Well, I'm back from the family Thanksgiving extravaganza! I hope you all had a wonderful holiday; The Beloved and I certainly did.
I think it's time to pull back and focus on an ingredient that is often maligned: sugar. I spoke a lot about caramel in a few posts awhile back; now let's look at sugar in its uncooked state. Sugar is one of the Big Four when it comes to baking. On the toughening side of the baking equation, we have flour and eggs, and on the tenderizing side, we have fat and sugar. Since sugar has a similar tenderizing effect on baked goods as fat does, it is often used as a fat "substitute" in lower-fat baking. That's why "low-fat" doesn't necessarily mean low-calorie and it almost never means "low sugar."
Here's what sugar does: it helps us form bunches of little bubbles during the creaming process. The bubbles are vital for rise, because leaveners don't make bubbles--they only expand the bubbles that are already there. No bubbles, no rise=flat, stupid cake. Take a quick look at The Creaming Method as a refresher, if you want.
Sugar also helps to brown baked goods: caramelization works in the oven just like on the stove, and it happens at about 340 degrees or so--just about the tempertature the oven is for baking. Coincidence, or psychic phenomenon? You decide.
Here's another very cool thing that sugar does. It keeps food moist. How? Two ways. First, sugar combines with some of the proteins in flour that make gluten, making a more tender product, and since gluten ties up water, the less gluten that is developed in a batter or dough, the more "left over" water there is to keep things nice and moist. Another way sugar keeps food moist is that it is hygroscopic. Ever had your sugar clump up on a rainy day? That's the sugar attracting water in the atmosphere. Annoying in a sugar bowl, but just what we want when we want to improve shelf life by a day or two!
Sugar also carries flavors and can wake up dull flavors. Put a teaspoon or so of sugar in your spaghetti sauce. You'll be amazed at how much brighter the flavors are. Back on the pastry side, taste a pinch of cinnamon alone, and then taste a pinch of cinnamon sugar. The sugar enhances the flavor of the cinnamon.
As if that whole list isn't enough, sugar also helps to make a finer crumb in a baked good. This is again due to its ability to impede gluten formation and to "steal" water from flour. The less water the flour has, the less gluten is formed and the less the starch granules in the flour and puff up. Voila: tighter crumb.
To see how drastically sugar effects a recipe, if you have some extra ingredients and want to feed the birds anyway, make a cake recipe and divide it in half. Make half with sugar and half without. You will be amazed. The half made with sugar will be a tender, golden, moist cake. The other half will be a pale, crumbly, tasteless mess. But the birds will be happy.
Having said all that, I am not usually a huge fan of using super-refined products, but in baking, sugar is really essential. If you are concerned, I would suggest moderation. Please share the cookies:) If you're still concerned, consider using some of the less refined but still granulated sugar products out there.
And that's about it from the sugar front! I am glad to be back, and I hope to bring some good ideas and tidbits for you to use through the rest of the holiday season. If you have any questions or if there is a topic you'd like me to cover, please leave a comment.