While working on Baking with Specialty Sugars, it occurred to us that it would be helpful to have an article on the sugars we use everyday, because there is more to sugar than you probably first thought. In this article we will address granulated white sugar, superfine sugar, confectioners’ sugar and both light and dark brown sugar, as we consider these the pantry staples.
- White Granulated Sugar – Sometimes labeled as fine-granulated (not to be confused with extra-fine or superfine). This is the most commonly called-for sugar in our recipes and we usually use Domino brand, which is made from sugar cane. It is on the extreme left in the image. White sugar can also be sourced from sugar beets, and there is discussion within the professional baking community about whether they are interchangeable. The argument is that although they are almost the same from a chemical standpoint, beet sugar melts and caramelizes differently and therefore is especially problematic for candy makers and confectioners. Some bakers also claim that beet sugar produces a coarser crumb. The chemical differential is said to be around .05%, the variances mainly due to mineral content and the source, but since they are also processed differently, any dissimilarity could stem from that as well. Also note that beet sugar is often genetically modified (while cane is not) and contains sulphites, which can be an issue for those who are sensitive.
To clarify, if you were to stir a teaspoon of beet or cane sugar into your coffee, we bet you wouldn’t be able to taste the difference. This discussion revolves around the subtle differences that present themselves to the very observant baker and candy maker. In our minds, when you think about the fact that sugar cane grows above ground and sugar beets below and that they are different plants, it doesn’t surprise us that certain variables can become apparent. Both beet and cane sugars can be used to make brown sugar. Read labels. If it says cane sugar or beet sugar, it is that sugar. Unfortunately some companies do not specify, and there are no laws requiring them to do so. We say, pass those by; you won’t know what you are using.
- Superfine Sugar – Also called bar sugar, extra-fine or caster sugar. This is the finest of the granulated white sugars. It is popular with bartenders, as its fine texture means near-instant dissolving properties, even in cold drinks. This is also why some recipes for meringues call for it; it dissolves within the egg whites more readily than regular granulated. You can put regular granulated sugar in your food processor and grind it to a finer consistency and use it in recipes where superfine is recommended, such as some angel food cakes or meringue recipes. It will lose some of its crystalline sparkle, however, so if you need superfine sugar for its look to coat sugared fruit or candied orange peel, use commercially prepared superfine sugar.
Many resources will tell you that regular and superfine can be substituted cup for cup. Their density is different, however – more superfine sugar measures into a cup than regular granulated – but many recipes will work with either, although not necessarily giving exact results. This is where trial and error comes in with specific recipes and we leave you to decide on an individual basis.
- Confectioners’ Sugar – Also called icing or powdered sugar; shown on far right of image. Sometimes the label says “10x,” which refers to the fact that it is 10 times finer than granulated sugar. It also usually has 3% cornstarch added, which some say leaves a raw taste when used in unbaked applications. This can be assessed within sweetened whipped cream. Try one batch sweetened with confectioners’ sugar and another with granulated and taste them side-by-side to see whether your palate is sensitive and which you prefer.
- Light (also called Golden) and Dark Brown Sugars – Commercially available brown sugars are made one of two ways. (Light brown is second from left in image; dark brown is second from right). If derived from sugar cane, a certain proportion of the molasses that is inherent in the plant may be left in during processing or it may be stripped away and added back to white sugar. The former is referred to as “boiled brown” and the latter is called “painted brown.” If you have heard that brown sugar is refined white sugar that has molasses added back in, that can be true and that is the so-called “painted” version. If it is derived from sugar beets, it is always painted brown.To make things even more interesting (to me, anyway, since I am a sugar nerd) the molasses derived from sugar beets does not taste very good; it is usually sold off for use in animal feed. So, the molasses that is “painted” back onto beet sugar to make brown sugar is indeed molasses that has come from sugar cane production!
According to sugar-beet-industry experts from Michigan Sugar, the difference in light and dark brown sugars is not necessarily that there is more molasses added to the dark brown, rather that a different blend of molasses is used. There are different grades of molasses made during sugar production, and they will have different sensory profiles that affect color, taste and aroma. Different blends are also used for light and dark.Our recipes will always specify light or dark. If a recipe does not specify, assume light brown. They are interchangeable; however, dark brown will have a more pronounced molasses flavor, a darker color and slightly more moisture. These sugars contain more moisture than regular granulated sugar and that is the reason why they must be packed upon measuring. We firmly pack in our Test Kitchen.
One problem bakers often encounter is hardened brown sugar. If it is kept in an airtight container, it will retain its moist, packable texture, but if exposed to air, it can become as hard as a rock! We transfer our brown sugar from the bag it is packaged in to glass, airtight containers to prevent this from happening. An old-fashioned approach suggests placing a slice of moist apple or a piece of bread in your container of hard brown sugar, closing it up tight and allowing it to sit over night or for a couple of days. The moisture from the fruit moistens the brown sugar, but the downside here is you would have had to plan ahead. A near-instant way is to lightly moisten a paper towel, seal it up in your container of hard brown sugar and microwave it in 10-second bursts on high power. Depending on the power of your microwave, and how hard your sugar is, this might take up to 30 seconds but probably not more. We like this trick a lot and it works every time. You can also try prevention and use a brown-sugar saver. These are small pieces of terra cotta, often in decorative shapes such as the bears below, that you insert in your brown-sugar storage container after a brief soak in water. They work similarly to the apple, but they can live in your sugar storage indefinitely.