Visions of sugar
Sugar comes in many different forms, choose the right one for your holiday baking
Come the holidays – my pantry overflows with sugar. Some resemble powdery snow, diamond chips or moist earth, while others take pourable form. Each brings its own delights. I’m like a kid in a candy shop – only I’m the candy maker. And the kid.
While sugar is a simple carbohydrate, baking with it can be confusing. One of the most common questions I field in baking class involves when and if you can change the type of sugar called for. The answer is not a simple yes or no, but rather a complicated, “It depends.”
Yes, sugar adds sweetness, but it does much more than that. In baking, it provides structure, retains moisture, makes the baked good tender, and caramelizes for a depth of flavour artificial sweeteners just can’t deliver. It also helps baked goods brown. Its complex role is one reason sugar comes in so many different forms. The right sweetener ensures your honey cake is moist and tender or your sugar cookie snaps. Swap willy-nilly and you might be serving your brownies with a side of disappointment.
No matter what form it takes, sugar is a preservative. Once sealed against moisture, any kind of sugar should keep for years.
Granulated sugar: This is white table sugar. Recipes usually specify granulated only if other sugars are involved to avoid confusion. If a recipe doesn’t specify what type of sugar to use, they mean granulated. When a recipe calls for superfine sugar, make your own by grinding granulated sugar in a blender or food processor for a few seconds.
Brown sugar: Whether light, golden or dark, brown sugar is white sugar with molasses added back in. The more molasses, the darker the sugar. Demerara, the darkest and most coarse brown sugar, adds a lovely butterscotch undertone.
Because of its high moisture content, brown sugar can dry out and turn to sweet concrete if not properly sealed. Once opened, bury a moistened sugar disk in the sugar, and place in a resealable bag with the air squeezed out. If your brown sugar is already rock-like, soften it by zapping it in the microwave on “defrost” for a minute or two.
Icing sugar: Sometimes called confectioner’s sugar or powdered sugar, this is granulated sugar ground to a powder with some cornstarch added. As the name suggests, it’s used for icing, but can also be used in cookies or whipped cream when a bit more structure is needed.
Turbinado: A light brown, coarse sugar, turbinado is mainly sprinkled on top of cookies, galettes and muffins when a crunchy finish is desired. If it’s too crunchy for you, granulated sugar works perfectly well.
These pourables add moisture as well as sweetness to baked goods. They work well in cake and muffin batters, but will leave some cookies limp.
To make handling these sticky sugars easier, grease a dry measure scoop with a bit of cooking oil before measuring them. They will slide out and into your bowl easily.
Corn syrup: Store-brand golden corn syrup is not the dreaded high-fructose version nutritionists warn us about. While far from a health food, it’s useful in holding together no-bake treats.
Honey: The delicate but distinct flavours in artisanal honey will be lost in most baked goods. Generic liquid honey is best for baking as it’s easy to pour and less expensive. Because honey has a slight acidity, many recipes call for a bit of baking soda to counterbalance this.
Maple syrup: The boiled sap of sugar maple trees, this sweetener comes in various grades and colours. The darker the syrup, the more intense the maple flavour. Unlike other sugars, once opened, maple sugar needs to be refrigerated or it will go mouldy.
Molasses: Fancy molasses, also called light molasses, adds sweetness and a delicate flavour to your baking, working nicely with spices like ginger and cloves. Dark molasses (sometimes called cooking molasses) and light molasses can be used interchangeably, depending on your preference and the spicing of the baked goods. However, intense blackstrap molasses is too bitter and can easily overpower cookies or loaves. Save it for baked bean recipes.