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A Spoonful of Sugar

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

I did a search through my 165 dish cookbook and quickly found over 25 savory recipes that had a pinch of sugar, or more, whether white, light, or dark brown. So I began to think about when and why sugar is called for in a recipe that is not primarily sweet.

Deviled Eggs, Onion Soup, Fried Rice, and Oven Brisket from The Infinite Feast cookbook.

In onion soup it brings out the caramelized flavor of the onions, then complements the wine and the beef broth. In tomato soup or Italian red gravy it adds personality and can compensate for the fact that you might be making your sauce when tomatoes are out of season and thus are less sweet. It spices up beef dishes such as the vegetable/bacon base of a Bourguignon, the rub for a brisket, or the sweet ‘n sour of party meatballs.

It de-acidifies the soy sauce and rice wine in Asian recipes (chop suey, fried rice, Kung Pao shrimp), as well as the vinegar in my salads like cold English pea and Hawaiian macaroni. It goes so well with mayo and is a friend to mustard, say in deviled eggs.

I put it in my taco seasoning, my German green beans, my Polynesian chicken marinade. It’s essential in my Roquefort dip. Chicken and dumplings welcomes a whole tablespoon to brighten up its vegetables, white wine and chicken broth. Jambalaya similarly benefits because of its vegetables and broth and tomatoes.

So as you can see, sometimes it plays a chemical role, sometimes purely a flavor-enhancing one.

Think about adding a spoonful of sugar to soups, Asian recipes, beef, tomato-based dishes, salad dressings and dips, and anything with vinegar, wine, fruit juice, or some other lively acid as a primary ingredient. You’ll be glad you did!

Recipes referred to in this article are from "The Infinite Feast: How to Host the Ones You Love—Recipes from the Big Easy . . . and Beyond" by Brian Theis, 2020.

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