Sugar. Loved by some, loathed by others. And like so many other food groups, certainly not great if consumed to excess. There, that’s the elephant in the room dealt with 😉
I’m not here to debate, celebrate or demonise sugar in this post. This article is about helping you to understand the role of sugar in baking, the different types of sugar available and the characteristics each one imparts on your baked goods.
SPOTLIGHT ON SUGAR: SO WHAT IS SUGAR?
Sugar is one of the four staple ingredients used in conventional cake baking (along with egg, flour and fat). And sugar is sugar, right? Well, kind of. Refined, unrefined, brown, white, coarse, powdered, liquid, substitutes…So yeah, sugar is just sugar. Hmm.
As you can see, there are lots of different sugars available to the home baker, each of which will bring something different to your baked goods. The primary aim of sugar in baking, however, is to:
The hygroscopic nature of sugar is both a blessing and a curse. It is useful to us as bakers because of its ability to hold on to moisture and keep our cakes and bakes moist. But this ability to retain moisture can also be rather unhelpful if we are working with things like sugarpaste, brittles and spun sugar. Moisture from the air will be drawn to our sugar work, making it sticky. This is the reason you shouldn’t store cakes covered in sugarpaste in the fridge. It is also why you should always keep your bags of sugar sealed and stored in a cool, dry place.
REFINED AND UNREFINED SUGARS
Sugar can be either refined or unrefined. Refined sugar is the one most of us will be familiar with and that we will use most at home. Refined sugar is processed to remove the naturally dark colour, resulting in (for example) the white ‘table (granulated) sugar’ we know and love.
Unrefined sugar, on the other hand, has not been put through a refining process. Typically, unrefined sugars have more flavour than their refined counterparts. Maple syrup, treacle (molasses) and raw honey are all forms of unrefined sugar. It is also possible to buy unrefined golden granulated and golden caster sugar.
THREE TYPES OF SUGAR: EVERYDAY, NICHE AND DECORATIVE
I like to think of sugars as falling into one of three categories: everyday sugars, niche sugars and decorative sugars. I have grouped them this way based on how they are most commonly used in baking. Let’s now take a look at each of these in turn…
SPOTLIGHT ON SUGAR: EVERYDAY SUGARS
Granulated sugar is a coarse, refined sugar. You may sometimes hear it referred to as table sugar and it is the stuff that most of us typically have in the sugar canister in our kitchens for adding to hot drinks.
It is great for adding a crunchy texture to toppings (like jammy doughnuts and drizzle cakes) but for baking, you are better off using caster sugar.
The main brands of granulated sugar available in UK supermarkets are Tate and Lyle and Silver Spoon. Some of the major supermarkets in the UK also sell their own brand of granulated sugar.
Caster sugar has a finer texture and the grains are smaller than those in granulated sugar. This makes it better for use in cakes and cookies as it will produce a smoother, more even-textured cake batter or cookie dough.
The main brand of caster sugar available in UK supermarkets is Silver Spoon. Some of the major supermarkets in the UK also sell own brand sugar.
LIGHT BROWN AND DARK BROWN SUGARS
Brown sugars are essentially refined white sugar with varying degrees of molasses added back in.
They have a higher moisture content than white sugars and impart a caramel-like flavour. And, by their very nature of being brown, they add more colour to baked goods. Brown sugars are also slightly acidic, which means they work well with the leavening agent bicarbonate of soda. (For more on leaveners, see my article on baking powder and bicarbonate of soda, the difference between the two and when to use them).
Billington’s brown sugar is the brand you will see most frequently in UK supermarkets alongside own brand versions of both light and dark brown sugar.
SPOTLIGHT ON SUGAR: NICHE SUGARS
Demerara sugar is a less refined version of granulated sugar, with larger crystals. It is a form of brown sugar but has a lower moisture content than every day brown sugars as the molasses content is lower.
Demerara sugar straddles both the niche and decorative sugar categories. Its large, coarse grains make it great for finishing cakes with a sweet crunchy topping. These large sugar crystals make it less suitable for use in cakes using the creaming method but can work well in cake recipes that follow the melting method, as demerara sugar dissolves well in warm liquids.
Available in both light and dark varieties, muscovado sugar is derived from raw cane sugar. It is less refined than brown sugar. Its colour is determined by the molasses content (the more molasses, the darker the sugar). It has a high moisture content and a good caramel (light) or toffee (dark) flavour.
It is a great addition to classic autumnal and winter bakes like gingerbread, parkin and fruit cake.
SPOTLIGHT ON SUGAR: DECORATIVE SUGARS
Icing sugar has a super-fine texture and generally includes a small amount of starch (typically corn/maize), which acts as an anti-caking agent to stop the icing sugar from clumping. That said, you should *always* sift your icing sugar before adding it to your other ingredients (for example, beaten butter if you are making buttercream icing).
Icing sugar is not great in cake-making but is perfect for buttercreams, icing glazes and sweet sauces because it dissolves very easily. You can also use it to dust the top of your cakes and bakes (particularly effective on festive bakes).
The main brands of icing sugar available in UK supermarkets are Tate and Lyle and Silver Spoon.
SUGAR PEARLS / NIBBED SUGAR
Sugar pearls – also known as nibbed sugar – are large, coarse crystals of sugar that hold their shape and texture and don’t melt when subjected to high heat. This makes them great as decorative sugar toppings that can be added to a bake *before* it is put in the oven.
You will often see sugar pearls on top of bakery-style muffins and cinnamon / Belgian style buns. Sugar pearls are available from specialist bakery and cake decorating suppliers.
SUGARPASTE / READY-TO-ROLL FONDANT
Sugarpaste icing, which is sometimes called ready-to roll fondant, is a pliable, dough-like substance used to decorate cakes and cupcakes. It comes in all colours of the rainbow and shades thereof!
You can get white sugarpaste and some of the most popular colours (red, green, yellow, blue, pink) in many supermarkets in the UK. But for a wider choice of colours, you will need to visit a specialist cake decorating supplies shop or online store.
A NOTE ON SUGAR SUBSTITUTES
There are sugar substitutes/ replacers and artificial sweeteners available for people who need to reduce their sugar intake. These sweeteners are either low or zero calorie and can be derived from plant extracts or artificially produced through chemical synthesis.
This is not an area in which I have any knowledge or experience and so isn’t something I feel able to write about in this article on sugar in baking.
I hope you have found this spotlight on sugar helpful in understanding the role it plays in baking. The beedy-eyed of you will notice that I haven’t discussed liquid sweeteners (like honey, treacle, golden syrup, agave nectar and maple syrup) in this spotlight on sugar. That’s an article in its own right. And one for another day!