Sugar in all its glorious forms is one of the most important ingredients in baking, and I certainly couldn’t run my blog with out it. Here’s an overview of everything you need to know about the sweet stuff…
We’re closing in on the fall baking season, my favorite time of year. One of the first signs of it is in the supermarket baking aisle…one day you’re wandering along and notice that all of a sudden it’s packed to the gills with new spices, flavorings, and baking supplies. In anticipation of holiday baking the sugar section bulks up like crazy. My sugar buying habits have always been pretty straightforward, I stock regular, powdered and brown sugar most of the year. But I do sometimes branch out, and there’s no better time than now to do it.
Recipes often call for specific sugars, and I thought it would be fun to lay them all out on the table and figure out exactly what’s what when it comes to sugar. Plain old white sugar is referred to as ‘granulated sugar‘. It’s extracted from sugar cane in a pretty elaborate process that involves refining and bleaching. It’s the most universal. If you only had this in your kitchen you’d get by. But there is also something called ‘superfine sugar‘, also known as ‘castor sugar‘ ‘bar sugar‘ or ‘baker’s sugar‘ that I love to use for certain things. The difference is in the fineness of the sugar crystal. Because it’s finer, superfine sugar dissolves quicker in drinks, creams with butter faster, and bakes up into a more delicate crumb. You can approximate a superfine sugar by putting regular sugar in the food processor and whizzing it for a minute or so. If you do a lot of baking, or drink a lot of sweetened beverages, you should have superfine sugar around. I even used superfine sugar for my Homemade Lip Scrub because the crystals are smaller and gentler on the lips.
Powdered sugar, or ‘confectioner’s sugar‘ is white sugar that’s been ground even further into a fine powder. It usually contains a little bit of corn starch added as an anti-caking agent. Powdered sugar is used for frostings, glazes, and for dusting. It’s usually not used in baking, although some cookie recipes call for it when they are looking for a very delicate crumb and no trace of graininess. My Melting Moments cookies, for instance, use confectioner’s sugar in both the cookie dough and the icing. You can also make this sugar at home by grinding regular sugar in a food processor, just like above, only for a longer time. No need to add the corn starch if you’ll be using it right away.
Brown sugars are my favorites, I often substitute them for white sugar in recipes just because I love the rich earthy flavor they add. Brown sugar is simply white sugar with a little molasses added. Molasses is itself a byproduct of the sugar making process, it’s removed during the refining. ”Dark brown‘ sugar has more molasses added to it than ‘golden’ or ‘light brown‘. Store them in zip lock plastic bags to keep them from hardening. Recipes will usually call for brown sugar to be ‘packed’ or ‘firmly packed’ in the measuring cup because brown sugar doesn’t flow like white. It clumps and has more air pockets so it needs to be pressed into a cup measure for accuracy.
And yes, you can absolutely make your own brown sugar by mixing regular sugar with a little molasses. I show how to do it here. For a cup of white sugar, add 2 tablespoons of molasses and process it in a small food processor until combined. The more molasses you add, the darker your sugar will be. Dark Brown sugar is a little over 6% molasses.
‘Muscovado‘ sugar is the darkest of brown sugars. It’s a moist, minimally refined very dark brown sugar with a stronger molasses flavor. I was excited to find some at Whole Foods and I’m looking forward to experimenting with it, especially in things like gingerbread. ‘Raw‘, ‘Natural‘, or ‘turbinado‘ sugar is also minimally refined but has a larger crustal, a golden color and a mild flavor. I don’t use it for baking because of the large crustal size, but it is perfect for when you want a pretty sugar coating on things like muffins and cookies. I used it to sprinkle on my Oat Scones before baking. Some people like it stirred into coffee because it imparts a slight molasses flavor.
I was also thrilled to find pure ‘maple sugar‘ at Whole Foods last week. It’s made with maple sugar sap, just the same way maple syrup is made, but the sap is boiled so long that all the moisture evaporates and the sugar crystals are left. You can use it just like regular sugar, although it is sweeter. I love maple flavor, and I’ve had trouble finding pure maple extract for my baking, so I will use the maple sugar when I want that warm flavor.
While I had all my sugars out I decided to make some homemade colored sugars. It couldn’t be easier. Just take about 1/4 cup of regular or superfine white sugar and add one or two drops of either liquid or gel food color. You will need to stir for a minute or so to distribute the color evenly throughout the sugar. If the sugar is damp, spread it out to let it dry, and then stir it again before using or storing. You can make any color you want, so this is a great trick to know for the holidays. Gel food coloring comes in especially vibrant shades, too and it’s a great project for kids. Use it to customize plain old store bought cookie dough.
And don’t forget about flavoring your sugars. You can drop used vanilla beans into a sugar container and it will infuse it with a gorgeous vanilla flavor. You can also add cinnamon, or a combination of fall spices like cinnamon, allspice, ginger, and cloves to sugar and use it whenever you want an instant hit of fall spice in your baking without having to measure out each one. I would use it in pancakes, muffins, etc.
Any other sugar tips, tricks, or trivia? I’d love to hear them!