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Why do some Chinese dishes, namely braises and soups often call for rock sugar instead of regular sugar. Does rock sugar have any properties that would make it behave differently than regular granulated sugar?

3

In China, highly refined granulated sugar like we find in US is somehow uncommon. The most common form of sugar is soft white sugar that is less pure and contains a few percent of syrup and other sugar family substance. These imperfections sometimes affect cooking.

Rock sugar has a relatively larger market in China than the rest of the world for precisely this reason: over there it's the most common highly purified and refined form of sugar, because if it's not pure, it won't crystalize so large. Crystalization is the further refinement process.

As a result, if a Chinese chef feel the need for highly purified sugar, he/she calls for rock sugar. This logic is sometimes carried on by chefs that works with granulated sugar regularly that is truly indistinguishable form crushed rock sugar.

So, if your regular sugar is already crystalized high purity granulated sugar, then no need for rock sugar.

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11

while all of the above answers are correct, I want to provide a perspective as a native Chinese. Rock sugar is better used (than granulated sugar) when you try to make dishes involving coloring the ingredient (by caramelization, dishes like braised pork belly (Hong Shao Rou need this step) mostly because of the shape difference. Rock sugar has less surface area touching the oil while granulated sugar immerses itself in, which makes it react faster, and more likely to get burnt.

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6

No, it doesn't, really. Once it is dissolved, it behaves exactly the same. Eaters won't know the difference when eating the finished product. So, tastewise, there is no special reason to use rock sugar.

This answer assumes that you are adding sugar to a polar solvent (water, broth, alcohol...). It doesn't cover techniques of adding the sugar to oil or other occasions where it is not dissolved.

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  • 1
    This is not exactly true. If you stir fry powered sugar in hot oil, more likely than not it would be overcooked and turn bitter, so taste wise, there really is a difference... – xuq01 Jan 11 at 19:35
  • @xuq01 I haven't considered techniques in which the sugar is being stirred into oil. You are right, if the oil is very hot and you use powdered (not crystalized) sugar, it would probably burn very quickly. Is this really done with soups in Chinese cuisine? Do you stir fry the vegetables with the sugar first? – rumtscho Jan 12 at 12:43
  • Not really soups, but in braises, yes. This is a very common braising technique ("red braise") used in almost all parts of China for a variety of ingredients. – xuq01 Jan 12 at 13:12
  • The point of stir-frying the sugar in oil is to give a red color, BTW (hence the name of the technique). You put the sugar in before anything else. – xuq01 Jan 12 at 13:13
  • @xuq01 thank you for clarifying that. I added a paragraph to the answer saying that it is only valid for cases where you dissolve the sugar in something, and doesn't cover the case you meantion. – rumtscho Jan 12 at 14:05
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According to this, it is less sweet than regular white sugar which can be used if rock sugar is not available.

Even if it can/ has a brown/golden-ish color, it is not brown sugar which has a more distinct flavor.

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  • 5
    That information is incorrect. White rock sugar is made of the same chemical compound as regular granulated sugar. – Sneftel Dec 29 '19 at 19:53
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    not so fast. Rock sugar comes from sugar cane, while granulated sugar can be made from other stock. Cane sugar and beet sugar (for ex) have different flavors. There is also a difference in how they carmelize. In theory both are pure sucrose, but in practice there are differences which any competent. chef knows to utilize. – John Meyers Dec 31 '19 at 4:08
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My answer is based on experience;I’m not sure of the underlying science. Rock sugar is not as sweet as granulated sugar. It has a broader, less intense sweetness which works well in savory dishes. It lacks a sweet “punch” which is more suited to desserts. I use the white kind, though I’m sure the yellow/brown sort has some additional flavor.

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