Palm Sugar

Palmsugar_1

In my last post on Gang Som, someone left an interesting comment on the
question of ingredients I use. I’ve always made a point to say that
these exotic ingredients are difficult to give precise measurement for,
since they are hardly standardized. This is certainly a problem in
writing Thai recipes, because 5 tablespoon of tamarind, for example,
will have varying degree of sourness and thickness, depending on the
source and the preparation of your tamarind paste.

I think it would be helpful to write about some of the ingredients that
I use in my Thai cooking. How to select for quality. What brand(s) I
use. How to prepare, use and store. How to properly measure them for
the recipes.

The first one I want to begin with is the palm sugar, ubiquitous in
Thai cooking and some other Asian cuisines, but not at all in the west.

Palm sugar is made from tapping the sap from sugar palm trees. The sap comes from the flowering stalks, which are at the base of the long leafs. The liquid is then cooked down to a caramel-like consistency, then let harden into blocks or poured into containers for future use.

Thai palm sugar is different from Malaysian or Indonesian palm sugars that are also available at Asian markets. They are lighter in color, in the shade of light brown rather than very dark and nearly black brown, and have a far less smoky flavor. If you want to faithfully follow a Thai recipe, then I suggest you buy palm sugar from Thailand for your Thai cooking. If you have no choice but the darker Indonesian or Malaysian ones, I would use only half the required amount and supplement with regular white sugar to the desired sweetness.

Good quality Thai palm sugar is light brown in color, and hard, but not completely rock hard. The color is important, because too dark it would be the smoky Indonesian sugar, and too light a color is usually an indication that there is white sugar added in the palm sugar, a practice that is sadly not uncommon in Thailand among unscrupulous merchants, since white sugar or cane sugar is far cheaper than palm sugar.

The palm sugar in the photo on top of this post is pretty close to the perfect color. Not too light, and certainly not too dark. If you look closely, you can also see that the sugar is not completely crystalized. It is hard, but still somewhat crumbly and it is actually possible to cut it with a knife to smaller pieces. The best test for is is to cut a small piece and chew on it. The sugar should crumble when you chew. If you broke a teeth or two, then it’s probably not a very good palm sugar. I wouldn’t buy that brand again.

Palmsugarinbag
Palm sugar comes in a few forms, in small rounds like in the photo, in larger rounds, in a plastic jar, or even in a can. I find the small rounds that come in a plastic bag the most user-friendly. I keep mine in an airtight container. To use, I chop each round into smaller pieces to make it easier to melt.

When I need to do a precise measurement for a recipe, I put a few small rounds (about 50g or 1.5oz each) into a bowl and add to that one teaspoon of water per round. The bowl goes into the microwave for about 30 seconds (a bit longer if you are melting a large quantity, the sugar will melt enough so you could stir to mix well with the water, and you will be able to portion it easily with a measuring spoon.

You can also do this with a larger round or palm sugar, you just need to chop it up a bit to smaller chunks. I usually don’t use palm sugar in a plastic jar or in a can, finding it nearly impossible to scoop out the hardened sugar from those containers. Also, I’m not so keen on nuking the entire plastic jar. I don’t think that cheap plastic would do so well in the microwave.

For most Thai recipes, if you have no access to palm sugar at all white sugar will do in a pinch. I have actually used a mixture of maple syrup and white sugar as a replacement even, to add a bit more complexity than using white sugar alone.

There you have it, palm sugar 101. Leave a comment if you had any other question.

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  • http://www.dahlshouse.com Dahlia

    When I was in Thailand last summer, I took a Thai cooking class and they gave us a very useful cookbook that described many of the ingredients and substitutes for those ingredients. For palm sugar, they suggested light brown sugar, which works pretty well if you have it around as well.

  • Diane

    Jaggery is an OK substitute too, although of course it does not taste the same and is generally made from sugar cane. However, this may be as hard to track down as palm sugar.
    Another caveat is that palm sugar spoils very easily if it gets water in it, so always use a clean dry spoon or knife when working with it. You can tell it has gone bad if it grows nasty green fuzz.

  • http://www.extramsg.com ExtraMSG

    I keep mine in the frig. I find that the defrost setting on my microwave does the best job. I don’t usually use water and it breaks it down to a crumbly texture. I avoid the jars as well, though I’ve seen people with big jars that are nice and loose.
    I think the best alternative is just plain cane sugar. When I went to the Thai Cookery School in Chiang Mai they recommended light brown sugar as well. I think that’s very wrong. Even light brown sugar has a much stronger flavor. It may look similar, but white sugar is closer in flavor in that it has little flavor other than sweetness. I just use much less cane sugar than I would palm sugar and it’s good enough. Any kind of brown sugar will add a little molasses flavor.

