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By December 8, 2012 Read More →

How to Make Your Own Sugar

Sugar BeetsSugar Without Bees or Trees

It started like this.  In my quest for self-sufficiency, I wanted to have the ability to produce my own sugar if need be.  I planned on adding bees to the farmstead this last spring – but ‘we’ spent money on a new chainsaw instead.   My next thought was maple trees?  Not unless I could pay to put in a bunch of 10 year-old sugar maple tress, hope they all lived, then maybe in another 10-15 years I would have some young smallish trees I might be able to tap.  Stevia plants?  I found out, not only do they not grow in my zone, but I have noticed through watching my friend’s attempts that they are rather finicky to grow indoors and don’t like big shifts in temperature.  That wouldn’t work in our house with wood heat.  Then I found my answer through my grandma.

Sugar Beets.

They used to grow them when my grandma was a kid – but not just a couple of rows of them, they would plant a small field of them.  She said that when they used the sugar from them, it was always like using super dark brown sugar. So if you were using it in something like white cake or egg nog, that it would darken the color of what you were making but she remembered it still tasted really good.  She said they processed them outside, because they smelled a little.  Sugar beets contain 10-16% sucrose, compared to a sugar maple sap at 2% – this is why you need up to 40 gallons of sugar maple sap boiled down to make one gallon of maple syrup. The process is a tad quicker with sugar beets.

All photos by Stephanie Dayle ©2013

With a little research, I found  a place here to buy sugar beet seed from and saw that they would grow perfectly in our Zone climate (don’t worry it’s non-GMO seed).  They can be planted 4 weeks prior to the last frost, are cold hardy, and grow in full or partial sun.  They also do not require a lot of water which makes them perfect!  Sugar beets are cousins of turnips so their greens are completely edible for people, chickens, horses, pigs and cows.  Needless to say, they did not go to waste at my place.  They are really low maintenance and I really enjoyed growing them – you can pull them in mid summer or you can wait and pull them in the fall.

All photos by Stephanie Dayle ©2013

Here is the process I used 

Once pulled, I cut the greens off and saved the ones we wanted to eat in the fridge, then I put the greens that were going to the chickens and livestock in a separate bucket.  I scrubbed all the beats really well with a stiff bristle brush.  When canning beets, boil and peel them first.  However, I chose not to can them, and wanted to use as much of the beet as possible.

Then I chopped them up by hand into tiny cubes.  I have also heard that using your food processor to shred them works well.  Then I added them to a big stock pot and added just enough water to cover them up.  I set them to boil for an hour.  Your goal here is to extract as much sugar as possible through cooking them so you want them to end up all mushy.  It was recommended to me that I cook them for 30-45 minutes, but I ended up cooking them for over an hour.

All photos by Stephanie Dayle ©2013

Then you need to strain the beet pulp from the liquid and transfer the liquid into a different pot.  I read that traditionally a cheese cloth bag was used for straining then you twist it and wring it out to extract as much liquid as possible.  I found using a manual food mill helped move this process along a little faster. I mashed the beets in the mill and collected the liquid below.  I stopped short of ricing them, as I didn’t want all of the beet pulp to end up in the pot.  This remaining liquid was then run through a jelly bag to remove any remaining chunks of plant matter.  If you don’t remove all the beet pulp – it will not store well.

The next step is cooking the liquid down.  I was told that ‘back in the day’ they would reduce it down until crystals formed.  I have found no guide on how much you are to reduce the liquid by or for how long to reduce the liquids.  On that note, I was also told that at the time, most people did not have enough patience for crystallized sugar and would instead make beet ‘syrup’ and use the syrup in place of dry sugar.  So with the goal of syrup in mind I brought my beet liquid up to a boil and started reducing, and reducing, and reducing the liquid.

All photos by Stephanie Dayle ©2013

All photos by Stephanie Dayle ©2013

After several hours, I was left with a small amount in one of my smallest pots.  Now I was very suspicious of this because I could still smell the ‘beets’ and it still seemed watery, but when I tasted it – it was wonderful!  It had a rich sweet syrupy flavor.  So I continued boiling until I could see some ‘sheeting’ action with the syrup.  “Sheeting” is what happens when you pour a little bit of the syrup out of the pot or a ladle and instead of it just pouring out like water, it starts to spread out, stick, and stiffen up a little.  It may look like a little sheet of syrup sticking to the pot.  This is also how to tell if maple syrup is ready for a hydrometer test.  Before the hydrometer, once the syrup started sheeting it was ready.  A hydrometer reading will tell you what the sugar content is for your syrup, it has to be done at a specific temperature and would take another complete article to explain.  I didn’t bother with a hydrometer test as I am not selling my syrup and therefore had no desire to grade it, once it started sheeting it was good enough for me to consume.

