Sugar — more than just sweetness

Although sugar has a bad name in the nutritional world, it is a necessary ingredient for your cooking and baking. It is such a simple word but it is far from a simple ingredient. In this Cooking Tip, I want to talk about why sugar is an important ingredient and about the many different types of sugar. This tip will be limited to solid sugars. Liquid sugars will have to wait for a subsequent tip.

If you ask the average person what the purpose of sugar is, they will probably say to add sweetness to the dish/beverage. Certainly, sweetness is one of the major properties of sugar. It is not the only one, though. Sugar can also help balance other flavors. An example would be a tomato sauce made with less ripe tomatoes. A pinch of sugar can help mask some of the acidity and bitterness of that sauce.

In baking, sugar can add volume as well as texture. It actually acts as a tenderizing agent in baked goods. In bread making, it assists with the proper amount of gluten development and decreases stickiness. Sugar also acts as a preservative as well as aiding in moisture retention. Sugar is what gives stability to beaten egg whites so they maintain their volume while baking. It also is what is responsible for that crunch in your cookies. Those beautiful golden crusts on coffeecakes & other baked goods is also due to sugar. There is more but that gives you an idea of how important sugar is for the cook.

Most sugar is obtained from either sugar beets or sugar cane. They are processed similarly (although not identically) by extracting sugar juice from these plants. By adjustments in the processing steps, many different types of sugar can be produced. I want to spend some time discussing the different types.

White sugar contains little or no molasses as the naturally-present molasses has been removed during processing. Types include granulated sugar, powdered sugar, caster sugar, sanding sugar & pearl sugar.

  • Granulated sugar (aka table sugar) is what most of us think of when it comes to sugar. It is the most common type in our kitchens.

  • Powdered sugar (aka confectioners’ or icing sugar) is made by grinding granulated sugar to a smooth powder and mixing it with a small amount of cornstarch (to prevent clumping). In a pinch and need powdered sugar but you have none? Make your own by grinding 1 cup of granulated sugar with 1 teaspoon of cornstarch in a blender for a full 3 minutes. This is the type of sugar to grab for making icings, frostings and glazes.

  • Caster sugar (aka superfine sugar) is very finely ground and is best is recipes that need the sugar to dissolve quickly and completely. Examples include meringues or frostings.

  • Sanding sugars are those colored sugars with large crystals that we like to sprinkle on top of baked goods.

  • Pearl sugar (aka coarse or decorating sugar) is a white sugar with a coarse, hard texture and an opaque color. Because it holds it shape and doesn’t melt, it is normally used to decorate baked goods.

Brown sugar contains varying amounts of molasses.

  • Light and dark brown sugars are made by mixing white sugar with molasses – less for light and more for dark.

  • There are other brown sugars which are less refined. Turbinado sugar is a slightly refined cane sugar, retaining more of the naturally-present molasses. It has a caramel-like flavor and it has large crystals that do not dissolve well. Because of this, it doesn’t do well in light batters or doughs but may be fine in muffins. Because it has less moisture content than brown sugar, swapping one for the other is not recommended. If attempting to substitute it for white sugar, be aware that turbinado has more moisture, which shouldn’t be a problem in moist batters but this could be a problem in pastry dough recipes. Another problem with substituting one for the other is that a cup of turbinado with its larger crystals won’t be the same as a cup of white sugar. This is nnother reason to have a food scale in your kitchen as it will give you more accurate measurements. The best uses for turbinado sugar are stirring into your coffee/tea or sprinkling on top of baked goods for a crunch.

  • Demerara sugar is another less-refined variety. It has larger grains than turbinado, is amber in color and has a subtle molasses flavor. Again, because of the grain size, it is best used for beverages or as a topping on baked goods. Be aware that some companies use these two terms (turbinado & demerara) interchangeably. For instance, take a look at the Bob’s Red Mill package where both terms are used.

  • Muscovado sugar (aka Barbados sugar) is unrefined cane sugar in which no molasses is removed. It comes in both light and dark varieties and has a more sticky, sandy texture than regular brown sugar. It can be very strong in flavor, especially dark muscovado.

Sugar can also be categorized by its source. If the bag claims it is “cane sugar”, it comes solely from sugar cane. If it does not state “cane”, it is probably either beet or a mixture of cane and beet sugar. Coconut sugar (aka coconut palm sugar) is made from the sap of the coconut plant. It has an earthy flavor. Palm sugar comes from the nectar of the sugar palm tree. It tastes similar to coconut sugar but may have more smoky, caramel notes. Date sugar is made from dehydrated ground dates and can be used as an alternative to brown sugar. Maple sugar is made from the sap of the maple tree and has a wonderful mapley (Is that a word? If not, it should be.) flavor.

Sucanat (a contraction of Sugar Cane Natural) is a sweetener that you may have heard about. It is essentially pure dried sugar cane juice. It is far less processed than other sugars and is considered by some to be truly unrefined. It has more flavor than granulated sugar and also retains much of the natural molasses, meaning it looks brown and has more of a molasses-type flavor. Because of this, it would not be a good choice for lighter baked goods but may be great in spice cakes and ginger cookies. Testers found its granular texture meant that it did not dissolve easily and, therefore, recommended grinding before using it. Its chemical content is also different from granulated sugar. The latter is pure sucrose where as Sucanat has small amounts of glucose, fructose and other molecules besides the sucrose. Because of this, it can react differently than regular sugar in recipes and cannot be substituted one for one on a volume basis. For every cup of granulated or brown sugar called for in your recipe, use 1¼ cups Sucanat. According to America’s Test Kitchen, you cannot scale this up/down exactly. Rather, they have put together a chart for conversion purposes. A similar product is called Rapadura. Some people also include in this category jaggery/gur and panela/piloncillo. They often come compressed into cakes or cones and must be chipped or grated. Jaggery can also be made from the date palm and is typically found in Indian markets whereas panela is usually found in Latin markets.

One caution – you may see the term “raw” sugar and think it refers to sugar that has not been refined. The term “raw” is mostly a marketing term to get you to believe just that. The truth is that it may be less refined than white sugar but it is certainly not totally unrefined – meaning nothing has been added or removed.

Well, if you thought sugar was a simple ingredient good only for sweetening food items, I hope you now see it is not nearly as simple as you thought – but just as delicious!