  • http://www.tigersandstrawberries.com Barbara Fisher

    The brand that I can get consistently comes in jars–it is the right color, though, and it does come out of the jar pretty easily. It does have a different flavor to me, even than brown sugar–a little lighter and not as overpoweringly sweet. Hard to describe. Kind of flowery.
    I do like it, and when used in Thai cooking, it does make it taste more “right” to me.
    And I agree–it is hard to write down amounts in Thai recipes. With me, it is almost always more “to taste” than anything.

  • jimmy-in-Seattle

    Hi Pim…..Such knowledge you have! Where’s YOUR cook book? Would you please write it already!…..Just another fan of yours…..Jimmy-in-Seattle

  • http://www.extramsg.com ExtraMSG

    I was talking with an older Thai lady today and brought up the issue of palm sugar. She said the main reason they used palm sugar when she lived in Thailand was that it was cheaper. She actually prefers cane sugar. Perhaps a class thing. Interesting, though.

  • http://eggbeater.typepad.com/shuna/ shuna fish lydon

    I have not cooked traditional Thai food so I can barely weigh in on the savoury side of things. But in Californai we are lucky to have C&H as our brand of white sugar, which is pure cane and not beet sugar as it is for most of the greater USA.
    I have made a sprinkling of South East Asian inspired desserts and I love using jaggeries as I feel that they do not mask “tropical” flavours as does white sugar. I am a big fan of coconut sugar and after I take what I need out of the can I keep it in my fridge indefinately.
    Many of our fellow Indian bloggers have been writing about Jaggery as a general non-processed sugar. It must be that sweet is on the mind.

  • http://chezpim.typepad.com Pim

    Dahlia and Extra MSG: I actually think that maple sugar or maple syrup taste a bit more similar to palm sugar than the molasses in brown sugar.
    Diane: I’ve never cooked Indian food at all and actually have never tasted jaggery! I might give it a try soon, it sounds interesting.
    Barbara: If it taste good to you I’m sure it’s fine.
    Jimmy: Thanks, and it might be sooner than you think. ;-)
    ExtraMSG: I’m not sure if I agree with your Thai friend. I’m not sure when she left Thailand but palm sugar or coconut sugar is certainly not cheaper than white sugar. White sugar is produced in huge industrialized factories, driving the cost down quite low, while most cane sugar are still made by cottage industry at best. There is also a distinct taste of palm or coconut sugar that white sugar, while an acceptable substitute, could never immitate. There are certain desserts that I would not make at all if I don’t have access to palm sugar.
    Shuna: Like I said, I think I might give jaggery a try soon. It sounds very interesting.

  • http://thefeastcrusade.blogspot.com MM

    Yeah, even in Singapore palm sugar costs more than white sugar for exacting the reasons Pim mentioned.
    I’m so glad I read this article as I was just wondering about the differences between the pale palm sugar and the palm sugar that is more common here – the dark brown ones. Loving this series, Pim.

  • http://realthai.blogspot.com/ Austin

    Regarding ExtraMSG’s comment, cane sugar and palm sugar are actually used in very different ways. While palm sugar is often used with curry pastes or nam phrik (Thai ‘salsas’), it would not normally be used to sweeting curries or soups, cane sugar being the norm in such situations. A lot of people think of palm sugar being the sort of universal sweetener used in Thai cooking, but actually that’s not the case at all. You agree with that, Pim?

  • http://www.bootcd.us Thangaraj

    Let me introduce you to Powdered palm sugar :) I have used it, and atleast to me it seems to me as a much easier alternative to scraping, acraping and more scraping. Here is a link for those interested:
    http://www.ecobuddy.in

  • http://www.bootcd.us Thangaraj

    Oops,the direct url is:
    http://ecobuddy.in/PowderedPalmSugar.php
    Sorry for the mess.

  • Chantelle

    Hi Pim
    We have just returned from a splendid holiday in Phuket, where I took a Thai cooking class. I am now back in South Africa and can’t find some of the ingredients. One of them being massaman curry and can only find tamarind paste and not tamarind juice – this is to make the satay sauce. Any suggestions?

  • Evi Indrawanto

    Hi Pim,
    I am googling the words of palm sugar and found your blog. I am a producer of granulated palm sugar in Indonesia. Yes, you’re right that our palm sugar are darker than the ones you’ve mentioned above. I just wonder why the Thai product come in such color? Do they gave some bleaching to the product? Or the different color between Thais and Indonesian palm sugar is just a matter of the different of land structure?