Now, at this point if you wanted, you could take your syrup to 40°F – 45°F above the boiling temperature of water at your elevation (a candy thermometer is handy for this, may I suggest a non-digital one) – if it foams you can skim the foam off, or add a drop or two of vegetable oil.  Then move it to a large flat pan continuously stirring until all moisture is gone.  Later after it has cooled you can use a screen or a grater to grate down the hardened mass to a finer sugar like powder. Basically what you are doing is taking the sugar syrup to the “Hard Crack” stage in candy making terms and then letting it cool and harden.

All photos by Stephanie Dayle ©2013

Sadly, I didn’t end up with much syrup for all of my work.  I understand now why each family grew so many sugar beets.  I stuck the less than half full bottle of sugar beet syrup in my fridge and used it in my coffee, on my pancakes, and in smoothies for the rest of the summer.  It always added a nice flavor.  I am afraid if I had boiled it down to crystals I would not have had much to show for myself, however, if storage is your goal, crystals are the way to go.  My grandma told me that while the syrup they had never went bad, it was not uncommon for some mold to collect on the top of the syrup.  To fix this they would just scoop it off with a spoon and bring the syrup back up to a boil for a few minutes again and it was good to go, however I don’t think I will be trying that unless I have to, so for now I will just use the fridge.

Leftover Beet Pulp

The nice thing about this process is how little waste is produced and how usable every part of the sugar beet is!  The beet pulp from cooking the beets went to the chickens and they LOVED it, but people can eat that too.  The greens and tops went to both the livestock , chickens, and of course to us.  The greens are completely edible – dehydrated and stored for later use in soups or Quiche or you can cook them up like collared greens.

Traditional collard greens, in one form or another, have been prepared by humans for 2000 years and were originally a survival food.  They are a very good source of vitamin C, soluble fiber, and other good stuff .  Here is a quick recipe I used, while not completely traditional – they sure did taste pretty good!

 

All photos by Stephanie Dayle ©2013

Collard Greens from Sugar Beet Greens

  • 
2 cloves of mashed garlic (don’t bother with a silly garlic press just use the back of your spoon) 
  • 
5 cups of chicken stock 
  • One to one and a half pack of bacon! (traditionally this would be a ham hock – this recipe cheats and takes less time)
  • 
5 bunches collard greens – rinsed, trimmed and chopped 
  • 
salt and black pepper to taste 

Wash the collard greens thoroughly.  Remove the thick stems that run down the center of the greens.  Don’t worry about doing this to the small tender leaves.  Stack 6 or 7 leaves on top of each other, roll them up, and slice them at one inch increments.  Next, chop your bacon up into one or two-inch pieces and add it to a stock pot over medium heat.  Once it begins to cook, add the garlic to the pot and cook the garlic in the bacon grease until it starts to look translucent.  At this point add the chicken broth and simmer for 20 minutes.  Then add your greens to the mix and cook for them for 30 – 45 minutes ( I have found that you don’t need to cook beet greens as long as turnip greens or kale), add your salt and pepper and adjust seasonings according to your taste.  Then drain your greens and serve. (Be sure to reserve the liquid, it can be used later for re-heating left over collared greens as they just don’t play well with microwaves.)

So there you have it.  My experience with sugar beets.  Have you given them a try?  Share your experience below!  Any questions?  I will answer them as promptly as I can.

 

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About the Author:

Stephanie is a writer for the American Preppers Network, a small local paper and for her blog, The Home Front. She is also the credited writer of "Emergency Bag Essentials (Swatchbook): Everything You Need to Bug Out" to be released in August 2014. "I write articles based on my own experience about emergency preparedness, self-sufficiency, homesteading, food preservation and life around the farmstead. I grew up in a very rural area where I learned to garden, the art of canning, to hunt and fish, and to raise my own animals for food. Yes, families such as mine still do exist! I also spent 6 years volunteering for the local county Search and Rescue group where I learned a variety of survival skills and a little bit about law enforcement protocol. " "As a general rule of principle do not write articles about information that I have only read - if I am writing about something it's because of I have done it myself and gone to great lengths to provide you with the facts. I also have a full time job with an hour commute - my alter egos are as a Marketing Director, and an amateur photographer. " To connect with me --> click on one of the many little square social media buttons below!

