How To Choose The Right Sugar For Your Baking

What are the differences between brown and white sugar? This primer will walk you through the uses for both, and for other types of sugar.

brown sugar
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All green plants produce sugar, but most sugars you find in the grocery store are products of sugar cane and/or sugar beet plants. Different sugar varieties are possible through adjustments in the processing, crystallizing, and drying of the sugar, and varying the level of molasses left in or added back. So how do you know which sugar to use in your recipe, what's the difference between brown sugar and raw sugar, and when do you use sanding sugar? Here are a few varieties of sugar you may encounter in your baking adventures and the best ways to use them.

Granulated Sugar

When a recipe simply calls for "sugar," more than likely you need granulated sugar. Sometimes referred to as table or white sugar, granulated sugar is a highly refined cane or beet sugar (all of the natural molasses has been removed). When stored properly, the fine crystals in granulated sugar will not cake together, making it ideal for measuring and baking breads, cookies, pies, and cakes. Caster (or castor) or superfine sugar is more finely granulated and dissolves instantly, and is a good choice for making meringues or sweetening a glass of iced tea.

Confectioners' Sugar

Also called powdered sugar and 10x sugar, this is granulated sugar that has been crushed into a fine powder. A small amount of cornstarch is typically added to prevent clumping. Like superfine sugar, confectioners' sugar dissolves rapidly, making it ideal when makings cake frostings, icings, and candy. It also looks beautiful dusted across baked desserts.

Decorative Sugars

Enhance the look and texture of your cookies and cakes by sprinkling them with decorative sugars, which have granules about four times larger than those of regular granulated sugar. Sanding sugar is clear and sparkly, and its extra-large crystals will not melt in the oven.

Solid colored pearl sugar, which looks like large–grain salt crystals, also withstands high heat without melting, and makes a wonderful garnish for sprinkling on cookies, muffins, and scones before baking. Both sanding and pearl sugars can be found in a variety of colors.

Sparkling Snowflake Sugar Cookies
Iain Bagwell

Cane Sugar

Unlike the highly refined granulated sugar, which can come from sugarcane and/or sugar beets, cane sugar is produced solely from sugarcane and is minimally processed. It has a slightly larger grain, and a darker color, since the molasses has not been refined out. Use cane sugar the same way you would granulated sugar.

Raw Sugar

Raw sugar is the residue left after sugarcane has been processed to remove the molasses and refine the sugar crystals. In this state, sugar may contain contaminants such as molds and fibers, so the raw sugar marketed in the United States has gone through a purification process.

Two popular types of raw sugar are Demerara, from the area of the same name in Guyana, and Turbinado, which simply means "of the turbine," or centrifuge. This dry, free-flowing, pale golden sugar has a mild molasses flavor and makes an excellent sanding sugar for bakery products.

Brown Sugar

Brown sugar is white granulated sugar that has had cane molasses added to it. The two types of brown sugar, light and dark, refer to the amount of molasses that is present. Light brown sugar is used more often in baking, while dark brown sugar, with a bolder molasses flavor, is delicious used as a rub for steaks.

A lot of bakers, however, will use light and dark brown sugar interchangeably. While all sugars should be stored in an airtight container, this is especially true for brown sugars, which will harden if left open to the air. If your brown sugar has turned as hard as a brick, microwave it for a few seconds, or place a piece of bread in the bag and leave it for a day.

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