  • donna

    I had salmon encrusted with palm sugar it was wonderful does anyone have recipes on how to cook with palm sugar?

  • http://www.bigtreefarms.com ben ripple

    This is a response to Evi (producer from Indonesia) but also in regards to palm sugars in general…
    One of the key reasons for flavor profile differences is due to the many varieties of palms that can be tapped to produce sweeteners..About 20 in all..everything from Coconut to Arenga to Lontar (borassus) to Toddy Palm and Nyphta fruticans (a dwarf mangrove palm!)…Each of these has a unique flavor and usually tradition dictates which species is used…
    Another major differentiator is color. Although contrary to a few statements above color will NOT determine flavor as a rule…Coloring has to do with A) what method of fermentation inhibitor is used (in Indonesia they use lime hydroxide..In Thailand sadly I’ve seen tons of Sulfur Dioxide in use) Other options are the bark of young mangosteen twigs and jakfruit bark.
    These various inputs will tend to lighten the final sugar…
    Another as mentioned before is the addition of white sugar to the palm sugar..You would be hard-pressed to find a “commercial” palm sugar (in loaf form) that did not have an addition of at least 10% cane sugar…It is used as a stabilizer in order to be able to temper the plam sugar through dehydration without the fats in the palm melting.
    Finally the color (and flavor) will be affected by the method of cooking the sugar..the speed of the evaporation and the temperature that is maintained willaffect the final color and the final level of caramel flavor…Anyway…just somew thoughts!
    Ben

  • Scotia48

    Pim,
    I am trying your Pud Thai sauce tonight-it looks spectacular, and you do have a way with words. On the palm sugar front, do I just pound the cakes to small chips and nuke before adding to the sauce? I’ll try that.

  • Win Go

    especially to Ben Ripple.
    I’m interested in knowing more about the various methods of inhibiting fermentation in traditional palm sugar practices.
    In the Philippines, several grams of ground bark of the mangrove tree is used, which gives the sap a reddish color. However, this practice is destructive for mangroves, which we know plays a vital role in our sea ecosystems.
    I’m hoping to find out more alternatives that are also not only natural but also sustainable.
    Ben Ripple mentioned the use of jackfruit barks and mangosteen twigs. I’d be happy to hear more about practices in other countries.
    Cheers,

  • belinda

    how can i be sure my palm sugar is not mixed with cane sugar. the brand is golden chef and ingredients state coconut and water only. its sugar nutrition info is 75g per 100. product of thailand oriental food co ltd bangkoo

  • belinda

    opps i mean Bangkok not Bangkoo

  • Vienna

    where do you find pal sugar?

  • loveitorleaveit

    I realize this post is really old, but could you give me an idea of the ratio of white sugar and maple syrup to come up with an authentic palm sugar taste? I can’t find palm sugar around town here. Thank you so much!!

  • Aznbabe43

    You are able to find it in specialty store such as Asian market or you can purchase it online.

  • Aznbabe43

    You can use brown sugar as a substitute and I assume the ratio is the same as the palm sugar.

  • Marknette

    I love reading your website…Esp>>>If you broke a teeth or two..then its probably not a very good palm sugar…LOL…..Overall…full of great information and very facilitated

  • Danielschef

    I purchased Thai Palm Sugar in liquid form.  Can I boil it myself to make the dry form?

  • Nick

    I too bought Thai Palm sugar in liquid form. Is that correct. Having now read your column, I might ditch that and look for the proper thing!

  • Acnt2202

    Palm sugar i bought has developed white spots on it after storing inthe cupboard for a few months. is it still safe to use in cooking..???

  • Foo

    I believe that Jaggery (Indian Brown Sugar) is also palm sugar.  It is easy to get in Indian groceries and very inexpensive.

  • http://chezpim.com Pim

    The cheap jaggery you find at most Indian markets are made of cane sugar. Jaggery could be made from palm, but those are rare and not cheap.

  • Dave

    Would it be ok to use a grater rather than a knife to shave palm sugar from block.

  • http://curiousfancy.com/ kittehinfurs

    The jaggery you get in India (not in Indian grocery stores in the US) is actually made from palm sugar. There are two kinds: the solid rounds like the ones in this post and the much more expensive liquid kind which is heavenly. I can eat that by the spoonful and not tire.

    I love your blog btw! I came across it when I was looking for dulce de leche recipes and am now reading it from end to end :)

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  • Cathleen B

    New to all of this, I really appreciate your instructions. Thank you.

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  • Jess Evans

    I am trying to find sugar from the sugar palm (not coconut palm). Any suggestions?