A sugar beet and a spoonful of molasses sugar

A sugar beet and a spoonful of molasses sugar.

Photo illustration by CASEY PAGE/Gazette Staff

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.

The ingredients

The ingredients: four sugar beets weighing about 8 pounds total, seltzer water and calcium hydroxide powder.

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.

Washing the sugar beets

Washing the sugar beets. A vegetable scrubber works well for the caked-on dirt in the crevices.

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.

Peeling the sugar beets

Peeling the sugar beets. I found a regular vegetable peeler worked for most of it, with a paring knife for the wrinkly parts of the beets.

Cleaned and peeled

Once cleaned and peeled, the four beets weighed about 5 pounds.

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.

Processed sugar beets

Sugar beets after processing them in the food processor. You could also grate them by hand.

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.

Boiling beet pulp

Cover the beet pulp with water and boil until mushy. I ended up with two pots of beet pulp; they took up more room than I anticipated.

The carbon dioxide was added through a few splashes of seltzer water.

Straining the water out of the beet pulp

Straining the water out of the beet pulp. A metal mesh strainer really would have come in handy here. I ended up using a clean cotton dishcloth to squeeze the water out of the pulp after using the plastic strainer. The remaining pulp makes good chicken feed.

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.

Milk of Lime

I used a mason jar to mix calcium hydroxide powder with 1/5 cup of water. Because the Richter’s guidelines used 1/4 cup for 16 to 20 pounds of beets, I used about 1/3 of the mixture. My milk of lime solution ended up looking like 2 percent milk.

Milk of lime

Milk of lime solution using 3 teaspoons of calcium hydroxide powder for 1/4 cup of water.

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.

Settling solids

Solids settle to the bottom of the water solution. Pour off the water on the top and boil the solids left on the bottom.

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Water solution with milk of lime

A pitcher of sugary water solution that turned a lovely green color after I added milk of lime. The milk of lime and seltzer water help clarify the solution. I ended up with two pitchers and let them sit for about 2 hours.

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.

Boiling the solids

Boiling the solids from the water solution produces a thick sugary molasses syrup. It took about an hour for my 3/4 cup mix to reduce to a molasses consistency.

Candy boiling

Instead of using a centrifuge process, I kept boiling the syrup to about 300 degrees, checking the temperature with a candy thermometer.

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.

Hard rock candy

After cooling, I ended up with about a tablespoon of hard rock candy. I crushed it using a coffee grinder, but a mortar and pestle might work better.

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.