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.

Sugar, sugar

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.

Liq­uid Gold

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.

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