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Sugars in savoury foods
As opposite tastes, you wouldn’t expect to find sugars in savoury foods. But pure sugars balance the bitterness or sourness of other flavours, like saltiness or spiciness. They also do a lot more than just sweeten, giving properties like texture, mouthfeel, structure, volume and shelf life to our favourite dishes and drinks.
What makes a food savoury?
Savoury is one of the five basic tastes, along with sweet sour, salty and bitter. Also known as ‘umami’, it’s hard to describe but has meaty, complex characteristics, often found in long, slow stocks made from scratch, as well as asparagus, cheese and tomatoes. The Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda identified glutamate—an amino acid—as the origin of this new savoury taste when he isolated it from kombu, a type of seaweed, coining the name umami in 1908.
Some of our favourite savoury foods here in the UK include smoked fish, salt and vinegar crisps, salted peanuts, Marmite, anchovies, bacon and cheddar cheese. Interestingly, the final course of a traditional British formal meal is called a ‘savoury’. Following the sweet pudding or dessert course, the savoury is designed to clear the palate before port is served. It usually consists of salty and plain elements, like sardines on toast or Welsh rarebit (hot cheese sauce served over toasted bread).
Why do savoury foods need sugar?
There are two main reasons a savoury food contains sugar. One, for sweetness to balance or enhance other flavours in the dish. Two, to give functional properties that would be difficult or impossible to achieve without it.
Plant-based products are a great example of sugar’s texture giving properties. Because meat substitutes lack certain components present in meat—key for achieving the texture of it—to replicate their functions and achieve the consistency meat lovers enjoy, manufacturers use sugar. It also increases shelf life and can stabilise other ingredients in the product, bringing a host of benefits that have nothing to do with sweetness.
One functional characteristic of sugar especially popular with food and beverage manufacturers is its humectant properties: it binds water molecules easily. Invert syrups in particular are a sugar product popularly employed by manufacturers due to their high affinity for water. Sugar helps products to retain moisture and this in turn affects texture. It’s often used to retain the moisture of plant-based meat-alternatives, preventing the product from drying out and so replicating the juicy texture of meat.
How savoury foods use sugar
When it comes to flavour in savoury dishes, sugar is an under-acknowledged superstar, balancing both salty and sour flavours. For example, Pad Thai contains chili powder, fish sauce, tamarind and dark soft brown sugar. The sugar balances out the sour from the tamarind and the salt from the fish sauce. Without it, Pad Thai would be too sour and too salty.
Sugar also aids in the browning of meat. In Caribbean beef dishes, cooks often mix a couple of tablespoons of dark cane muscovado sugar to the pot and caramelise it before adding cubes of beef, sautéing them in the hot sticky sweetness, adding a deep, rich dark brown colour and a beautifully smoky, molasses-like scent.
Which savoury drinks use sugar?
A Bloody Mary wouldn’t be a Bloody Mary without sugar. The classic savoury cocktail mixes vodka with tomato juice, liquid sugar and a splash of sherry, along with salt, pepper and a stick of celery to garnish, served over ice in a tall glass. In the United States and UK, a Bloody Mary is a common ‘hair of the dog’ drink, curing hangovers with its combination of vitamins from the tomatoes, salt to replenish lost electrolytes, sugar for energy and alcohol to kill headaches.
Milk soup is a very old, basic food still popular with Poles (zupa mleczna), Czechs, Hungarians (tejleves), Lithuanians (pieninės sriubos), Ukrainians (sup molochnyy), Russians (sup molochnyĭ), and other Central and Eastern Europeans. What started out as a way to use up cow, goat or sheep milk that farmers couldn’t turn into butter or cheese became a much-loved hot meal, served with noodles, bread, rice, barley, farina, millet or potatoes. If milk soup is served with rice, sugar is often added to create a dish similar to what the British and Americans call rice pudding.
We know more about the delicate act of balancing sweet flavours with savoury than we think. It’s why you find fruit, jam, and honey on your cheese plate, and sugar is probably hiding in some of your favourite savoury foods and dishes: curries, Asian dishes and cured meats are rarely made without sugars of some sort.
So, while sugar’s sweetness contrasts bitter, salty, or sour flavours and tempers heat in savoury recipes, adding a crucial dimension to savoury cuisines, its ability to give texture, bulk, moisture and shelf-life to savoury and sweet food products of all kinds makes pure sugars a perennially popular choice for food manufacturers the world over.
Our pure sugars are not only a sweetener enhancing the taste of both sweet and savoury foods and beverages, but functional ingredients that provide colour, texture and structure too. Contact our Customer Services Team to find out more, or for more sugar news and Ragus updates, keep browsing SUGARTALK and follow Ragus on LinkedIn.