Baking School Day 16: All About Sugar and Baking

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

The Kitchn’s Baking School Day 16: All about sugar and baking.
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Wouldn’t you agree that the most characteristic trait of baked goods, desserts, and pastries is their sweetness? From delectable desserts to breakfast pastries, almost everything that comes out of the pastry kitchen contains sugar, in one form or another.

It’s easy to take sugar for granted as the base ingredient of so many good things. But whether you are using granulated sugar to provide sweetness and structure in quick breads and cookies, or adding decorative garnishes and elaborate spun sugar, there is a lot to consider before opening the sugar bin.

(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

What Is Sugar and How Does It Work?

Sugar is a type of sucrose derived from sugarcane and sugar beets. Sugar from either source is nearly identical and can be used interchangeably.

In its most obvious form, sugar provides sweetness and flavor. Various types of sugar add deeper molasses and caramel flavors to baked goods. But even white sugar can add a toffee-like flavor when heated, due to caramelization.

Sugar might seem simple compared to thinking about egg proteins and gluten formation, but you should still understand how sugar works in a recipe before experimenting with altering it. For example, if you substitute honey for granulated sugar in a recipe that is relying on the butter and sugar to be creamed, the end product may not leaven properly. Use caution before tinkering with different types of sweeteners or altering the amount of sugar in a recipe.

Beyond Sweetness: Know the Many Roles of Sugar

Sugar can perform a multitude of functions within a single sweet treat. Of course we know that sugar adds sweetness, but it is also responsible for a lot of other functions. The importance of sugar vastly changes between different baked goods — most of them important to the formation, flavor, and mouthfeel of the final product.

Sugar’s Role in Moisture & Texture

Sugar plays a huge role in moisture and texture. The hygroscopic nature of sugar attracts and retains moisture. It helps keeps things moist and increases shelf-life by improving moisture retention and preventing goods from drying out too quickly.

On the other hand, it can also be too moist and absorbent, with different types of sugars used in different ways (i.e., powdered sugar as a topping might dissolve and become sticky and goopy over time).

Using coarse sugar, however, can produce a lovely topping and crust for muffins, scones, and quick breads. It can add a bit of crunch and even some shimmer! Decorative sanding sugars on cupcake frosting and cookies are not only attractive, but also add a bit of texture.

Sugar as Tenderizer

As opposed to proteins and starches in a recipe, that act as tougheners and structure-builders, sugar acts as a tenderizer. When it begins to dissolve and absorb water in a batter, it interferes with and delays the gluten formation and structure building, making for a more tender product. Not only does it make soft, chewy goods tender, but it is also partially responsible for purposefully drier, sandy goods, like shortbread, staying tender and not rock-hard.

Creaming butter and sugar into a batter. (Image credit: Faith Durand)

Sugar Builds Structure

When creamed together with butter, sugar granules cut through the butter while forcing air into the mix. Tiny air pockets form to lighten batter as it bakes. The friction aerates and helps the sugar start to dissolve and incorporate into batters evenly. When baked, the suspended air pockets help leaven cakes and cookies.

Sugar is responsible for the foundation and bulk of the ingredients in icings, glazes, syrups, and frosting. Without it, a sugar glaze might just be a few drops of milk!

In cookies, sugar interrupts the proteins and starches from hydrating and delays forming structure. That means, the dough starts spreading with heat before proteins catch up and coagulate, giving some cookies their flattened shape.

Sugar Adds Stability

As we discussed in week one, sugar helps stabilize egg whites and creates meringue. It also helps protect the egg whites from overheating. The friction created by adding sugar helps increase the volume of whipped whites and keeps the egg foam from collapsing, contributing to structure formation in things like genoise and chiffon cake.

When Heated, Sugar Gives Color & Caramelization

When heated, sugar may caramelize and give baked goods a beautiful golden color. Caramelization is the process the sugar undergoes when it is heated at high temperatures. Similar to caramelization, Maillard browning is a chemical reaction when the sugar breaks down in the presence of protein.

Both are responsible for adding depth of flavor; browning the outside of baked goods; and forming a delicious crust on breads, cakes, and more.

Sugar Is a Garnish

When used to top pastries, something as simple as sugar can create effortless to intricate garnishes. Coarse sugar can be sprinkled on muffins and tea cakes before or after baking to add crunch and a bit of sparkle. Decorative sanding sugar may be showered on cupcakes, cookies, and cakes for a bit of glamour. Even simpler, powdered sugar may be dusted across brownies, tortes, tarts, and more!

On the more dramatic end, sugar may be heated to create stunning sugar work, like the spun sugar that wraps around croquembouche.

Remember this: All of these many functions are why sugar cannot usually be reduced in a baking recipe. It plays a role beyond sweetness; if you want a less sweet result, you probably will need to adjust other factors for moisture, structure, and the other roles that sugar plays.

