I must have been driving down State Street past the Western Sugar plant when the smell hit me for the first time this fall.
The pungent odor got me thinking about the amazing process that turns the pile of dirt-covered bulbous roots into pure white grains of sugar.
It seemed that there must be a way to work this magic in my kitchen and document the process in order to illustrate what is happening in the series of buildings that sprawl along State Street on Billings’ South Side.
A few hours of Internet research later, I began to realize that although most of the process is relatively simple, the final sugar extraction would be a challenge.
There are very few resources out there, but I found a helpful guideline at richters.com, which outlines the process pretty well.
As I washed, peeled, processed and boiled the pulp of four beets that I got from the friendly folks at Western Sugar, the house filled with that familiar smell. I ended up with two pots of boiling water-covered beet pulp simmering on the stove for about an hour.
The chemical magic part of the process was a bit of a mystery. In the factory, a solution of calcium hydroxide called milk of lime is added with carbon dioxide to clarify the juice after the pulp is strained out.
I made a couple of calls to find calcium hydroxide powder locally, but ended up finding a small bottle online for under $10. The only problem was figuring out the water/powder ratio. I finally settled on four tablespoons of a mixture that looked like two percent milk.
The carbon dioxide was added through a few splashes of seltzer water.
As the sugary solids settled out of the strained juice, which turned a crazy shade of green after the addition of the milk of lime, the odor began to dissipate from the house.
After a couple hours, I poured off the water, and began to boil the remains in a small pan on the stovetop. This step in the factory involves filters and vacuum evaporators. This allows the syrup to concentrate without burning the sugar.
On the stovetop, this means constant stirring at a very low heat for an hour or so until I ended up with a sweet thick brown syrup.
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The next step is where my process began to fall apart a bit. I found a juicer with a spinning mesh basket at a local thrift store. The idea is to spin the syrup in a centrifuge in order to spin off the sugar crystals, leaving a thick blackstrap molasses.
I’m not sure what the problem was, but I ended up with syrup all over the juicer, and nary a crystal in sight.
In the commercial process, the centrifuge produces golden raw sugar, which is then washed, screened and bagged as white sugar.
Back in the kitchen, I salvaged as much of the syrup I could, and decided it was time for Plan B.
Using a candy thermometer, I boiled the remaining syrup to hard rock candy — about 300 degrees. After cooling, I put the hard sugary mass in a coffee grinder, and ended up with about a teaspoon of sweet crystals.
Although I didn’t end up with pure sugar, the sweet molasses sugar would be a great dessert topping.
In the end, the process was time-consuming but not terribly complicated, and could be a fun project and inspiration to plant sugar beets in the garden next year.