34 Comments on "How to Make Your Own Sugar"

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  1. Ruth says:

    Approx how many beets did you start with?  Or how many rows that were how long?

  2. Hi Ruth,

    I bought my seeds last year from Sand Mountain Herbs and they say their are 50 seeds per packet – but, I felt there were more than that in the packet. I planted one 35 ft row of beets, and used an entire packet. I did not count how many beets that row produced but it was a good year for them the row was packed with beets even though I thinned them – and all the beets grew to a good size. But still – that’s all the syrup they produced. In order to produce enough sugar for a family for a year you would need to grow a small lot of sugar beets. 

    • Ruth says:

      And I certinally don’t have the time/energy to manage a huge crop, but it might be worth trying to prove I can……something to think on for the future anyway.

      • This is the way I approached it too Ruth. I work full time right now so its not something I could do on a yearly bases, BUT I know I could make my own sugar if I had to. 

    • Hi, There is other trees you can take the sap. Where I come from there is no sugar maple but we take the sap from mountain maple it taste the same but is more dilute.. paper birch and yellow birch also flows at spring. The yellow birch can flow until mid June. it tatse great almost like mint gum.

  3. Sugar Beets do not require diluting – they require boiling to ‘extract’ the sugar, much in the same way you would have to ‘tap’ a sugar maple tree and wait for the sap to begin boiling. You don’t have to mash the beets if you don’t want to – I did just for good measure. Both processes require work, sugar beets can be an affordable option for those people with no access to mature sugar maple trees and no money for bees. Sugar maple trees don’t even like our climate, so I was delighted to learn that I could still make my own sugar. 

  4. Read an article recently about good sugar substitutes. They recommended beets, carrots and honey among other things.

  5. Sugar beets run between 15 and 20 percent sugar. Which means a hundred pounds of beets would yield 15 5o 10 pounds of sugar.

  6. The article says how concentrated the sugar is in the beets compared to maple sap, but then requires diluting the sugar in water in order to extract it. So in the end, it’s actually easier and more efficient to get the sugar from maple sap, which only requires boiling and doesn’t require the cutting and mashing.

  7. Sugar beets are yearly renewable crop where as Maple trees require years to grow. And only specific Maple trees at that. Maybe a balanced approach would be wiser.

  8. Very interesting. I’ve wondered about that.

  9. I have seen massive sugarbeet fields in europe… Must be very economical as a base for sugar…

  10. I have to wonder if an apple shredder & cider press would be the way to go. Shred the beets for pressing, the same as doing apples for cider.

    • Clyde, I have read that commercially they are shredded for sugar processing. So you may very well be correct. That might be the best way to go. I wish I had some cider equipment myself as we have a small orchard, but it is not currently in our budget.    

  11. I agree Clyde because sugar beets are tough! They (LOL) also make good defensive weapons: just put one in a giant slingshot and let them rip!

  12. Dave Moff says:

    Fascinating to see discussion of what was, not all that long ago, a basic skill. To most of us, baking a cake starts with opening the cake mix box. For my grandmother, the process began with going to the chicken coop to collect a few eggs. During WWII rationing, Americans came up with all sorts of creative ways to put good food on the table. A lot of that is in danger of becoming forgotten knowledge, and frankly, we are poorer for it. The ability to make your own basic materials or to improvise in an exercise in problem-solving which can apply to any number of day to day life situations.

    I’d like to see a year-long course in high school which taught nothing but this sort of basic knowledge and the principles of self-reliance. Hands-on exercises in “working outside the box” will add to an educated mind far better than one more year of memorizing textbooks in order to pass a written test.

    • I have to agree with you on all accounts Dave. ESPECIALLY the High School Class.  

      • Great article.  normally dont reply to these but a i had to chime in on your collard liquid bit.  by all means using the juice to reheat collards will work…I just use more water.  the reason being I LOVE POT LIQUER.  thats what we call “collard juice”.  i put it in a pitcher and keep it in the fridge.  little cider vinegar salt/pepper it makes a great drink after nuking it for a spell.  at night add a shot of vodka and you have a country bloody mary.  pot liqour will make you feel better with or without the vodka.

