Basic Baking Ingredients: Sugar
Although it is known for its sweetening function, sugarcontributes texture and moisture to baked goods. Many of us may automatically think of white granulated table sugar when we think of sugar, but there are a few different types that have varied roles in baked foods.
Types of Sugar
White Sugar. Also called granulated white sugar, or table sugar, this type of refined sugar is most common and most often used in baking recipes. When recipes call simply for “sugar,” this is the type of sugar typically added. This sugar, as with most other refined sugars, is 99 percent sucrose, a simple carbohydrate. The crystal sizes of white sugars can differ from one manufacturer to the other, but smaller granules are typically preferred because they dissolve better when added to recipes or heated. Adding another type of sugar may be substituted for white sugar, but this may affect the recipe in terms of moisture content, consistency or flavor.
Brown Sugar. Brown sugar differs from white sugar in terms of moisture content, consistency and flavor. Brown sugar has a moist, fine texture and a flavor reminiscent of molasses or butterscotch. Brown sugar can be unrefined or partially refined, meaning it naturally retains its inherent molasses. Although all sugar at one point contains molasses, the refining process removes the molasses, creating white granulated sugar. Today, most brown sugar is made by mixing refined white sugar with a small amount of molasses. Although it seems odd that a manufacturer would strip out the natural molasses in sugar only to add it back when making brown sugar, this is generally done for consistency purposes. This way, the manufacturer can control exactly how much molasses goes into each batch of brown sugar, resulting in a product with consistent color and taste.
Brown sugar can be light or dark; the more molasses added, the darker the color and the heavier the molasses flavor. Brown sugar needs to be packed down firmly when measuring so that it holds its shape when added to the recipe. Due to the added moisture, brown sugar also has a tendency to form lumps and harden very quickly if not stored in an airtight container. If it does become hard, placing a slice of fresh apple or a piece of bread in a plastic bag along with the sugar can help to soften it. Substituting brown sugar for white sugar in a recipe can result in a moister baked good with a butterscotch-like flavor; however, this is not recommended for delicate recipes where the flavor or texture might be adversely affected.
Superfine Sugar. This refined sugar is also called castor or caster sugar. The crystals are much smaller and finer than normal white sugar, and as such it dissolves more rapidly in recipes. This makes it great for meringues. To make your own superfine sugar, just run white sugar through the food processor for several seconds.
Powdered/Confectioners/Icing Sugar. Powdered sugar, also commonly called confectioner’s sugar or icing sugar, is white granulated sugar ground to a smooth, fine powder. Usually it contains three percent cornstarch, which helps prevent caking. Use this kind of sugar in meringues and for making icing, or for dusting a final touch on cakes, waffles or pastries.
Raw Sugar. Raw sugar is minimally-processed cane sugar. Raw sugar is a product of the first stage of extracting sugar from sugar cane, processing to remove any major impurities, and then drying. White sugar and brown sugar go through a second step of purification and refinement which removes residual molasses. Raw sugar is sometimes referred to as natural brown sugar. Because it is not heavily refined, raw sugar has a higher moisture content from the lingering molasses content. It is typically larger in grain than white and brown sugar, although it is similar in color to refined brown sugar. Raw sugar is best used in heartier recipes, or those that won’t be adversely affected by the higher moisture or molasses flavors.
- Demerara Sugar. This is a type of raw sugar originating in Guyana. It has a dry, course texture with a toffee-like flavor.
- Muscovada Sugar. Muscovada sugar, also called Barbados sugar, has a finer grain than Demerara sugar and a higher moister content. The color can be light, medium or dark, and the flavor is reminiscent of molasses.
- Turbinado Sugar. This sugar goes through a steam-cleaning process before being packaged. It has a light brown color and a coarse grain, with a bit of molasses flavor.
Raw Sugar Vs. Refined SugarSugar comes from sugar cane, a type of grass which grows in tropical regions. Sugar is harvested by extracting it from the sugar cane and processing it slightly to remove impurities. Then it is dried to form granules. At this stage, it is known as raw sugar. Further processing purifies the sugar even more by removing the inherent molasses content, thereby concentrating the sucrose. This results in refined sugar. The white and brown sugar many bakers are most familiar with today is refined sugar.
Although excessive sugar can be damaging to one's health no matter what type it is, raw sugar is often considered less harmful because it retains more vitamins and minerals than refined sugar. Still, both types of sugar are over 95% sucrose, a simple carbohydate that contributes little nutrition in the grand scheme of things. Some refined sugar is also exposed to chemicals like carbon dioxide during processing, mainly to achieve the desired white color.
