The Serious Eats Guide to Sugar
Some people get their kicks from an algebraic formula, some like theories of perpetual motion, and others get all jazzed about the periodic table. I am not, nor have I ever been, any of these people. Science and math were filed away in a back cabinet of my brain somewhere, sometime after high school. But suddenly, words like "hygroscopic," "disaccharide," and "refractometer" started entering my lexicon with alarming frequency. My love for sugar lured me back to science with its cakes and caramels, and this time around it was totally sweet!
Of course, you don't have to be Bill Nye to make a meringue. But understanding sugar's role in baking and candy-making helps! From cane to beets and crystals to syrup, here's what you need to know about the world's most popular sweeteners.
What is sugar anyway?
There are many different molecules that fall under the scientific umbrella of sugar, but when most folks say "sugar," they're talking about table sugar, a.k.a. sucrose.
Technically speaking, typical table sugar is composed of two, single sugar molecules, glucose and fructose. The duo fell in love, and eventually, the two consenting molecules decided to bond. And so table sugar, or sucrose, was born—a happy "disaccharide." Well, basically.
Sucrose is indeed a "disaccharide," which means it contains two, smaller sugar molecules. But there are lots of different disaccharides and monosaccharides out there in the world, each with their own, unique sweetening powers. Read on to learn more, or head down to our index of sugars and natural sweeteners.
Meet the Cast
- Glucose: Not to be confused with "glucose syrup," it comes from plants like sugar cane.
- Fructose: Also called "fruit sugar," it can naturally be found in honey, trees, vine fruit, flowers, and berries.
- Galactose: The least sweet of the monosaccharides, it often joins up with glucose to form the disaccharide, lactose.
- Maltose: Found in grains!
- Lactose: Found in milk!
- Sucrose: The familiar white crystals sold on supermarket shelves. Found in cookies!
The sugar we're primarily concerned with here is "sucrose," which we will henceforth simply refer to as "sugar." The majority of table sugar is about 99.8% pure sucrose and is processed from either sugar cane or sugar beets (60% from sugarcane and 40% from beets.). You can think of them in two broad categories: dry crystalline and syrup.
Can syrup be substituted for brown sugar or granulated sugar in recipes?
Although syrups and granulated sugars are both sweeteners, it's difficult to use them interchangeably without adjusting a lot of other ingredients. The water content of sweeteners becomes particularly important when making substitutions. Since syrups typically contain 20% water and 80% sugar, there is a basic formula for substitutes, but it should be used with caution. The formula is very basic and doesn't take into consideration the sweetness levels of different sugars. That said, it does act as a good starting point for recipe experimentation.
- Granulated Sugar ÷ 0.8 = The weight of syrup to be used
- Weight of syrup to be used - Weight of sugar used = The weight of how much liquid should be reduced
So, when do I use dry-crystalline sugar versus syrup?
The short answer? What type of sugar you use depends on the application and desired result. Granular sugars and syrups brown at different temperatures, contribute to moisture in different ways, and have varying sweetness levels. Understanding the unique properties of the sugar will help you decide what sugar to use. As a general rule, syrups contribute more moisture, browning, and sweetness than granule sugars.
Now for the long answer: Dry-crystalline sugars are primarily differentiated and named for their particle size (superfine, course), or application (sanding, confectioners'). The size of the particles makes them good for some things, but not for others. For specific types of dry-crystalline sugars and their uses, check out the index!
Meanwhile, syrups typically contain around 20% water, and practically all of them contain more than simply pure sucrose. Various combinations of sucrose, maltose, fructose, glucose and, sometimes, trace minerals, give each syrup unique characteristics, flavors, and sweetening powers. Sometimes syrups can be used interchangeably, but they tend to contribute more moisture and sweetness than their crystalline brethren.
We know sugar is sweet, but what does it actually DO?
- Sweetens: One of it's most beloved qualities; sugar's sweetness has been in high demand for many thousands of years. Actual sugar cane production began in Persia and India between the fourth and sixth centuries. We've gone nuts for the stuff ever since.
- Moistens: Sugar is hygroscopic, which means that water thinks it's pretty great—and really, who can blame it? If you ever put a lollipop in the fridge, only to return to a pool of bright pink sugar syrup, it is because of sugar's water-attracting property. But being hygroscopic does more than melt your lollies. When used in baking, sugar's attraction to water interferes with structure builders, such as gluten, creating a more tender and moist product. In ice cream-making, we call sugar an "anti-freeze," because its hygroscopicity prevents crystal formation and creates a softer, creamier texture.
- Browns/Promotes Caramelization: Although it may seem obvious, it's important to say that sugar caramelizes. This not only creates delicious candy possibilities and magically transforms sugar's flavor profile, but it also promotes browning in baked goods. Sucrose must be heated to around 320°F before it starts to caramelize. Monosaccharides brown faster than disaccharides, which is why syrups often brown faster.
