With all the fuss about taxing sugar, reducing sugar availability, and so on, being able to make our own sweeteners may become a necessity, not for survival, but just for pleasure.
Fortunately, making sweeteners is a straight forward and relatively simple process. Some sweeteners are simpler than others. Unless we're willing to add in the chemicals commercial sweetener manufacturers use, we won't get the pure white, free-flowing crystals of sugar we buy at the store.
With that in mind, here's how to make some sweeteners:
Honey is the simplest sweetener - we just rob honeybees of all their hard work, strain out the parts and particles, bottle it, and we're pretty much done.
My grandparents made beet sugar every fall, harvesting the huge 3 and 4 pound sugar beet roots after the first heavy frost/light freeze. Sugar beets (which are not the same as the red beets, being large, and ranging in color from silvery white to a pale pink and tubular like monstrously large French radishes or stubby pale pink carrots rather than round like the usual beets) have between 8 and 18% sugar in them. To get one pound of finished sugar, you need a lot of sugar beets. A lot. 80 pounds of beets will render down into about 2 cups of sweet syrup.
Commercially produced sugar from sugar beets tastes almost exactly the same as sugar from sugar canes or corn. The processing and chemicals added to bleach the sugars and to make them free-flowing tends to homogenize them. Home made sugars from beets, corn, or sugar cane won't be uniform and white. They will be brown and taste somewhat of the vegetable from which they came (this flavor disappears when heated in cooking, but may be a factor when sweetening teas and other beverages or used as a sprinkle-on sweetener for cereals, fruits, etc.
The process itself is fairly simple:
Scrub the beet roots as clean as possible. Cut off the beet greens (these are edible, but they tend to be somewhat bitter, so mix them with sweeter greens like collards and spicy greens like radish). Peel the roots and remove all bruises, dings, cracks, and insect burrows (usually up around the greens, so cut those deeply).
Cut the beets into manageable chunks - I quarter them lengthwise. Thinly slice the beets - the thinner you slice, the more sweetener you will get. Now, slice those slices into thin batons - like you're julienning them or making really thin French fries. The more surface you can expose, the more sweet you'll extract. Some people cut them one more time to get tiny cubes. (that would be me!).
Put the cut beets into a large stock pot and just cover with water, maybe an inch or so above the roots.
Heat the beets on a low to medium low heat for at least an hour. I've gotten my best results with heating the beets to just below boiling (a temperature between "fish eyes" and "dancing pearls" in appearance) for 2 hours. Stir often so the beets don't stick.
At this point, you can strain out the beets and process them for canning - sugar beets are every bit as edible as other beets. Of course, if you start out planning on canning the beets for food, you might rethink how you cut them and be prepared to extract less sugar per pound of beet. Commercially, they continue processing the beets further to extract more sweetener from them, even going so far as to press the juices out of the beets - the squeezed beets are then set aside to be processed into dog and cat food (when pet food ingredients say "beets" these are the beets they mean - the squeezed out, drained of as much sweetness as possible sugar beets).
Now, you have a pot of brown liquid, thin and tasting strongly of beets with a hint of sweet.
You can either reduce this down into a thick syrup or process it to get your white sugar.
For syrup and eventual brown sugar: If you start with a gallon of "beet tea", you will reduce it down to 2 cups of syrup. Heat the "beet tea" over low heat, stirring frequently. It will eventually come to a boil, like when you make jelly. At this point, you are almost done - stir it constantly now so it doesn't burn (yes, even over low heat).
Cool the syrup some and then bottle it in canning jars. It will crystallize over time into something resembling brown sugar. You will have to periodically break up the chunks. A slice of white bread in the jar helps.
You can use the syrup, and when it crystallizes, the sugar. It will stay brown unless you processed it to turn it white.
Back up when you strained the beets out of the juice, that's where you begin the process of whitening the sugar. To do this, you need to get some calcium hydroxide - it comes in powder form. A small bottle from the pharmacy will make up into a gallon of "milk of lime" - you will only need 1/2 cup of "milk of lime" and a good shot of seltzer added to 1 gallon beet juice.
Leave this to settle for 2 -3 hours, then siphon the water on top and set it aside.
The pulp left at the bottom is what you process into sugar. You need to cook it slowly and carefully down to 1 1/2 cups - it will be thick and black. Stir often - practically constantly - you know what happens when sugar burns!
This next step is tricky.
You will need a a percolator top and a juicer - remove the juicer center and replace it with the percolator top (make sure you have a percolator and a juicer that fit together this way). Fill the percolator with the thick syrup. Place a cup under the spout of the percolator to catch the syrup drips. .Put on the lids, turn on the juicer. It will spin the percolator and fling out the sugar, which will go into the juicer's bowl. You should end with nearly a cup of white sugar and about 1/3 - 1/2 cup thick "molasses".
