It’s time for another deep dive into baking ingredients. This time, we’re going to take a close look at sugar and how it functions in baking.

If you love learning about the science of baking, you will probably enjoy my whole baking resources page.

And for ease of browsing, you can find all my pastry ingredients posts in the same place. Now let’s get right to it.

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An overhead shot of a white bowl of granulated sugar with a wooden spoon in it shot on a blonde wooden background.

Sugar: At a Glance

What You’ll Learn in this post:

✅What Sugar Is
✅Properties of Sugar
✅What Sugar Does
✅Types of Sugar Used in Baking
✅Substituting One Sugar for Another

Related Reading: Simple Syrup, Ingredient Function: Fat, Ingredient Function Category

What Is Sugar?

Broadly speaking, sugar is a simple carbohydrate derived from plants. Its primary purposes are to sweeten and preserve foods.

When it comes to baking, the type of sugar we’re talking about is sucrose, or table sugar. Sucrose is composed of fructose and glucose which are both monosaccharides.

Sucrose dissolves in water and water-type liquids, it can melt, it can be used in its crystalline form, and it can also be caramelized. Furthermore, depending on the temperature to which you cook it, it cools into a syrup, a soft, chewy mass, or a hard and crunchy mass.

In short, sugar does a LOT more than just make things sweet, and there are tons of ways to use it in baking, cooking, and candy making.

Properties of Sugar

There are two broad categories of baking ingredients: tenderizers and tougheners.

On the toughening side of things, we have flour and eggs (which, spoiler: also are tenderizers).

When it comes to baking, sugar is classified as a “tenderizer.” The other heavy hitter tenderizer is fat.

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 are some of the things sugar does:

  • Sugar helps set the structure of baked goods. Sugar, when creamed together with fat, forms bunches of little bubbles during the creaming process. The bubbles are vital for rise, because leaveners don’t make bubbles, they release gas–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 340F or so–just about the temperature the oven is for baking. (NOTE baked goods also brown thanks to Maillard reactions)
  • 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 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.
  • 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: finer crumb. For an example of this, compare the crumb of a relatively low-sugar baked good like a muffin to one with a higher amount of sugar like cupcakes.

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.

Types of Sugar Used in Baking

As we’ve already discussed, sucrose is the most commonly used sugar for baked goods. Straight up granulated table sugar.

There are different purities of sucrose, though, plus there are plenty of other types of sugar you can use in baking.

Let’s take a look at some of the most commonly-used forms of sugar. Note I’m using US terminology, and today we’ll only be looking at “dry” sugar and not liquid sugar.

  • Granulated sugar: Over 99% pure sucrose. The crystals are uniform in size. Useful for aerating fat for creaming method cakes and cookies. Example recipes: 1-2-3-4 Cake, Sugar Cookies
  • Superfine sugar: Also called bar sugar or caster/castor sugar, superfine sugar has very fine crystals that dissolve quickly in liquids. This makes them especially nice for use in making sweetened beverages
  • Powdered/Confectioners Sugar: These sugars are made from ground and sifted high-quality granulated sugar. Most contain a bit of starch to keep it from clumping up. Often used for glazes, powdered sugar can also provide a meltingly tender crumb for things baked goods like shortbread
  • Brown Sugar (Light and Dark): Brown sugar was historically a less-refined sugar with residual molasses in it lending flavor and a moist texture. These days, brown sugar as it is made and sold in the United States, is refined sucrose with molasses added back in. Light brown sugar has less molasses added in than dark brown sugar. By weight, there is no more than 10% molasses in brown sugar. In general, baked goods made with brown sugar are moister, cookies tend to spread less, and the flavor is deeper thanks to molasses. Since brown sugar adds more depth of flavor, it’s great to use to deepen other flavors like chocolate in my fudgy brownies or in my chewy oatmeal raisin cookies
  • Coconut Sugar: Made from the sap of the coconut palm tree, this sugar is a bit less-refined than table sugar, has a deep caramel aroma and color, and generally behaves about the same as white or brown sugar in baking. It can be substituted 1:1 with sucrose. One notable exception: coconut sugar does not bind with liquids to create a syrup in the same way sucrose does, so it is not great at leavening egg whites. Whites may thicken, but you’ll never achieve stiff peaks using coconut sugar. Example recipe: spent grain granola
  • Maple Sugar: Made by cooking down maple syrup to about 260F and then stirring until the syrup crystallizes, maple sugar is less-refined than table sugar and obviously has a pronounced maple flavor. You can substitute it 1:1 for granulated sugar, especially in recipes where the maple flavor would really shine, like in carrot cake or spice cake.

Substituting One Kind of Sugar for Another

There are a few things to keep in mind when substituting sugar. For the most part, granulated sugar, coconut sugar, and maple sugar can all be swapped 1:1 as long as you keep in mind the flavor will change.

Coconut sugar will have a decided caramel flavor and a darker color which could make whatever you’re making brown more quickly.

Maple sugar will have a decided maple flavor, obviously, although it won’t appreciably darken whatever you’re making.

Brown sugar, since it contains molasses, is a bit more acidic than granulated sugar, so you may need to balance the molasses with a pinch of baking soda. In small amounts, it won’t make a huge difference, but if you’re using ounces and ounces of brown sugar, it’s something to keep in mind.

Baked goods with a higher pH tend to brown and set more quickly, so if you want your cookies to not be too thick, for example, it’s a good idea to neutralize the acid in molasses with some baking soda. Considering it takes 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda to neutralize a whole cup of molasses, we’re talking amounts less than 1/2 teaspoon. For an example of this, see my recipe for shoo fly pie.

The smaller the sugar crystals, the finer the crumb, so if you sub superfine or even powdered sugar for granulated sugar, know that whatever you’re making won’t rise quite as high and will have a velvety, tight crumb structure.

Questions?

If you have any questions about this post or recipe, I am happy to help.

Simply leave a comment here and I will get back to you soon. I also invite you to ask question in my Facebook group, Fearless Kitchen Fun.

If your question is more pressing, please feel free to email me. I should be back in touch ASAP, as long as I’m not asleep.

And that’s it, friends. I hope you find this post helpful, and if you do send me any other questions about sugar and how it behaves, I am happy to add to this post.

Thanks for spending some time with me today, friends!

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2 Comments

    1. Hi, Audrey. You can sub in an equal amount of honey or maple syrup. Even molasses if you’d like, although it will have a more pronounced flavor than either of the other choices I listed. Depending on the recipe and how much is called for, you could probably even sub in granulated sugar, but you may have to adjust the liquid just a bit. Hope that helps!

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