Common Types of Sugar for Baking

Sugar is not only a sweetener, but it also plays a vital role in the development of taste, texture, and appearance of baked goods. Learn about the common types of sugar in baking and their uses.

Sugar is not only a sweetener, but it also plays a vital role in the development of taste, texture, and appearance of baked goods. Learn about the common types of sugar in baking and their uses.

Yes, sugar makes things sweet. But in the world of baking and cooking, it also has a lot of other roles to play. It can stabilize, add texture, act as a leavening agent and affect the flavor of a variety of baked goods. And you can bet that if you’re on the verge of a significant baking mishap, a mistake with sugar may be to blame.

It’s essential to understand what sugar is. The importance it has in baking, why particular sugars are used in recipes, and it’s functionality. Common types of sugar for baking will be reviewed here so you can be a more informed baker.

What is Sugar?

Before we jump into the different types of sugar for baking, it’s important to understand the fundamental science of these carbohydrates we adore. Sugar can come from various natural sources and exists in two forms:

  • Monosaccharides: Glucose (blood sugar), fructose (fruit sugar) and galactose (milk sugar). These are simple sugars.
  • Disaccharides: Maltose (malt sugar; glucose + glucose), lactose (milk sugar; glucose + galactose) and sucrose (table sugar; glucose + fructose). These are complex sugars.

When consumed, different types of sugar vary in sweetness level. Sucrose is most often used in the kitchen, typically sourced from sugar beets or sugar cane. It serves as the reference standard for sweetness. If sucrose is a 1 on a scale, then fructose can taste between 1.2 to 1.8 times as sweet, whereas lactose is about 0.2 times as sweet as sugar.

What’s interesting is that you could use less of a sweetener that contains fructose like honey, reduce the calorie input while achieving a similar sweetness level. However, the chemical structure of different types of sugars will have a noticeable impact on the quality of baked products.

Common Types of Sugar for Baking

There are many varieties of sugar, but the following eight types are the most commonly used when it comes to baking recipes like cookies, muffins, and cakes.

Granulated Sugar

Jar of granulated sugar with spoon

The table sugar that most of us are used to baking with–the white, tiny uniform crystals that come in a large bag. It’s highly refined and intended to be used for a variety of purposes. Mostly, it’s made from sugar cane and sugar beets. It provides a very clean sweetness. The size of the sugar crystals makes it perfect for aerating batters and dough during the creaming process, creating light and tender crumbs.

Granulated sugar also helps cookies spread, adds a more crisp texture to cookies, and surface cracking due to crystallization, which can be desirable depending on the type. The amount of granulated sugar in a recipe and the presence of other sweeteners will determine the degree of texture, taste, and color changes.

Superfine Sugar

Also known as castor sugar, is granulated sugar processed to make smaller crystals. You can make your own by using a food processor to break down granulated sugar for a few seconds until a finer texture is achieved. It’s used to produce light and tender cakes.

Powdered Sugar

Jar of powdered sugar with a spoon

Also known as confectioners sugar, is granulated sugar ground into a light and airy, fine powder through different sized sieves. The most common and finest in size is 10X powdered sugar. Cornstarch is added at around 3%, to prevent clumping because sugar is very hygroscopic.

It’s ideal for dusting, icing, frosting and other decorating as it easily dissolves in liquid to create a thick, spreadable substance. It can be used in cakes and cookies to give a more dense texture. You cannot substitute powdered sugar for granulated sugar in baking because it behaves differently when mixed (aerates less in batters and doughs), and the cornstarch may affect the texture.

Brown Sugar

Jar of brown sugar

It is refined sugar, that has varying degrees of molasses (the uncrystallized by-product of sugar refining) added back to it. It’s sold as light brown sugar or golden (about 3.5% molasses) and dark brown sugar (approximately 6.5% molasses). It adds caramel flavor notes and golden brown colors to cookies, cakes, and muffins.

Brown sugar contains more moisture and binds water, which is added to recipes to achieve specific characteristics like chewiness in cookies and keeping quick bread tender over more extended periods of time. It can be substituted for granulated sugar 1:1 by weight in recipes, however, it will look and taste slightly different.

Coconut Sugar

Jar of brown coconut sugar with a spoon

Like coconut milk, water and oil, coconut palm sugar has become a popular sweetening alternative. It’s made from the sap of a coconut palm tree, creating an unrefined granular sweetener. Overall, it’s considered as being a little healthier than cane sugar as the conversion process retains more nutrients, including a fiber called inulin, which slows the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream.

This allows for a lower glycemic index relative to some other sugars. The calorie content is the same as granulated sugar at about 4 calories per gram. It can be used as a direct replacement for white sugar. However, its dark brown color and caramel, nutty and earthy flavor make a taste impact on baked goods. It can be used in cakes, cookies, pie crusts and muffins.

Molasses

Spoon scooping molasses from a jar

This extremely dark and thick syrup is a byproduct of sugar cane refining and has a strong caramel and cooked flavor. It comes in three forms: light and mild, dark and robust, and blackstrap. You will also notice on the label unsulfured or sulfured designations.