    • Yes, it would be great if such skills were taught in our schools. Unfortunately, (and I hate to get political) I don’t think the Government really wants our kids to learn these skills. I guess things like this would be a good reason for charter schools. They have a lot more freedom than public schools.

      • Kris says:

        I have to agree. 3 yrs ago I started learning how to can/dry/preserve everything we grow. It has been very humbling, but also quite enjoyable, not just for me but for my family as well! They all enjoy the things I have made. They now clamor for ‘grandmas goodies’ for Christmas, and have even started making suggestions. Most all my grandkids are interested in learning how to do it all, and my kids are just very impressed. Needless to say, I have been kicking it up a notch, and wanting to learn more things to get away from buying commercial anything. Sugar has been a big problem. This article is very interesting. We grow beets every year, but never sugar beets.
        I totally agree, everyone should learn these basic skills. When I was in high school, they made us take a home ec class, but it certainly didn’t go into any of this! I sometimes feel as though I am resurrecting a lost art! I agree that these skills should be taught, but I also think it will only come from home, and family. It basically is not PC to be self reliant!

  13. I grew heirloom sugar beets last summer too to see if I could make a local sugar :)

    I only had a small row but they got huge and with a 5 pound bucket of beets I ended up making 3/4 of a liter of syrup. Mine was very dark and the same consistency of molasses. However I didn’t like the flavor, the beet definitely came through and it made me realize how much processing there must be to get white sugar without any beet flavor.

    For my batch I shredded the beets in food processor and used a steam juicer to extract the liquid. Not sure I’ll do it again but if I ever need to I have the seeds :)

    • If you could still taste the beets – you care correct, further processing was needed. I boiled mine down until I could not taste the beets anymore… but I enjoyed the deep dark molasses flavor. 

  14. I love learning about these types of forgotten skills. I will definetly be adding heirloom sugar beets to my list of seeds to buy for this coming spring. I’ve used regular beet greens in salads and they are good, but you can also add them to a green smoothie. I truly believe eating our fruits and veggies raw is the most beneficial to our overall health, and many of us don’t consume even a fraction of the raw greens our bodies require for proper nutrition. Eat your greens! This is a wonderfully informative article, thank you!

  15. Dwight says:

    If you want white sugar just follow this video. http://www.smbsc.com/SugarProcess/video_MakingSugar.aspx

  16. Homestead12 says:

    As a fellow Eastern Washingtonian, I thought you might appreciate knowing that this area was once one of the largest sugar beet producing regions in the country. U&I Sugar had extensive fields of beets, and a refinery. C&H made a major effort (including selling product at a loss in the region) to crush beets as commercial competition for their cane sugar. I am glad to know that, in some limited way, that regional staple continues to have a place in our lives.

  17. Millie says:

    When I lived in Germany, our landlord was a farmer. They grew lots of sugar beets. The beets were sent for processing and the tops were used for fodder, for their dairy cows. Nothing went to waste !

  18. Marty says:

    About how many beets did you use to make that batch shown? If you specified, I missed it. It would be helpful for comparison, if I want twice as much I would use twice the beets – Thank you for posting this.

    • Hi Marty,

      Sadly I did not count how many – and if I did that number of beets would be thrown off by size. Say if your beets grew twice as big as mine. So it’s hard to estimate resulting amounts that way – BUT I can tell you that the beets that I cooked down for this recipe – completely filled a 6 quart stock pot. So I started with 6 quarts of cubed sugar beets. Which for me was a short row of sugar beets.

  19. Rendale says:

    I live in beet country and have always thought it would be fun to try to make some sugar from beets. I noticed a few things about how you harvested them that may make a difference. Here they let them grow all summer and do give them a lot of water. They harvest them after a good hard frost to send any sugar in the leaves to the root. then they top them with a big mower and dig them with a special digger. Most of the beets are the size of a small foot ball. Hope this helps

  20. Rendale says:

    Update made some beet syrup today I peeled 4 beets after which they weighed 20.25 pounds ran them though the food processer. Added maybe a gallon of water and simmered them for a hour and a half. Then I put them in a pillow case and poured some more water over them to rinse them then squeezed the juice out. I reduced that down to syrup and ended up with a little over a quart and a half of syrup. Hope this helps someone! good luck!



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