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Unorthodox Cooking: Sugar, Sugar

You may be used to baking with sugar, but incorporating it into savory dishes is another story. Sugar obviously makes things sweet, so we think of it as being exclusively in desserts or baked goods. But adding sugar to sauces, stews, dressings, meat, and vegetable dishes can dramatically enhance their flavor.

To be clear, I’m not talking about “Elf"-style maple syrup all over your spaghetti. Flavoring food is about balance. The sweetness of sugar contrasts bitter, salty, or sour flavors and tempers heat in savory recipes, creating a more rounded flavor profile.

You may know more about this balancing act than you think! It’s why fruit, jam, and honey often appear on your cheese plate. Sugar is probably hiding in some of your favorite dishes.

Take curry sauces, for example. The best versions use sugar for a touch of sweetness to strike the perfect balance with curry’s naturally bitter flavor. Tomato sauce is another familiar favorite, the sugar is used to contrast the naturally sour, astringent flavors of tomatoes. Finally, meat rubs often use sugar to balance meat’s umami flavor, and also to tenderize the meat itself.

You can sweeten your dinnertime recipes in a variety of ways, including adding syrups, fruit, sweet wines/liqueurs, and various crystallized sugar varieties. But, use caution as you get started. The purpose of sweetening savory dishes is to create balance. Add small amounts of sugar at a time, and taste food as it cooks to create the perfect flavor profile. Check out these fall-inspired recipes that use a touch of sweetness:

DIY Salad Dressing

cooking, sugar, recipes

Art Credit: Haruka Sakaguchi

Making your own dressing is a quick way to impress your dinner guests, and most of us already have these ingredients in our pantry. Adding sugar balances the sour flavors of the vinegar, citrus and mustard. Adjust the recipe below for serving size and make it your own with your kitchen’s staples or special favorites. You can also make extra and store it covered in your refrigerator—just whisk before re-using.

2 parts vinegar (such as apple cider, balsamic, sherry)
1 part lemon juice
1 part mustard (such as Dijon or whole-grain)
1 part seasonings (try minced garlic and chopped fresh herbs)
1 part sweetness (such as honey, agave or jam)
2 parts plant-based oil (such as walnut or olive)
Salt and Pepper

Whisk everything together except the oil. Slowly drizzle in oil while continuing to whisk. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Braised Cabbage

The bitterness of cabbage, sweetness of molasses, and sourness of vinegar are a perfect flavor trio in this hearty vegetable dish.

cooking, sugar, recipes

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, cut in half and sliced thin
1 head purple cabbage, core removed and sliced into ½-inch strips
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons molasses (substitute brown sugar if preferred)
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2/3 cup apple cider vinegar
approximately 3/4 to 1 cup vegetable stock

In a large Dutch oven or heavy pot, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring frequently, until soft and browning, about 5 minutes.

Add cabbage and cook about 5 minutes, until wilted. Season with salt and pepper.

Add molasses, mustard, vinegar and ¾ cup vegetable stock. Stir to combine. Bring to light boil, and then turn heat to low.

Cover with lid and simmer approximately 40 minutes, stirring occasionally, until cabbage is very soft and liquid is evaporated. Add additional vegetable stock as needed. Serve warm.

Smokey Kabocha Black Bean Chili

Serves 12
Prep time 30 minutes
Cook time 4 hours

cooking, sugar, recipes

In this hearty, vegetarian recipe, the sweet maple syrup and kabocha squash contrast the traditional chili spices and the bitterness of the hops from the beer. The result is a mouthful of flavor!

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 onions, diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup chili powder, divided
2 tablespoons ground coriander, divided
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
Salt and black pepper
3 chilis in adobo, drained and chopped
1 12 oz. can fire roasted tomatoes
3 cups dried or fresh black beans, rinsed
2 cans (32 oz.) IPA (I use LA local favorite, Golden Road Brewery Burning Bush Smoked IPA)
4 cups vegetable stock
3 tablespoons maple syrup
1 small kabocha squash (Japanese pumpkin), flesh only, peeled, diced (approximately 3 cups diced)
1 cup bulgur wheat

Heat oil in heavy, large saucepot over medium heat. Add onion and cook until translucent (about 5 minutes).

Add garlic, 2 tablespoons chili powder, 1 tablespoon coriander, the oregano, cayenne pepper, salt and black pepper. Stir to combine and cook another 1-2 minutes.

Add chilis, tomatoes, and black beans. Stir together and cook about 5 minutes.

Add beer, vegetable stock, and maple syrup and bring to a boil for 10 minutes, stirring frequently.

Turn heat to low, cover pot with lid, and simmer approximately 2.5 hours. Stir frequently.

After first hour, add remaining chili powder and coriander to taste.

Add squash and cook 30 minutes.

Add bulgur and cook another 30 minutes.

Serve with sour cream, jalapeno rings and cheese as desired.

Chili can be made up to 4 days ahead and reheated. It also freezes well.

Check out Suzanne Hollander's musings on delicious food and healthy living at

(Photo by Haruka Sakaguchi)