The unsulfured molasses is lighter in color and more mild flavor, made from pure cane syrup. Sulfured molasses is also available which has a darker color and bitter taste. It’s best to use light or dark molasses because the blackstrap can give a strong bitter flavor to the baked good. It is particularly popular in cookies like gingersnap and gingerbread.

Honey

Jar of honey with a honeycomb

A popular sweetening alternative created by honeybees is sucrose that has been enzymatically converted into invert sugar (honey), composed of fructose and glucose. Because fructose is about 1.5 times sweeter than sucrose, its presence in honey makes it slightly sweeter than sugar. Start by using 1/2 to 2/3 cups of honey for every 1 cup of sugar.

Since the flower, season, and ripening time of the nectar varies, so can the taste and color. Honey is unique because it never spoils, therefore it can be stored at room temperature. It’s very hygroscopic and loves to pick up moisture. It helps keep cakes and muffins moist and tender.

Since it contains 20% water, reduce the amount of liquid added, about 1/4 cup liquid to every 1 cup of honey. The fructose in honey also aids in increased browning, yielding delicious golden cakes, muffins, and cookies. However baking temperature may need to be lowered to prevent over-browning, about 25°F. Make sure to check that the recipe has baking soda, if not make sure to add 1/4 teaspoon per 1 cup of honey used to help neutralize the acid in the honey for proper leavening.

Pure Maple Syrup

Jar of pure maple syrup

Made from the sap of sugar maple trees that have been boiled down but not further processed, leaving more minerals like potassium, calcium, copper, and sodium. The sweet amber-to-brown syrup has a distinctive rich caramel flavor. It’s more expensive than other sweeteners but worth the investment.

The high amount of moisture makes it susceptible to spoilage once opened and left at room temperature. Store in the refrigerator for 6 to 12 months. Make sure to skip the pancake syrups, as they are made with corn syrup and added flavors, nothing like the real thing.

To use in baking, substitute 2/3 cup maple syrup for granulated sugar. It also contains water so reduce the total liquid input by 20 to 25%, about 1/4 cup per 1 cup of liquid. Reduce the oven temperature by 25°F to prevent over-browning. It can replace honey, molasses and corn syrup as a 1:1 substitution.

The Importance of Sugar In Baking

  • Texture: One key role of sugar is that it acts as a tenderizing agent during the mixing of batters and doughs. Because it is hygroscopic and loves to bind with water, it competes with gluten-forming proteins (glutenin and gliadin) so that complete hydration of those proteins does not occur. This inhibits some gluten development, so that cake, muffins, and cookies stay tender instead of rubbery.
  • Color: As sugar is heated above its melting point (175°C/347°F), it becomes fluid and develops amber colors and pleasing aromas as is caramelizes. During the baking process in doughs and batters that contain sugar, in the presence of heat, it helps to create browned surfaces and rich flavors of bread, cakes, and cookies.
  • Taste: Not only does sugar contribute to sweetness, but it helps create new flavors of baked goods. The oven temperature causes the sugar to react with the proteins in the cooked product to form beautifully browned surfaces and irresistible aromas through the Maillard Browning reaction.

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Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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13 Comments Leave a comment or review

    • Jessica Gavin says

      I have studied erythritol and oligosaccharides. They function very differently from a taste and texture standpoint and have different nutritional benefits. Because erythritol is digested and recognized differently in the body, that’s why it does not cause a spike or contribute to calories. I think of oligosaccharides or prebiotics, and food for the good bacteria residing in your gut to keep them thriving. Some people can be sensitives to prebiotics, as it could cause bloating is too much is consumed ar one time.

  1. JoAnn says

    My mother’s shortbread cookie recipe calls for fruit sugar not quite so fine as superfine sugar but not regular granulated sugar either. I can’t find it here in the U.S. Any suggestions?

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Hi JoAnn- Could you perhaps grind some granulated sugar in a blender or food processor until you get the consistency you are looking for?

  2. Deanna Masterson says

    There is a recipe that I’m trying to make (Dinner Rolls) It calls for -SUGAR
    Then part way down it calls for
    WHITE SUGAR?
    IS THERE A DIFFERENCE

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Typically “sugar” has been used synonymously with granulated sugar, white sugar, and table sugar. I always try to state if it’s granulated, brown, or another sugar, especially when baking.

  3. LAURA R RADELL says

    I am diabetic and have really been having glucose spikes, BUT I’m missing out on things that I love to eat. It’s a little depressing. I was just wondering. I bought Allulose, and it says to use it one for one. I’m sure that has to cause some texture changes in cookies, etc. but have you any experience with this?

    • Jessica Gavin says

      I have seen this used as a sugar replacement in recipes, as well as erythritol. I think it may cause some texture change but still promotes browning in baked goods, it’s worthwhile to give it a try. Allulose is about 70% as sweet as sugar, so the sweetness won’t be as strong. Let me know how it goes!

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