- Assists in Leavening: Leavening is just a baker word for "making things rise." Creaming butter with sugar is a form of mechanical leavening (as opposed to chemical leavening, which refers to the use of baking power or baking soda). The irregular shapes of the granulated sugar crystals cut through softened butter and trap air, leading to a lighter end product.
- Provides bulk: Sugar is not typically considered the structure-builder or primary ingredient in baked goods, but when it comes to candy, sugar is the star player.
- Stabilizes whipped egg foams: This is important for meringues and mousses. Sugar's hygroscopic properties come into play again with the stabilization of egg foams. Sugar binds with water in the egg, preventing it from leaking out of the foam.
- Helps form a crust: Crusts form when moisture evaporates and sugars crystalize. This is particularly noticeable in cookies, brownies and pound cakes, when formulas are high in sugar and low in moisture. More hygroscopic sweeteners (honey, fructose, invert sugar) will prevent crust formation because they retain moisture.
Okay, so I have a recipe that calls for granulated sugar but I don't have any in the house. Can I substitute with brown sugar or powdered sugar?
When it comes to sugar substitutes, it is important to keep in mind what baking or cooking method you'll be using. For example, if you substitute brown sugar for granulated sugar during the creaming method (i.e. cookies), it will work, but extra moisture in brown sugars affects aeration of the butter. Its higher hygroscopicity also changes the final texture of the product creating a less crisp, more moist result. Read more about substituting brown sugars.
Powdered sugar, on the other hand, gets even trickier because the granules aren't large enough to effectively cut through and aerate the butter. Plus, it also contains some cornstarch, which absorbs moisture in the cookie batter. Will your final result be something cookie-like? Sure. Will it be everything you'd hoped for in a cookie? Probably not.
So I bought the right sugar. Does it matter how I store it?
- Dry-crystalline sugars should be stored in an airtight bag because they will pick up unwanted moisture and odors.
- High-moisture syrups (maple syrup, simple syrup) should be stored in the refrigerator because they create an enticing environment for microorganisms, which can lead to spoilage.
- Some syrups should not be refrigerated. Sugars high in glucose (honey, invert syrup, corn syrup) crystallize when they get cold, as the glucose separates from the solution and takes on a crystal form.
Uh oh, I put my honey in the fridge? How can I restore crystalized syrup?
Stop! Don't throw it away! There is a common misconception that crystallized honey has gone bad, but this simply isn't the case. Simply heat it up by placing the syrup container in a bowl of warm water. Only heat up what you plan to use, because repeated heating and cooling can degrade your honey into a flavorless yellow goo.
My brown sugar has turned into a hard, solid mass. How do I soften it?
- Microwave Method: Place your sugar lump in a microwave bowl. Dampen a paper towel and place it over the sugar. Microwave for about 15-20 seconds at a time. If it's still hard and if necessary, microwave for another few seconds.
- Slice of Bread Method: Place the hardened sugar in an airtight container. Put in something moist with it, like a slice of bread. After about 24-48 hours, your sugar will suck all the moisture out of the bread, leaving it dry. An apple slice works too...just make sure to take the apple out your sugar has softened.
I've heard that sugar isn't vegan. Is that true?
In the past, refineries typically used bone char to decolorize sugar. While no longer a universal practice, those who follow a vegan diet should double check with manufacturers. Today, it is more likely that your sugar was whitened using a mineral-based carbon-activated filter.
Now for the fun stuff! Check out our growing list of basic essentials, tips, and tricks for cooking with sugar, or jump straight on over to our sugars index!
- How to make caramels
- Using liquid sugars like corn syrup for smoother, less icy sorbets
- How to make simple syrups
- How to macerate
- How to make spun sugar
- How to make toffee
- How to cream butter with sugar
- How to make Swiss buttercream
- How to make French meringue
- Modeling with rolled fondant
- Decorating with royal icing
Sugars and Natural Sweeteners: The Index
We've pulled together the most common sugars, syrups, and natural sweeteners. Read through 'em all or jump straight to the one you're looking for!
|Crystalline Sugars||Sugar Syrups||Nature's Candy|
(Regular) White Granulated Sugar
You know it, you love it, you make your cookies and cakes with it—multipurpose granulated sugar has fine- to medium-sized granules, making it the most often-used sugar in recipes.
When it comes to garnishing, coarse sugar is the go-to granule of choice. Larger crystal sizes give products a crunchy exterior, and due to the size, it doesn't melt as readily when baked.
Pearl, or nib, sugar is very popular in northern Europe. Unlike course sugar, pearl sugar is opaque, resembling roundish granules of a broken sugar cube. It gives extra sweetness and crunch to the top of a cake or pastry and remains very visible, even after you bake a product.
Also called "ultrafine," superfine sugar granules are smaller than granulated sugar. The small size dissolves easily, making it ideal for syrups, meringues, and cocktails. It also works well for sugaring baked goods after they've been baked—think shortbread cookies and brioche buns. Superfine sugar can be used in baking but keep in mind that when creaming, (as with making cookies), the smaller grain size incorporates smaller air cells into the batters.
