Essential for baking, sugar goes way beyond just making things sweet. In combination with other recipe ingredients it performs many other essential functions in producing great tasting cookies, cakes, and other baked goods.
In its most basic form, sugar, refined from sugar beets and sugar cane, is almost 100% sucrose, a combination of two simple sugars: fructose and glucose.
When you understand the different types of sugar and how they behave in a recipe, you’ll become a better baker.
6 Common Types of Sugar
This is likely what you have in your kitchen right now. The most common type and usually comes in those 5 pound bags that rip awkwardly or leak from the bottom.
Sometimes called castor sugar (mostly in Europe – a castor is just a shaker like you’d use for salt) this is just granulated sugar that’s been ground down even finer. If you only use it sparingly, you probably don’t need to buy it. You can get much the same effect by running some granulated sugar through a food processor.
Sometimes known as confectioners sugar or icing sugar. This is granulated sugar that’s literally been pounded into dust and mixed with some cornstarch. There are actually different degrees of how fine the powdered sugar actually is (X, 6X, 10X) with 10X being by far the most common.
Did you know?
There are records going back at least 2,500 years about sugar being produced along the banks of the Ganges River. It wasn’t the nice packaged white crystals we know today, of course, but a large, sticky brown loaf that had to be scraped to get the crystals free.
Brown sugar is granulated sugar mixed with molasses. You can actually make your own at home if you really wanted to. The difference between light and dark brown sugars you see in stores is simply the amount of molasses that has been added. You can typically use these interchangeably in recipes with just a minor difference in taste and texture.
Sometimes called raw sugar or demerara sugar this is a less refined sugar than typical granulated sugar. Granulated sugar is boiled multiple times to remove all the molasses. Turbinado is processed just once.
Similar to turbinado, this is an unrefined cane sugar in which the molasses is not removed. It is often moist and sticky and a slightly more bittersweet taste.
What Sugar Does in Baking
The most obvious thing sugar does is add sweetness but it also has many other less obvious functions in a recipe.
After flavoring, sugar’s biggest jobs are to tenderize and to aerate.
As opposed to flour, which can add structure, sugar interferes with (by absorbing liquid) and delays the gluten formation and structure building, making for a more tender baked good.
When creamed together with butter, sugar granules cut holes into the fats. In the oven, these holes fill with air and expand and lighten the batter and ultimatly the end product.
The friction of creaming the sugar also helps the sugar start to dissolve and incorporate into batters evenly. When baked, the suspended air pockets help leaven cakes and cookies.
Sugar also can act as a stabilizer. If you ever made Angel Food cake you used sugar primarily as a stabilizer for the for the egg foam. The friction created by adding sugar helps increase the volume of whipped egg whites and keeps the resulting foam from collapsing.
Finally, sugar browns at high temperatures, also known as yummy, yummy carmelization through the Maillard reaction. Carmelization can add new depth of flavors, colors, and textures to baked goods. Like the crunchy top of a muffin.
Don’t take this basic ingredient for granted. Whether it’s for sweetness, structure, or flavor there is a lot to consider before pouring that sugar into the bowl. Knowing the types of sugar and how best to use them in a recipe will help you become a better baker.