Baking with Specialty Sugars

specialty sugars

Here at Bakepedia we call for sugar in our recipes, which references white granulated sugar. Sometimes called table sugar, granulated is the go-to for most American and European-style baking recipes. Light brown and dark brown sugars come into play often as well, with confectioners’ (powdered sugar) and superfine sugar close behind. For many bakers, this is where their pantry, and experimentation, ends, but there are plenty of granulated specialty sugars that you might have never heard of or played with in the kitchen! We’re talking about evaporated cane juice, also known as natural cane sugar; turbinado sugar, also known as Demerara or the type sold by Sugar in the Raw; sucanat; Muscovado; and fondant and icing sugars (even though some of these may call themselves raw, they are all processed, albeit minimally).

Image: Peter Muka


Image: Dédé Wilson

  • Evaporated Cane Juice – Companies like Bob’s Red Mill, Florida Crystals and Zulka Pure Cane Sugar sell evaporated cane juice or natural cane sugar, and while these products have a very pale tan or light brown color from the remaining molasses naturally occurring in the sugar cane, they are very fine in texture, are quite similar to white table sugar and can be substituted cup for cup. Evaporated cane juice sugar is shown on the left above.
  • Turbinado/Demerara – Sugar in the Raw is a brand that many people are familiar with (it’s the little brown packets at Starbucks), and it is a turbinado or Demerara sugar. Billington’s brand Demerara is on the right in the image above. Also minimally processed, this type has a larger crystal than evaporated cane juice, and retains color and flavor from some molasses content. The larger crystals mean that they will take longer to dissolve – when creaming with butter, for instance – but they can be used as a white-sugar substitute with some changes in outcome, mostly textural.A simple description of the manufacturing process is that the cane juice, which is rich in molasses, vitamins and minerals, is extracted from the plant (pressed out). Solids are discarded, and the cane juice is boiled, evaporated and crystallized. The crystals are then heated and the natural molasses separates out through a process that involves a centrifuge or turbine-like machine – hence the name turbinado. The result is a blonde, natural sugar, which is then washed and steamed. You can see that these sugars are not raw, but they are considered only partially refined.
  • Sucanat – The name stands for sucre de canne naturel (natural sugar cane). This product is whole, unrefined cane sugar. The manufacturer crushes the sugar cane, extracts its juice, heats the juice and reduces it to thick syrup that is hand-paddled, then dehydrates the syrup to forms dry, porous granules. There is nothing added and nothing taken away, which is why many people believe this is a better sugar option. It is a favorite of many vegans and vegetarians as well because bone char is not used in the production of Sucanat, while it is used for refined white sugar. (It also contains trace amounts of iron, calcium, vitamin B6 and potassium.)The molasses aroma and taste of Sucanat is quite noticeable, and it does have a larger granule than white sugar or products like Zulka Morena. While it can be used cup for cup as a white-sugar replacement, it can take longer for the granules to dissolve and sometimes the recipe will need a bit of additional water. This is because Sucanat is drier than white sugar. Wholesome Sweeteners markets Sucanat and their brand representative explained to us, “other sugars are evaporated and crystallized. Sucanat is dehydrated and aerated.” It is a very different process and the result is a unique product.
  • Muscovado – This is a type of cane sugar that is sometimes described as unrefined (Billington’s uses this term, but they are essentially just less refined) and comes in light and dark and shown in our top image. Muscovado sugars are natural brown sugars in the sense that the molasses they contain was never stripped away – some commercial brown sugars are made by re-combining refined white sugar with molasses that had been removed during the refining process. They have a much stronger flavor profile than conventional brown sugars. In the top image you can see conventional light brown sugar in the front on the right and conventional dark brown sugar on the left in the front. Note how this dark brown sugar is more equivalent of the light Muscovado.
    • Light Muscovado: This version is closest perhaps to common dark brown sugar (compare in top image). It has more pronounced molasses flavor than commercial brown sugars and should be used when that strong, natural flavor can be showcased. Try it in a chocolate cake, lighter gingerbreads or spice cake.
    • Dark Muscovado: Also called Barbados sugar. This sugar tastes deeply of molasses with a bitter edge that works well in dark and sticky gingerbreads, barbecue sauce or anywhere you want a rich, pronounced molasses flavor.
  • Fondant and Icing Sugar – This is like super-duper fine powdered sugar, 1/100th of the size of most confectioners’ sugar. It dissolves quite rapidly and creates ultra-smooth fondants and icings based on powdered sugar.

If you are interested in delving even further into the world of specialty sugars you can learn about birch sugar, wasanbon, jaggery, black treacle and more in an illuminating and thorough article by Rose Levy Beranbaum, originally published in FoodArts magazine in 2000. I held onto that hard copy for years, but it is accessible through her blog.

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