The sugar will be damp and prone to clumping. Spread it out on a cookie sheet to dry and store it in a jar. Or go ahead and use its natural clumping to shape it into cute little cubes, hearts, balls, or circles (tiny cookie cutters help to set the shape, just mash the sugar into the cutter, then carefully lift off and repeat. The sugar will retain its shape and dry that way. Once dry, you can store it in a jar. If you leave it loose, you may have to break up clumps when you use it.
The syrup can be used like black-strap molasses - it will be as thick and dark as that. It makes tasty gingerbread.
That water you set aside after you added the seltzer water and "milk of lime"? That can be used to brew beer or sodas or sweet tea, as feed for farm animals, or in puddings or custards where a little sweetening is needed, but not a lot.
10 gallons of maple sap makes 1 quart of maple syrup.
Trees are generally tapped in February and March - once the temperature rises above freezing or the trees begin budding, sap collection stops.
Sap is collected and kept cold until ready to boil down (collecting the sap is another diary). Sap must be boiled down within a week of collecting as it will spoil otherwise.
Because you usually have to boil down large quantities of sap, and it generates a lot of steam, the initial boil is best done outdoors. A lobster pot (large, flat pot) is suspended over a fire (grill or fire pit) and filled 3/4 full of sap. Boil this sap down to 1/4 of the pot and slowly add more sap, trying not to disturb the boil. Keep doing this until the sap is rendered down and turned a golden color but still very fluid.
Put out the outdoor fire and move indoors at this point. Continue to boil the sap down into syrup - about 7ºF above the boiling point of water (which varies based on your elevation).
Once the syrup is boiled down, cool it and allow the sediment to settle before siphoning the clarified syrup off the top. If you're impatient, you can filter it with coffee filters (pour some in, twist the top closed and squeeze the syrup through) or orlon filters (pour the syrup in and let it drip through to another container. Once filtered, pour into sterilized bottles.
Since there are no preservatives in this syrup, it will keep just a few months in the refrigerator. You can freeze extra syrup and thaw out the portion you'll use in about a month so you can have syrup longer.
You can also make syrup from birch - it tastes a bit minty - in the same fashion. Walnuts, sycamores, cherries, hickory, elm, sugar palm, plums, coconut palm, date palms, spruce trees, box elders, and apples can also be tapped for sap to convert into syrup - they have a lower sugar content so it takes more sap to render down into sweet syrup.
Corn syrup is easy enough to make commercially. In the home kitchen, it's a bit more tedious.
OK, a lot more tedious.
First, you have to grow and harvest the corn. You have to wet mill the corn to separate it into starch, germ, fiber, and protein. To do this: clean the corn and steep it in 120ºF water for 30 - 40 hours.
It's then spun in a centrifuge to remove the germ (which is then processed for oil). The rest is ground to separate the fiber from the starch and protein. The fiber goes into animal feed.
The starch and protein are centrifuged again, and the protein, which is spun off, goes to animal feed as well.
The remaining starch is then diluted, washed up to 20 times, and centrifuged again to eliminate the last bits of protein. Dried, you now have cornstarch.
That cornstarch can then be processed into syrup.
To do that, the cornstarch is liquified with diluted hydrochloric acid and a-amylase enzymes under pressure and high temperature (I used a pressure cooker) until it reaches the degree of sweetness desired. Then the excess water is evaporated off, the syrup is refined through filters and centrifuged again, filtered, and then bottled. It will not look like commercial corn syrup. It may be sweeter or less sweet depending on the corn used and the number of processing steps taken or repeated. And you do need a real centrifuge, not the mock-up of a centrifuge we made for the beet sugar out of a percolator and a juicer.
Commercially, different enzymes and acids are used as well as ion-exchanges and more processing than you can shake a stick at.
High fructose corn syrup is even further refined and processed.
Almost this same process can be used to extract syrup from tapioca, wheat, rice or potatoes.
1-1/2 cups lightly toasted and broken brown rice
4-1/2 to 5-1/2 cups water
3 tablespoons sprouted and dried or toasted grain (barley is best)
Pressure-cook the rice (tapioca, wheat, potatoes) with 4-1/2 cups of water for 45 minutes. Or, if you use the stove-top cooking method, start with 5-1/2 cups of liquid and cook the rice-water mixture for one hour after it comes to a boil. Then let the rice cool to 140ºF.
Crush the sprouts in a mortar, mix them with the rice, and continue cooking at 130º to 140ºF for about five hours over indirect heat. This can be done in the oven, or on top of the stove in a double boiler.
