Alternative sugars (and flours) are increasingly available to shoppers, and palm sugar is one of them. Touted as a natural sweetener, this sugar comes from the sap of palm flowers, and palm sugar recipes are found in Southeast Asian foods, most notably (at least to the Western palate) Thai and Indian cuisine, in curries, sauces, and desserts. It's available in cake, paste and, more recently, granulated forms.
Origin: Asia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia
Varieties: Cakes, paste, granulated, syrup
Most common dishes: Curries, sauces, desserts
What Is Palm Sugar?
This natural sweetener is made by boiling the sap collected from palm flowers until it is reduced to sugar crystals. It is referred to as an unrefined sugar because it undergoes minimal processing and no chemicals are involved. The sugar can be made from a variety of palm trees, including palmyra, date, toddy, nipa, sugar, and coconut palms.
The process by which it is made is very similar to the process of making maple syrup; it's labor-intensive and time-consuming, too. As a result, palm sugar is typically more expensive for most North American consumers than run-of-the-mill granulated and brown sugars.
Historically, palm sugar is often formed into cakes which must be shaved or grated for use in recipes. It's formed by boiling the sugarcane until it solidifies and then is formed into blocks, which can range from soft and crumbly to rock hard.
It's also available in a paste-like form, which is softer and generally sold in plastic tubs. Recently, palm sugar in granulated form has come onto the market; this is easier to accurately measure and is a good choice for use in baking. Depending on how it's processed, palm sugar can appear golden in color (in Thailand) to almost black, as with Indonesian palm sugar.
Sometimes palm sugar may be referred to as jaggery, which is a general term that refers to unrefined Asian cane sugar, which can mean sugarcane, date, coconut, or other palm sugars.
Palm Sugar vs. Coconut Sugar
It's wise to check the ingredient list whenever possible because the terms palm sugar and coconut sugar are often used interchangeably. That's because coconut palm sugar is made in the same fashion, and therefore the terms coconut sugar, coconut palm sugar, and palm sugar are often used interchangeably in recipes. They are not, however, the same product. Also, sometimes inferior brands often mix palm sugar with refined white sugar and/or malt sugar; it's a lot cheaper to sell that way. In general, the more expensive the product, the more likely it is to be 100 percent palm sugar.
How to Cook With Palm Sugar
This sugar is used in curries, desserts, and sauces, especially in the iconic dish pad thai. The thicker paste and cake forms benefit from being combined with liquids in a recipe to incorporate it. You can easily chop or slice the cakes or, if it's especially dry, you can use a mortar and pestle to break it up. If it's jarred and isn't pliable with a spoon, you can put it in the microwave to gently heat it, and then scoop out according to your recipe.
Granulated and syrup forms of palm sugar are easier to use for baking or to dissolve in a beverage such as Masala chai.
What Does It Taste Like?
Palm sugar has a flavor reminiscent of caramel and may have smoky overtones or hints of maple. Some detect notes of butterscotch. In general, it has more complexity and is less sweet than refined white sugar and brown sugars. In general, though, the taste will vary based on myriad factors including processing and the quality/purity of ingredients.
Palm Sugar Recipes
Palm sugar makes appearances in curries, desserts such as puddings and sweet snacks such as Indian peanut brittle, and adds some sweetness to the Indian dish sweet and sour bitter gourd, or karela. It's lovely when added to Masala chai and other spiced beverages. Fresh palm sugar juice goes into a refreshing Thai drink called nam taan sod.
If you have a recipe that calls for palm sugar and you cannot find it, consider how the role the sugar plays in the recipe. If it calls for a little bit of sugar, such as a tablespoon or two, you can easily substitute granulated sugar. If sugar plays a more prominent role in the taste, light brown sugar can be used interchangeably with palm.
Where to Buy Palm Sugar
Asian markets are a great source for palm sugar, but sometimes the selection can be overwhelming. You may also be able to find it in the international aisle of a well-stocked supermarket, or in health food or gourmet food stores.
Shop by the look and feel—many prefer the lighter colored palm sugar to dark versions, or vice versa, as darker sugar tends to impart a more pronounced flavor. Softer, more pliable sugar is generally easier to work with, so give the packages a little squeeze to better determine the sugar's texture.
Palm sugar stores like most sugars and keeps best in a cool, dark place, with one caveat: Make sure it is well sealed if you open it and don't use all of it at once. An airtight container or zipped-top plastic bag, with as much air pressed out as possible, also works.