The refined table
sugar we now consider a staple was once so rare and expensive it was called
"white gold". Sugar cane, which was the first source of sugar, is a
perennial grass that originated in Asia but is now grown in tropical and
subtropical areas. (Before the arrival of sugar cane, honey and fruit were
the only sweeteners.) During the Napoleonic war, when the supply of cane
sugar was cut off, the development of an alternative source of sugar was
discovered, beets. The sugar derived from these two sources is 99.8% pure
sucrose, a complex sugar composed of glucose and fructose. There is some
dispute as to which type of sugar is best, sugar cane or sugar beet. The
fact is the refining process for both types now produces sugars of equal
When using sugar most
people think of it only as a sweetener. For example, adding a teaspoon to your
coffee or sprinkling a little over strawberries. But when sugar is used in
baking its role becomes more complex as it also adds volume, tenderness,
texture, color, and acts as a preservative.
When a recipe calls for
creaming together the fat and sugar this is not simply a way of mixing these two
ingredients together. The purpose of doing this step is to get air into the
batter. This mixing causes the sugar granules to rub against the fat producing
air bubbles in the fat. Later when the leavener is added, the leavening gases
enlarge these air bubbles and cause the batter to rise when place in the oven.
The length of time you cream the butter with the sugar determines the amount of
air incorporated into the batter.
Sugar also attracts
moisture in the batter which reduces the amount of gluten formed in the flour.
The result of this is twofold. First, less gluten in the batter produces a
baked good with a more tender crumb. Hence, recipes that contain a high sugar
content produce a baked good with a more tender crumb Second, because not as
much gluten is formed, the batter will be lighter. When baked, the batter will
be able to rise more and the result will be a baked good with more volume.
The ability of sugar to
hold moisture also prolongs the shelf life of baked goods. Liquid sugars hold
more moisture than other types of sugars. Just as brown sugar will hold more
moisture than granulated white sugar.
You may have wondered
why batters brown in the oven. The browning is the result of the sugar reacting
with the protein in other ingredients (eggs, milk) when heated. The higher the
sugar content the darker the crust.
There are different
types of sugar and the size of the granules can differ. Sugars vary in color
from white to dark brown depending on the amount of molasses added during
processing. The size of the sugar crystal affects the amount of air that can be
incorporated into the batter during the creaming of the sugar and fat. For
example, granulated sugar will incorporate more air into the batter than
confectioner's sugar. The size of the crystal will also affect how quickly the
sugar will dissolve in the batter. Therefore confectioner's sugar will dissolve
quicker in the batter than granulated sugar.
White sugar is a
refined sugar derived from sugar cane and sugar beets. It is sold in many
granule sizes ranging from superfine to coarse.
sugar or table sugar has fine to medium-sized granules and is the
sugar most often used in recipes. Try to find one where the crystals are not
too large as they do differ from manufacturer to manufacturer. When heated
granulated white sugar takes on a toffee-like color and flavor.
Superfine (castor or
caster) sugar is granulated white sugar that has superfine granules and is
good for making meringues as it dissolves rapidly. You can make your own by
processing granulated sugar in your food processor for a few seconds.
Coarse (decorators or
pearl) sugar is granulated white sugar that has been processed into small,
round grains that are larger than the grains of granulated sugar. They are
typically used for garnishing baked goods.
Crystal sugar is
like coarse sugar except the crystals are pellet shaped.
powdered or icing sugar is granulated sugar that has been ground to a powder
with cornstarch added to prevent lumping and crystallization. It comes in 4X, 6X
and 10X but 10X is the one generally found in stores. 10X means that the
granulated sugar has been processed ten times. Confectioners sugar is used in
meringues, icings, confections, and some sweet pastry.
Invert sugar is
mainly used for commercial purposes and is produced by heating cane or beet
sugar with a small amount of acid, such as tartaric acid. It comes in syrup
form and is used in cake and candy making. Invert sugar gives baked goods:
added sweetness and crust color, prolongs shelf-life, and when used in icings it
produces added smoothness.
Brown sugar is a
refined sugar that varies in color from light to dark brown and
has a full-bodied flavor and soft moist texture. In the past brown sugar was
semi-refined white sugar where some of the natural molasses was left in. Now
brown sugar is made by adding molasses back into refined white sugar. The color
will depend on the amount of molasses added during processing of the sugar. The
darker the color the stronger the taste so use the one you like the best. The
same weight of brown and white sugars has the same sweetness. Because white
sugar is denser than brown sugar, to get equal sweetness firmly pack the brown
sugar so when inverted the cup of brown sugar will hold its shape. Substituting
brown sugar for white sugar in a recipe will produce a baked good that is a
little moister with a slight butterscotch flavor.
Brown sugar has the
tendency to lump and become hard. To avoid this, store in a glass jar or plastic
bag in a cool dry place. If is becomes hard, soften it by placing a slice of
apple in a plastic bag along with the brown sugar for a few days. You can also
sprinkle a few drops of water on it and seal in plastic bag for a few days.
Raw Sugar is what
is left after processing the sugar cane to remove the molasses and refine the
white sugar. In North America raw sugar is actually not "raw" as it has been
partially refined to remove any contaminants. The color is similar to light
brown sugar but it's texture is grainier.
Demerara sugar is
a raw sugar that has been purified. It comes from Guyana and is a dry,
coarse-textured amber sugar that has a toffee-like flavor.
Muscovada or Barbados
sugar is another raw sugar that has been purified. It has a finer grain
that Demerara and very moist. Its color ranges from light to dark brown and it
has a strong molasses taste.
is a raw sugar that has been steam cleaned. It is light brown in color and
coarse grained, with a slight molasses flavor.