Troubleshooting Problems with Sugar

Too much sugar may result in the following:

  • Cakes and other goods that are too tender, with a weak structure that does not set
  • Cakes that collapse when cooled
  • Over-spreading of cookies
  • A sticky crust
  • Over-caramelized, crunchy cookies

Not enough sugar may result in the following:

  • Thick, tough, or cracked crusts
  • A too-tight, dry, or tough crumb
  • Pale coloring in baked goods
  • Runny glazes and frostings

The Major Types of Sugar

Sugar comes in many different shapes, textures, color, and processing. Let’s take a look!

White Sugars — Fine & Coarse

(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

Granulated Sugar

Also known as white or table sugar, this is the most common sugar used in making pastries. It s highly refined and serves a multitude of purposes. Find granulated sugar in everything from scones and cakes to custards and buttercream.

(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

Superfine Sugar

Also know as caster or baker’s sugar, superfine sugar is the same as granulated sugar, but has a finer grain; it melts and incorporates faster into batters, simple syrups, and glazes. Superfine sugar also dissolves better when making meringue and whipping cream. It may sometimes be substituted with granulated sugar, but may yield grainy texture and increase spread in cookies.

(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

Powdered Sugar

Also know as confectioner’s, icing, or fondant sugar, powdered sugar is granulated sugar that has been ground into a powder. It is easy to dissolve and great for making a glaze and decorative icing (royal icing), and thickens frostings like cream cheese, fudge, and American buttercream. Cornstarch is added to help absorb moisture and prevent it from clumping.

You can find it in various degrees of fineness — 6X, 10X, and 12X — with the coarser varieties being the best for dusting by not melting as quickly and the finer varieties being better for glazes.

(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

Sanding Sugar

Decorative, sometimes colored, sanding sugar is pretty much a coarser granulated sugar. The coarser grain has a higher melting point and holds up better when baked. Sprinkle it on iced cookies and frosted cupcakes!

(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

Pearl Sugar

Nearly the opposite of powdered sugar, peal sugar is the coarsest white sugar. It does not melt quickly when heated, so it is great on top of pastry and baked goods when you don’t want the sugar to be incorporated, like with brioche and chouquettes.

Brown & Less-Processed Sugars

(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

Evaporated Cane Sugar

Closer to granulated than brown sugar, evaporated cane sugar is minimally processed. Like granulated sugar, it is made from sugarcane, but undergoes less filtering. It has a bit of a coarse grain, but can sometimes be used interchangeably with granulated sugar. However, it may slightly alter the color of a final product since it has not been filtered to decolonize from its natural state.

(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

Light Brown Sugar

Brown sugar is refined white sugar, but with some of the molasses left in or even added back. Although more sticky and moist than granulated sugar, it does not actually add any moisture to final products. Light brown sugar has a delicate, caramel flavor.

(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

Dark Brown Sugar

Dark brown sugar is the same as light brown sugar, but with slightly more molasses. Unlike muscovado sugar, you can interchange between light and dark brown sugars.

The molasses in brown sugars — raw, refined, or otherwise — keeps the sugar granules moist and soft. However, if the moisture evaporates, the sugar may harden.

(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

Turbinado Sugar

Another minimally processed sugar, turbinado sugar is similar in taste to brown sugar, but is more dry, coarse, and free-flowing. The processing does remove most of the molasses, but it remains light amber in color and toffee in flavor.

(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

Demerara Sugar

Very similar to turbinado sugar, its fairly large grain makes demerara sugar great for topping and decorating. Demerara sugar is glistening and golden in color, with a subtle toffee flavor.

(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

Muscovado Sugar

Muscovado sugar is the darkest and richest of the brown sugars. It is unrefined cane sugar, where the molasses has not been removed. It has a more complex and intense flavor than typical brown sugar. It should not be substituted 1:1 with other brown sugars since it has a different moisture level. Muscovado sugar itself is moist and has the texture of wet sand.

The Best Way to Store Sugar

Sugar should be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. If stored properly, it can last for about two years. Brown sugar is susceptible to drying out if left in contact with air, so be sure to store it properly.

The Best Ways to Soften Brown Sugar

If your brown sugar does harden, try these tips for softening it before tossing it out:

  • For small clumps, whisk to break up.
  • If you have the time, transfer hardened brown sugar to an airtight container. Throw in a piece of bread or apple slice; the sugar will steal the moisture from the bread, and the apple will soften. Allow to sit for a day or two.
  • If you need a quick fix, try microwaving brown sugar with a damp paper towel draped over it at 20-second intervals.
(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

Every lesson has three homework options. Maybe you’ve already got one down, or you just have time for a quick study session. So pick one, and show us by tagging it with #kitchnbakingschool on Instagram or Twitter.

(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

Share your favorite sugar bomb baking project with us on Instagram or Twitter. #kitchnbakingschool

(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

Pick up a new-to-you sugar at the grocery store.

(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

Practice creaming butter and sugar together; save it and use it for cookies tomorrow!

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