In the culinary arts, the word "sugar" refers to crystalized sucrose that is derived either from sugar cane or sugar beets.
Chemically, sucrose is a disaccharide, just like maltose (which comes from grain) and lactose (which comes from milk).
Sugar provides sweetness, and it also performs a number of interesting functions in baking. For instance, sugar slows down the formation of gluten in wheat flour, which means baked goods will tend to be softer, with a finer texture, the more sugar they contain.
Because of they way it turns brown (aka caramelization) when heated, sugar gives color to baked goods.
Sugar also has a property called hygroscopy, which means it attracts and retains moisture. This helps baked goods stay fresher longer, since the presence of sugar helps prevent the ordinary drying out, or staling, of breads, cakes, and so on.
And of course, sugar is the food for the yeast organisms that cause breads to rise.
While there is no standard labeling system for sugars, other than the various ways individual manufacturers choose to label their products, we can classify sugars by the size of their grains, and/or by the degree of refining they have been subjected to.
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White Granulated Sugar
White granulated sugar is the most common form of sugar and it's what most home bakers will use the vast majority of the time. Made interchangeably from beets or cane (the manufacturer's label may or may not specify), this is the go-to sugar for everything from baking and desserts to sauce-making, salad dressing, brines, and marinades—to say nothing of cocktails and other beverages. Both the cane and beet versions are 99.95 percent sucrose.
Because of its moisture-attracting properties, granulated sugar can form clumps when stored for a long time, but breaking those clumps up is easy to do, and other than that, sugar doesn't go bad. Just like salt, the shelf life of granulated sugar is basically infinite.
In baking, it's often helpful to work with a finer-grained sugar, because it dissolves more easily and aids in producing cakes and cookies with a very delicate texture. This is where products like superfine and ultrafine sugars come in. Sometimes called baker's sugar or caster sugar, these sugars are still crystalline, it's just that the crystals are ground more finely.
Note that the more finely ground the sugar is, the more of it, by weight, will fit in a measuring cup. That means you need to be careful when measuring out sugar for your recipes and use a weighted measurement, instead of by volume or cups. Just keep in mind that regardless of how finely ground a sugar is, 200 grams will be the equivalent of one cup in any recipe.
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Powdered or Confectioner's Sugar
At the most finely-ground end of the spectrum we have powdered sugar, or confectioners sugar, which is granulated white sugar that has been ground to a very fine powder. Because it dissolves so easily, powdered sugar is used extensively in candy making and also for making frostings and icings (which is why it's also sometimes called icing sugar). It's also commonly used for decorating or dusting the tops of cakes and other desserts.
Sometimes confectioner's sugar goes by the designations 10X, 6X, XXX, and XX. 10X is the finest consistency and is used to give a smooth consistency to icings, but it is prone to dissolving if used for dusting.
Unlike granulated sugar, however, confectioner's sugar is between 95 and 97 percent sucrose, due to the fact that it contains 3 to 5 percent cornstarch by weight, to help it flow and prevent it from clumping.
You can make your own powdered sugar simply by grinding ordinary sugar in a coffee grinder. If you're using it right away versus planning to store it, you can skip the cornstarch.
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Brown sugar is a less-refined version of ordinary cane sugar, which means it contains a certain amount of molasses as well as caramel, giving it a damp consistency. Because of this, recipes customarily call for measuring brown sugar by packing it tightly into the measuring cup. But the issue is that because of its wet consistency, any given volume of brown sugar can contain a given amount of air, depending on how tightly packed it is. Therefore, for a more precise measurement, you can always refer to the 200 grams per cup conversion.
Because of its molasses content, brown sugar has a low enough pH for it to be considered slightly acidic, meaning it will activate baking soda when the two are combined. And of course, it contributes brown color, so it's important to use it in circumstances where you don't mind your baked good obtaining a slightly brown color.
You can make your own brown sugar by mixing molasses into ordinary white sugar. Light and dark brown sugars are distinguished by how much molasses they contain, and you can mix yours accordingly to your desired shade.
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Raw Granulated Sugars
Raw granulated sugars, sometimes called turbinado or demerara sugar, are brown crystalline sugars that are dry, rather than wet. They are typically used for sweetening coffee or tea, rather than in baking, although they can be used in decorating baked goods, where it will contribute both sweetness and a pleasantly crunchy texture. Featuring a coarse texture, raw sugars have been refined less than white granulated sugar, but contain less molasses than ordinary brown sugar.Continue to 5 of 5 below.
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The varieties of sugars that are used for decorating go by numerous names, including sanding sugar, pearl sugar, and sugar nibs. Some are opaque (white), some are transparent, and others are available in virtually every imaginable color. Their crystalline texture gives them a characteristic crunch, which makes them perfect for decorating cookies, pies, and cakes. Since they don't dissolve as well, they aren't generally used as the primary sugar in a dough or batter.