At its simplest, sugar is a carbohydrate that is present in every fruit and vegetable. Plants make sugar through photosynthesis and then store it as food. In the United States, common white sugar or sucrose comes from sugar cane and sugar beets. One teaspoon of sugar has 15 calories.
In the kitchen, sugar plays a necessary and complex role especially when we cook and bake. The famous Maillard reaction or browning of food is a phenomenon that occurs when you heat amino acids (protein) with sugar. It’s the principle at work when bread crusts brown or you sear steak in a hot pan to get a dark crust for enhanced flavor and appeal.
In baking, sugar plays a complex role, adding sweetness, moisture, structure, color, volume, texture, tenderness and longevity to baked goods.
More specifically, sugar:
- Adds structure to baked goods through its interaction with starch and protein
- Aerates batters during creaming for lighter textures and tender crumbs
- Attracts moisture in the batter which inhibits gluten formation and creates a lighter texture and tenderer crumb
- Browns or caramelizes when heated, browning baked goods and bread crust
- Stabilizes beaten egg whites
- Promotes yeast growth and fermentation in yeast dough
- Extends the shelf life of baked goods by retaining moisture
To help you identify different sugars, we developed the following guide to popular types we regularly encounter in recipes or blog posts. And, to help you when you run out of confectioners’ sugar or brown sugar, consult our list of suggested substitutions that won’t ruin the taste or texture of your famous chocolate chip cookies.
Types of Sugar
Brown sugar (light or dark)
Refined cane sugar that contains molasses which gives the sugar its brown color and rich flavor. Dark brown sugar has a stronger molasses flavor than light brown sugar. Brown sugar tends to clump due to its high moisture content
Sugar with superfine or ultrafine crystals used in delicate cakes and meringues. It dissolves easily, making it ideal to sweeten berries and other fresh fruit and to use in beverages, custards and mousses.
A light brown raw sugar with large crystals. Popular in England in hot coffee or tea
Granulated, White, or Table sugar
The best known refined sugar most commonly found in sugar bowls and used in home cooking. The crystals are fine or extra fine.
Muscovado or Barbados sugar
A dark brown raw sugar with a pronounced molasses flavor popular in Great Britain. The crystals are coarser and stickier than regular brown sugar.
An unrefined sugar used in Mexican cooking. More flavorful than regular brown sugar, piloncillo has a complex smoky, caramel and earthy taste. It’s sold by the ounce in a cone shape (piloncillo means “little pylon”). In recipes, piloncillo is measured by weight. Chop or grate before using.
Powdered, Confectioners’ or Icing sugar
White granulated sugar ground to a smooth powder. Contains cornstarch to prevent caking. Supermarket varieties are 10X confectioners’ sugar, the finest grind available.
Sugar that’s processed up to the point before the molasses is removed. Includes demerara sugar, muscovado or Barbados sugar, sucanat and turbinado sugar.
A coarse sugar with large, sparkly crystals used mainly to decorate the tops of baked goods
Pure dried sugar cane juice with a light caramel color, grainy texture and strong molasses flavor.
Raw sugar that’s been steam cleaned to remove contaminates, leaving a tan colored sugar with a light molasses flavor and coarse crystals.
Sugar Substitutions for Baking
1 cup of white granulated sugar equals:
- 1 cup caster sugar
- 1 cup brown sugar, packed
- ¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon honey
Also reduce liquid ingredients by 2 tablespoons, add a pinch of baking soda for more acidity and decrease baking temperature by 25° F
- ¾ cup maple syrup
Also reduce liquid ingredients by 3 tablespoons, add a pinch of baking soda for more acidity and reduce baking temperature by 25° F
- ¾ cup fruit juice concentrate
Also reduce liquid ingredients by 3 tablespoons
- 2/3 cup agave nectar
Also reduce liquid ingredients by ¼ cup, lower baking temperature by 25° F and increase cooking time slightly (about 1 minute for each 15 minutes of baking time)
1 cup brown sugar = 1 cup white granulated sugar + 1-2 tablespoons unsulfured molasses
1 cup raw sugar = 1 cup light or dark brown sugar
1 cup caster/castor (superfine) sugar = 1 cup granulated sugar processed in blender, food processor or grinder until very fine
Homemade powdered sugar: Blend or grind 1 cup granulated sugar with 1 tablespoon of cornstarch, arrowroot or tapioca starch to a fine powder. Use immediately or store in an airtight container
Using sugar substitutes for low-sugar or sugar-free baking
- You can easily convert most baking recipes to low-sugar recipes. Simply reduce the amount of sugar by one-third, and you won’t change the texture or flavor.
- If sugar-free baking is your goal, you’ll have to do some homework. Many sugar substitutes are great for sweetening food but not for baking. Most sweeten but don’t provide the other benefits of real sugar like browning and texture. Some are much sweeter than sugar, have a strong aftertaste when cooked or are not heat stable. For best results, study your favorite brand’s website and use baking recipes created specifically for its sugar substitute.
- More Baking Substitutions from JoyofBaking.com
- More Sugar Types: Comprehensive list and descriptions