When the cooking is finished, line a strainer with muslin or several thicknesses of cheesecloth and dump in the sticky rice. Strain the product into another pot. You'll have to gather the cloth into a sack and squeeze firmly to express the "honey".
It will be "muddy" looking. Let it settle for a day or tow and siphon the more translucent syrup off the top. You can also try clarifying it the way we did the beet sugar.
And then there's stevia.
Stevia is a plant that is so sweet you really only need a minute quantity. A pinch equals a teaspoonful of cane sugar. Most people use too much stevia and therefore over-sweeten, which makes it takes too green and almost bitter.
Stevia is a tender plant that can't take temperatures below 40ºF. It likes loamy soil with a neutral pH. The leaves and tender tips are the part used - harvest and dry them, then grind to a powder.
You can also make extracts. A water based extract is made by bringing water to a low simmer - shrimp eye or fish eye sized bubbles that mostly cling to the bottom of the pot. Add the 1/2 cup of tightly packed dried stevia leaves per cup of water to the hot water, turn off or remove from the heat. Cover and steep 40 minutes, strain. Pour into a sterilized bottle or jar. Each cup of water will render into 1/2 cup of extract. Start with a single drop to sweeten.
If you live in desert condition where the blue agave grows, you can make agave nectar easily enough. Commercially, it's processed almost as much as corn syrup in order to extract as much sweetener as possible out. It requires a centrifuge and more. Home processing is simpler.
Find a mature blue agave (they live about 8 years) and cut off all the leaves, leaving just the heart of the agave. It will be rather large. Chop that up into quarters or smaller to fit into your oven. Place it in a large roasting pan and bake it in the oven at 120ºF for 3 hours. Drain and discard the juice that baked out - it will be bitter. Return the pan and agave pieces to the oven and let it bake for up to 72 hours (start checking it at 40 hours). The pieces should achieve a rusty color.
Cool the pans and then drain the nectar.
You're not dine yet! Rinse the agave pieces is cold water, then mash them, pouring off the nectar to join the earlier nectar. Cut the agave into smaller pieces and mash again, draining off the nectar. Using a food mill or fine sieve, press the chopped, mashed agave against it to extract even more nectar.
Wait! You're still not done! Place a funnel in a jar and put a paper filter in it. Pour in some nectar and allow it to drain through the paper. Replace the filter as needed as you continue to filter the rest of the nectar.
You may need to filter the nectar 2 or 3 times, so make sure you have plenty of filters.
Now, you're done. Bottle it up.
Making your own sweeteners isn't that hard. Time consuming. And in a few cases, you'll need special equipment: pots, a candy thermometer, coffee filters, strainers, double boiler, a real centrifuge instead of a mocked-up one from a percolator and a juicer.
Sweeteners are all around us, too. In a survival situation (say, the Zombie Apocalypse), knowing how to make sweeteners could make you very popular. And of our politicians decide to create a "sin tax" on sweeteners (as they're doing in New York...), we don't have to deprive ourselves of them. It just takes a little ingenuity and time.
And probably a centrifuge.
Edited to Add:
I totally forgot cane sugar!
You'll need a sugar cane crusher. The easiest way to harvest sugar cane is to set the field on fire when the canes are ready - the dead leaves will burn off and the fire will drive out snakes and other pests without harming the canes or roots. The canes are cut close to the ground, and taken to the washers.
The canes are washed to remove dirt and debris, then taken to the crushers.
The canes are crushed and the juice collected. The most important part of making sugar from sugar canes is to crush the canes thoroughly to extract as much juice as possible. The juice is filtered to remove impurities.
If you want your cane sugar to look white (ish), you can clarify and bleach it just like beet sugar, using "milk of lime" and carbonation before you boil it.
The juice is then poured into pans to boil. Sediment settles and is dredged out with tightly pulled cloth dragged along the bottom of the pot and scum rises and is skimmed off with a skimmer during the boiling.
Experienced people can tell by the look and smell when the juice is ready to remove so it will set into sugar (jaggery, at this point), the rest of us remove small samples and check to see if it sets solid when it cools. If yes, the sugar is ready for the next step.
Remove the pan from the fire and stir rapidly to incorporate air and so even crystals form as it cools. Then the cooling juice is set into smaller pans to finish cooling.
Once it's cooled, the sugar can be pulverized. Since it's home made and not commercially produced, even the "clarified" sugar will be brownish, and it will clump more readily, so be prepared to break off and repulverize the sugar.
And I probably forgot other ways of making home made sweeteners. But these are all pretty basic and easy - except for needing a centrifuge and for the cane sugars, some rollers to crush the canes, and if you want to whiten the sugar - some calcium hydroxide and seltzer water.