Types of sugar, a comprehensive guide to the different sugars available on the market and how to use them in your baking.
Types of sugar available on the market today is mind boggling. Take a stroll down the sugar isle of any supermarket and you are bombarded by choice. But when it comes to baking, what do we choose? Will white sugar be best in your breads or is brown the better choice for cookies. Today I will take you through the fundamentals of the different types of sugar available today and help you take your baking knowledge to the next step.
The sugar that you buy in the supermarket today primarily comes from 2 sources, sugarcane and sugar beet. Did you know that 50% of sugar on UK shelves is produced from sugar beet plants grown right here in the UK? Yeah, that surprised me too, I had come to think of sugar as being grown in hot climates not right here in the UK. Until recently I thought that I had never tasted sugar beet. Well, I have and its identical. This is because although it starts out life as two completely different plants, the refining process renders the original plant irrelevant, the final product is still sucrose. Whether it comes from cane or beet, chemically the sucrose is still the same.
Without boring you with the details, essentially all sugar starts life as either sugar beet or sugar cane. The plants are harvested and the plants are cut, crushed and soaked to extract the juice. The juice is either boiled or cleaned to produce a sugar syrup which is then crystallised and spun in a centrifuge to remove any liquid. Sugar beet is then dried and packaged, whereas sugar cane is refined more by melting the sugar to filter out impurities. It is then crystallised, dried and packaged.
Types of sugar: White Sugar
White sugar is available to buy in many forms, no matter what form it comes in or if it is from sugarcane or beet. It is essentially the same product.
White sugar, also known as table sugar. This is what most people refer to when they say sugar. It has small granules and is completely white in colour. White sugar is the most common type of sugar used in baking.
Caster sugar, is just white sugar that has been ground down finer. Although not yet a powder the granules are much finer than regular white sugar. This makes it dissolve in liquid much faster. This fast dissolving makes it the ideal choice for adding to drinks, syrups or meringues.
Icing sugar, also known as powdered or confectioners’ sugar. Icing sugar is again just white sugar that has been ground down to a fine powder. It is mostly used to make icing due to its fast liquid absorption. Icing sugar is also the sugar of choice for making fondant and buttercreams. This is again due to its ability to dissolve completely not leaving any gritty granules behind to ruin your smooth buttercream.
Pearl sugar, sometimes called nib sugar is a variety of white sugar that has a very coarse and hard texture. If you’ve never seen it, you would probably think your cake was covered in tiny white gravel. It doesn’t melt under high temperatures so it is commonly used as a decoration for cakes and pastries.
Sanding sugar, or sugar crystals as we call them here in the UK are simply white sugar that has extra-large crystals. They can be found in a verity of different colours and are used for decoration and texture. The crystals are fairly resistant to heat and for this reason it is not advisable to bake with sanding sugar. The sugar wouldn’t melt and the final product would be crunchy.
Light brown sugar, although you would not think that light brown sugar comes under white sugar, sadly you’ve been fooled. Almost all light and dark brown sugar made today is actually white sugar with molasses added in. It has a lightly wet, sandy texture with a slightly caramel flavour to it. It can be used in any baked goods you want to give a boost in flavour too. Due to the slightly wet texture of it, it also helps to keep your bakes moist. Cookies baked with brown sugar don’t spread as much which results in a taller, chewy cookie.
Dark brown sugar, much like light brown sugar is just white sugar with molasses added. It has more molasses added than light brown sugar so it has a much stronger, more intense flavour. The two sugars can be used interchangeably, keeping in mind that if you use dark brown sugar the flavour will be much more intense.
Types of Sugar: Brown Sugar
True brown sugars are made by not removing the molasses in the refining process, which results in a dark sugar with a strong caramel flavour.
Demerara sugar is a variety of raw cane sugar which has been minimally refined. Demerara sugar has large amber or toffee-coloured crystals and a subtle molasses flavour. Mostly used for texture in cakes, for example in a crumble or as a crunchy topping for biscuits. The large crystals mean it retains its shape when cooked.
Muscovado sugar is a variety of unrefined cane sugar in which the molasses have not been removed. It comes in dark and light varieties and has a sticky, wet, sandy texture. While muscovado sugar can be used as a substitute for brown sugar, you must keep in mind that the favour of muscovado is much stronger and more complex. Muscovado sugar works wonderfully in barbeque sauces, caramel recipes or sticky toffee puddings.
Types of Sugars: Liquid sugar
Golden syrup is a clear, golden-amber coloured, sweet syrup, which can only be produced commercially. It is basically white sugar in a different form. To make golden syrup the sugar is inverted, meaning that the sucrose has been broken down into two simpler sugars, fructose and glucose. If you cannot find golden syrup where you are, as it tends to be a very UK specific ingredient, corn syrup can be substituted. Although I believe King brand syrup is the closest you can get in the US if you can’t find true golden syrup. Golden syrup has a very sweet, distinctive taste. It is light with a caramel flavour but with a little acidity that runs through it, making it sweet, but not too sweet.
Molasses are simply a bi product of the refinement of cane sugar. Cane sugar goes through several steps in its refinement. In the first step the cane juice gets boiled until the sugar crystals begin to separate from the liquid, then spun through a centrifuge which separates the sugar from the molasses. This produces light or first molasses, it is the sweetest and lightest of all the grades, but still has the signature dark colour and thick texture of molasses. To make second molasses or just normal molasses to you and me the mixture is boiled again and returned to the centrifuge to remove even more of the sugar. Blackstrap is produced when the boiling and spinning is repeated for a third time which produces a molasses with a somewhat bitter flavour.
Treacle is simply the British equivalent of molasses. Not quite as strong as blackstrap but is produced in the same way. In the US may different strengths of molasses are available and treacle would fall smack bang in the middle. Many people call golden syrup light treacle. This however is a misconception, the two are produced in very different ways. Treacle and molasses are a bi product of the sugar refining process.
Types of Sugars, the role of sugar in baking
Now that we have covered the main types of sugar on the market, we need to look at the function of sugar in your recipes to fully understand that sugar does more than add sweetness.
Sugar is hygroscopic, which silly meats that it attracts and holds moisture. This is especially true of any sugar that contains molasses. Which means that a caked baked with muscovado sugar will be moister that a cake baked with white sugar. This moisture attracting quality helps the cakes crumb from drying out and keeps our cookies gloriously chewy.
Also, sugar is essential to stabilise the mix when making meringues. It binds with the water in the egg white to create structure and so prevents the meringue from collapsing baked.
Sugar impacts the structure of cake batter by stopping gluten and proteins forming. This helps make the cake soft and delicate rather than like a bread. This is also why sweet breads like brioche are softer in texture than savoury breads.
Most cakes start life with the creaming together of butter and sugar. This is action traps air pockets in the mixture which expand when heated to give your that beautifully light, airy texture.
And there you have it, my types of sugar, a comprehensive guide to the different sugars available on the market and how to use them in your baking. Let me know if you found this interesting and if you would want me to do the same for sugar alternatives and sweeteners.