Baking Basics: Sugar

Sugar Cookie dough rolled out with hearts cut out
types of sugars and how to use them

Sugar is one of the crucial ingredients in our baked goods. There are a lot of different types of sugar and it’s hard to always know how to use them. But let me assure you, it makes all the difference in the world to know that powdered sugar and granulated sugar are different an switching out one for the other does not always work out. (Sorry, Dad, for that very crunchy frosting…).

Today, we’ll learn a little about where sugar comes from and the different types of sugar so you’ll be better prepared next time you go into the kitchen.

Where did sugar come from?

Sugar has been around for a dang long time.  It was used for medicinal purposes in ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. Then in 1747, a German scientist discovered sugar in sugar beet roots.  

The late 1800s saw the first commercial sugar production plant in CA. The US is one of the largest producers of sugar, however it does appear that we import quite a lot of sugar as well.

How do we make sugar?

According to the Sugar Association, “Sugar is made through extracting the sugar juice from the sugar beet or sugar cane plant.  From there, different types of sugar are produced.”

In the US we produce sugar from both sugar cane and sugar beets (40-45% sugar cane and 55-60% sugar beets). Sugarcane is grown in Florida, Louisiana, and Texas and sugar beets are grown throughout the Midwest.

What is molasses?

Molasses content is one of the main things that differentiates the types of sugars below. It is the by-product of refining sugar, the liquid that is taken off after the sugar has been boiled down and crystallized.

There are three types of molasses: light (mild), dark (robust), and blackstrap.  The three types are made by boiling down the molasses, each boiling draws out more sugar and creates a darker, more bitter molasses.   When baking, we typically want to use the mild or dark molasses, the blackstrap is usually more bitter than what we are looking for in our sweets.

Stacks of soft sour cream sugar cookies on a cooling rack with a white background

What kind of sugars are there?

Granulated Sugar

Granulated sugar a.k.a. white sugar is the most common sugar used in baking recipes. All of the molasses is removed from granulated sugar during the refining process, hence, the white color.

Granulated sugar is the driest sugar because there is no molasses at all. We use strictly granulates sugar in recipes like brownies to produce a nice crisp crust, where brown sugar would leave them too soft.

Recipes that use granulated sugar:

Soft Sour Cream Sugar Cookies

Soft Chocolate Peppermint Cookies

Mayonnaise Cake

Brown Sugar

Brown sugar is simply granulated sugar with some of the molasses mixed back in. Light brown sugar has less molasses mixed in than dark brown sugar. Brown sugar makes cookies chewier because of its molasses content (molasses is an invert sugar and invert sugars pull moisture from the air).

Many cookies recipes call for a combination of granulated sugar and brown sugar. This is provide some softness and chew to the cookies (from the brown sugar) and added flavor complexity without completely overpowering it with the molasses flavor.

Recipes that use brown sugar:

Oatmeal Chocolate Chunk Cookies

German Chocolate Frosting

Powdered Sugar A.K.A. Confectioner’s Sugar

Powdered sugar is refined down to a more “powdery” consistency. Besides confectioner’s sugar, powdered sugar is sometimes called “icing sugar”. Nothing like having several names to make it a little more confusing!

In the U.S., powdered sugar is mixed with 3% cornstarch to prevent the sugar from clumping. Powdered sugar is the kind of sugar we typically use in frostings and whipped creams because it blends in nicely and doesn’t have a grainy texture.

Recipe that use powdered sugar:

Chocolate Buttercream

American Buttercream

Cream Cheese Frosting

Turbinado Sugar

Turbinado sugar is a partially processed sugar where only surface molasses has been washed off so it has a slightly brown color to it. It’s sometimes known as raw sugar but it is a processed sugar, it is just much coarser than granulated sugar.

You often see turbinado sugar offered at coffee shops (Sugar in the Raw) as an alternative to refined sugar.

For baking, my favorite use is to sprinkle it on top of muffin batter before baking, to add some crunch and sparkle. Because of its minimal processing, it won’t absorb as easily into the batter. (And I mean, really, who couldn’t do with a little more sparkle in their lives?)

Whole wheat blackberry mini muffins

Recipes that use Turbinado Sugar:

Whole Wheat Blackberry Mini Muffins

Caster Sugar AKA Superfine Sugar

Caster sugar has the smallest crystal size of all granulated sugars. In the U.S. it is often labeled at superfine sugar. Caster sugar is frequently used in drinks because it dissolves easily. My friend makes these brownies using castor sugar and they are melt in your mouth amazing!

Muscovado Sugar

Muscovado sugar is unrefined cane sugar where the molasses has not been removed. Texture-wise, it is like wet sand, higher in moisture due to the molasses.

Muscovado sugar can be used in the same way that you would use brown sugar, but expect that the flavor will be more molasses-y since the molasses was never extracted.

What about alternative sugars?

Glad you asked-I wrote a whole post about alternative sugars and you can read that here.

Happy Baking!


The Sugar Association

United States Department of Agriculture

America’s Test Kitchen: Family Baking Book

The Kitchn

Handle the Heat