Some people may be unable to metabolize sugar, or may want to reduce or remove processed, refined sugar from their diet for health reasons. In this case, there are a number of natural sweeteners one may be able to replace in their baked goods while still achieving the desired sweet taste
Honey. Although not a type of sugar, honey is prized in the baking world for its sweetness and texture. Honey is comprised of sucrose, like sugar, but also fructose, glucose and maltose. It is often used as a sweetener since it tastes sweeter on the tongue than granulated sugar—in fact, research shows that honey is 25 to 50 percent sweeter than sugar. Honey can be light or dark and have slightly different flavors depending on the bees that produced it. Bakers often add honey to muffin or bread recipes in smaller amounts than they would regular sugar. Baked goods tend to turn out more moist and dense when made with honey.
Molasses. Molasses is a by-product of refining sugar. Molasses is known for its dark color and heavy, sweet flavor, although less sweet than sugar. In refined sugars, like white or brown, the molasses is first removed from the sugar when it is extracted from the sugar cane. For brown sugar, the molasses is added back in later. In raw sugar, some of the molasses remains in the sugar since it is not full refined. This presence of molasses gives brown sugar and raw sugar its brownish color.
Maple Syrup. Maple syrup is made from maple tree sap. It is only 60 percent as sweet as sugar, but its flavor adds depth to many recipes, from muffins to cakes. Grade A maple syrup is golden brown with a subtle maple flavor, while Grade B maple syrup is thick and dark with a stronger flavor. Many bakers prefer Grade B syrup for those reasons; plus it is often less expensive.
Corn Syrup. Also known as invert sugar, corn syrup is a clear, thick syrup that has been treated with enzymes to turn starch into glucose and maltose. It is flavorless, unlike honey, molasses or maple syrup, and not as sweet as sugar. It is often used for candy-making, since it does not crystallize like sugar does. When corn syrup undergoes further processing to produce a sweeter taste, it is referred to as high fructose corn syrup, and is the subject of much controversy in the health world today.
Fruit Juice Concentrates. Fruit juice concentrates not only add sweetness but a variety of flavors as well. Made up of fructose and glucose, one can substitute fruit juice concentrate for sugar as long as they subsequently reduce the other liquids in the recipe as well.
Stevia. Stevia is an herbal sweetener with origins in South America, where it is reported to have been used for centuries. It is much sweeter than refined sugar, and it is becoming more popular in the U.S. as a sugar replacement, often for sweetening food and drink. However, the FDA has not come to a conclusion regarding the nutritive value or potential dangers of stevia, and so in the United States it is considered a dietary supplement, found only in health food stores.
Agave Nectar. Agave nectar, also called agave syrup, is harvested from the agave plant, cactus-like succulent found primarily in Mexico. One notable species, the Blue Agave, is the same plant that produces tequila. The taste of agave nectar has been compared to honey, although much more subtle. Although this alternative sweetener has become more popular in recent years, the FDA has said that agave manufacturers may be incorrectly labeling their containers. This along with reports of high fructose levels in agave nectar have begun to create a negative association with the high-calorie, processed sweetener, high fructose corn syrup.
For those who are unable to eat sugar, or choose not to, there are quite a few FDA-approved artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes on the market. These provide a sweet taste without using real sugar, although some are made from sugar. Typically, sugar substitutes do not carry the same baking properties as real sugar, with the exception of sucralose, since it is made from sugar.
Saccharin. This is sold under the name Sweet and Low®. It is much sweeter than sucrose (sugar) but can carry an unpleasant, metallic aftertaste. Hence, if using it in baked goods, manufacturers recommend only substituting it for half the sugar in the recipe so as not to affect taste.
Aspartame. Aspartame is 160 to 220 times sweeter than sugar, and sold under the names Equal® and Nutrasweet®. This sweetener loses its luster when heated, so it is best used for no-bake pies or puddings.
Sucralose. This substitute is actually made from sugar, but is not metabolized quite like normal sugar so many prefer it to the real thing. This substitute is granular and recommended for baking, although it may cause baked goods to bake more quickly than normal. Splenda® is one brand name for sucralose.
Conversions for Measuring Sugar
Measuring sugar accurately typically involves a dry graduated measuring cup and a flat utensil, much like measuring flour. Powdered or superfine sugar may require sifting per the recipe’s instructions. If so, sift with a sifter or a sieve over a measuring cup set inside a bowl to catch any excess. With brown sugar, make sure to pack it into the measuring cup so that it holds that form when added to the recipe. Sugar substitutes and artificial sweeteners need to be measured depending on packaging and consistency; for example, an artificial sweetener may only be available in single-serving paper packets. Below is a chart of the most basic and common types of sugar and how to make the most accurate measurements.
|Unit of Measurement|
|Basic Types of Sugar||Unit in Recipe||Grams||Ounces|
|Granulated and Superfine Sugar||1 cup||200 g||4.5 oz|
|1 tsp||4 g||0.1 oz|
|1 tsbp||12 g||0.4 oz|
|Dark Brown Sugar||1 cup||238 g||8.4 oz|
|Light Brown Sugar||1 cup||218 g||7.6 oz|
|Powdered Sugar||1 cup||115 g||4.0 oz|
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