the edge off a sauce made with two 28-ounce cans of crushed tomatoes. That teaspoon may sound like a lot, but look at the servings: The dish feeds 10 to 12 people, so it’s one-tenth to one-twelfth teaspoon of added sugar per serving. If, for example, you are sticking to the American Heart Association’s recommendations on limiting added sugars to no more than 6 per cent of daily calories, that amounts to six teaspoons for most American women and nine teaspoons for men.

Sugar assists with flavourful browning

Sugar is a key component in the browning reaction known as Maillard, in which it interacts with the amino acids of proteins, creating a cascade of new flavours and aroma compounds, with several hundred possibilities. Maillard can occur with the natural sugars present in food, but a little sugar added to a spice rub, brine or glaze will enhance the effect, along with equally flavourful caramelisation. Sugar can also speed up the process of caramelizing onions.

Sugar in moderation will not ruin your diet

Our Nourish columnist, Ellie Krieger, a cookbook author and dietician nutritionist, says it better than I ever could: “Whenever I put the tiniest bit of sweetener in a recipe, I get emails asking how I can possibly claim a dish is healthful when it contains sugar…

“When it comes to sugar – or white flour, or bacon or butter, for that matter – while it’s best kept to a minimum, that doesn’t mean a little will ruin the healthfulness of a recipe, or your diet overall. Having such an extreme view of what qualifies as good-for-you is unnecessary, and can ultimately backfire.

“Rather, taking a more flexible approach, eating mostly nutrient-rich foods but feeling free to incorporate less-healthful ingredients in small amounts, using them strategically to maximise the pleasure of eating well, is a more sustainable path to well-being in the long run.”

Grilled Brown Sugar Skirt Steak, with a three-ingredient rub. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Be smart about using sugar

People are sensitive to different levels of taste, including sugar, Wise says. The amount of sugar it takes for something to taste right or veer into cloying varies, which is why it’s helpful to keep an open mind and a willingness to experiment.

Having a light touch is smart from both a health and flavour perspective. “There’s a certain disgust when something tastes sweet that isn’t supposed to,” Reed says. “If you consciously are perceiving the sugar…you’re going to think it’s too sweet.”

Using sugar for flavour balance is easiest in dishes where it can seamlessly dissolve and be adjusted on the fly, often right before serving, though you can taste throughout cooking as well. At the top of my list would be sauces, stews, soups and salad dressings.

Keep in mind that not all sweeteners are created equal, so adjust accordingly. Honey, maple syrup and agave nectar are sweeter than granulated sugar, while molasses is less. – Becky Krystal