A sugar of many names, powered sugar, also called icing, confectioner's, or fondant sugar, is a sucrose crystal that's been pulverized to a very fine powder. Because it tends to clump, cornstarch is added (typically at about 3%). As a result of the cornstarch, powdered sugar can convey a less clean and less sweet flavor. You may come across different numbers on powdered sugars (4X, 6X and 10X). These indicate how many times the sugar has been processed—the higher the number, the finer the powder.
Sugar in the Raw
Also called "demereara" or "turbinado," sugar in the raw is often a go-to choice for vegans and food naturalists alike. Less processed than regular granulated sugar, some molasses is left in the sugar crystals. Sugar in the raw is not good for sugar work or confections because impurities can cause boiling sugar to crystalize.
Brown sugar is refined white sugar with molasses added back in. It can't quite make up its mind. As a result, brown sugar has more moisture than other crystalline sugars. Typical brown sugar has under 10% molasses (catch our whole article and taste test here). In the US, there's actually very little difference in molasses content in light and dark brown sugar. Usually additional caramel color is added to dark brown sugar, affecting the color of your product more than the flavor.
Let's get jaggery with it! Sometimes called jaggery, this is the least processed of the sugars and is sometimes called "unrefined," or raw sugar. Not to be confused with "sugar in the raw," it's not spun at all and no molasses is removed (more on that in a moment!). Cane juice is simply left to evaporate in open pans and then formed into bricks, loaves, or cones.
Molasses is a byproduct of a centrifugal sugar refining process. Imagine a giant salad spinner and you get the gist of centrifuge. Evaporated cane juice is spun, forcing residual liquid off of the crystals, and the liquid byproduct is molasses. With characteristic spicy caramel-y flavor, molasses ranges from light to dark brown, with "blackstrap" being the darkest. From baked beans and barbecue to gingerbread and pumpkin pie, molasses contributes distinct flavor, as well as sweetness, to sweet and savory dishes alike. It also contains lots of minerals like iron, calcium, and magnesium, to name a few.
Invert Sugar: Molecule Splitting Fun!
You hold the power to split molecules! Inversion—the act of splitting sucrose into its two, individual molecules (fructose and glucose)—creates a syrup. Manufacturers invert sugar by treating sucrose with an enzyme, but inversion can also be accomplished at home with the application of heat and an acid. At the most basic level, invert syrup is fructose and sucrose dissolved in water. What makes invert sugar so special? Because of all the monosaccharides, it's more hygroscopic that sucrose, and therefore keeps baked good more moist longer. It also discourages crystallization, which is important when making smooth caramels or creamy ice cream. Invert syrup browns more quickly than sucrose, so if you're making substitutions with invert syrup, make sure you lower your oven temperature by about 25°F.
Glucose Corn Syrup
Corn syrup is manufactured through the breakdown of starch. Starch is a complex carbohydrate that's made up of tons of glucose and maltose molecules. When the starch is broken down into smaller units, the glucose and maltose is freed from its bonds, creating a sugary syrup. Glucose syrups range in how much maltose, glucose and starch they have, but they all contain some amount of sugar. Karo syrup, which a common brand of glucose syrup, also contains vanilla.
Dark Corn Syrup
In the United States, dark corn syrup is light glucose corn syrup with added molasses, caramel coloring and flavoring. Some dark corn syrup manufacturers also add salt.
High Fructose Corn Syrup
High fructose corn syrup has gotten a lot of negative press lately, but what is it? Basically, it's a type of glucose syrup that has a higher ratio of fructose to glucose. While some versions of high glucose corn syrup contains only 60% fructose, others contain up to 90%. A lot of its controversy revolves around it being incredibly inexpensive, so manufacturers use lots of it—especially in sugary drinks like soda.
Sugars found in nature are still sugar. Although less refined, they are all largely composed of the same simple chemicals.
The oldest of the sweeteners, honey was once so coveted that it was often buried with Pharaohs to use in the afterlife. Like many syrups, honey keeps baked products moist and browns easily. If you substitute honey for granulated sugar, you should reduce the water content in your formula since most honeys contains about 18% water. Honey comes in a variety of forms including liquid, naturally crystallized, whipped, and in comb form (the comb is edible!).
Maple is basically tree candy. Made from boiling sap, it is produced throughout the northeastern United States and Canada. Since sap is mostly water, it takes a lot of sap to make maple syrup—about 40 gallons of sap produce 1 gallon of syrup! Maple syrup is a great tool to have in your kitchen cabinet. About 1 cup of maple syrup can be substituted for 1 cup of granulated sugar, but like other syrups, reduce the overall liquid content in your baking formula by about ½ cup for each cup of sugar replaced.
This succulent, tropical plant also gives us tequila! To produce agave syrup, the plants are pressed and the sap is extracted. It can be used similarly to glucose/corn syrup. The agave plant also contains the starch inulin, which when broken down with heat, creating glucose and fructose. Different syrups contain different amounts of glucose to fructose, with sometimes as much as 90% fructose. This makes its super sweet!