There are so many sweeteners, but rock sugar is the most popular in Chinese cuisine. We call for it in many of the sweet soups like red bean soup, desserts, and even braised dishes like HongShaoRou. Get acquainted with rock sugar and see what makes this candy crystal so special!
What is Rock Sugar?
Rock sugar (冰糖) is a sugar-based confection. The name is based on the transparent appearance. It is made by boiling sugar into a sweet syrup and then cooling it into large crystalline chunks. Rock sugar is a staple of Chinese cuisine and commonly used in Middle Eastern, Indian, and other Asian cuisines as well.
Some rerefer to rock sugar by its confectionary name, rock candy, but this rock-like sweet is so much more. Each rock of this sugary stuff has slightly less sweet flavor than the same volume of granulated white sugar and because rock sugar can be melted in hot or cold liquids it is a great option for a beverage sweetener. This crystal can bring sugary depth to lemonades, soups, sauces, juices, and so much more. The most favorite way of using it, in China is to add it to all types of teas and soups.
History of Rock Sugar
This sweetener has royal roots. The process of crafting rock sugar was discovered by a Chinese monk during the reign of the Tang Dynasty, an imperial family that ruled China between 618 to 907 AD. The original process of making rock sugar was used until the era of the Ming dynasty when granulated sugar became the norm.
The original variety was made by boiling the syrup that comes directly from the sugar cane. The syrup was dripped down bamboo shoots and into a vessel to cool until crystal rock sugar formed. This first version was known as “sugar frost.” This classic version is closely related to today’s yellow rock sugar.
There is also evidence that independently of the Chinese cooks there were Islamic confectioners in the Middle East developing a boiled sugar that cooled into sweet crystals. This was recorded as early as the 9th century. In India, cooks were crafting misri, another crystalized sugar. Today the crystal variety of rock sugar is preferred in the Middle East and India, whereas Asia prefers the yellow variety of rock sugar.
Crystal rock sugar (单晶冰糖, lump sugar)
Crystal rock sugar is a very common and easy-to-find variety of rock sugar. It is clear to white in color and looks almost salt-like in appearance. The grains are quite similar in size, around 5cm wide and high. Crystal rock sugar is made from refined granulated white sugar. Its translucent hue comes from this white sugar. The white sugar produces a pure sugar flavor with a little less sweetness than the granulated sugar. Crystal rock sugar works perfectly in drinks, but it lacks the depth of flavor needed for some savory dishes. Crystal rock sugar makes a great sugary snack for a quick taste of something sweet!
Yellow Rock Sugar (多晶冰糖, Polycrystalline rock sugar)
Yellow rock sugar can range from amber to vibrant yellow. These crystals range in size, as well; from the size of tiny pebbles to stone-sized chunks many varieties can be found.
Yellow rock sugar gets its color from the other elements in it. Yellow rock sugar is made in the same way as crystal rock sugar, only less refined types of sugar are used. This form may be closer to the original “sugar frost” because it's made from a purer form of sugar cane. Yellow rock sugar has more depth of flavor making it perfect for traditional savory dishes like Hong Shao Rou.
Is Rock Sugar Healthier than Regular White Sugar?
Many people believe that rock sugar is healthier than white sugar. But there is no scientific evidence about it. They have very similar health benefits and drawbacks because they are derived from virtually the same place.
How to store rock sugar
Storing rock sugar correctly is key to maintaining its quality and extending its shelf-life. It should be kept in an airtight container in a dry, dark, and cool place. They can be kept up to 1 year in the right condition. Heat, light, and moisture can degrade rock sugar’s quality rapidly, so it’s important not to place it near a heat source, in direct sunlight, or near a humid environment.
How to use Rock Sugar
Drinks and beverage
Rock sugar can be enjoyed in so many delicious and unexpected ways. This sweet treat is delectable on its own, but it can transform dishes into complex gourmet masterpieces! Add a little crystal rock sugar to chrysanthemum tea for a traditional sip. Crystal rock sugar is an excellent sweetener in hot and cold drinks, but the real culinary powerhouse is yellow rock sugar.
Savory braised dishes
A surprising number of savory dishes call for yellow rock sugar. It is often used in broths like pho and braised meat dishes like braised beef. It works wonders in marinades that feature bold salty flavors like soy sauce and fish sauce to bring balance. Yellow rock sugar is skilled at highlighting the richness in meat dishes, like pork or duck for example red braised dishes including red braised pork belly, red braised ribs, and red braised chicken wings.
In sweet soups
Rock sugar is an ancient and delicious way to satiate your sweet tooth, so try to use it in your Chinese cooking and you will get the most authentic Chinese flavors.