Sugar Varieties and Substitution Made Easy

The World of Sugar

In the world of baking, sugar is not as simple as one choice on a grocery shelf. Much like flour, there are various options that, while similar, will alter the outcome of a bake. While flour can impact the texture of a bake and the gluten development (I discuss this more in How to Choose Flour for Baking,) the sugar used will affect the moisture level and consistency of baked goods. The most common are:

  • Granulated 
  • Brown (light and dark)
  • Powdered (also known as confectioners)
  • Caster 
Each type has its benefits and common use in baking recipes. For example, some varieties add moisture to a recipe while others create a cookie or biscuit that snaps. Confectioner and caster will help create more delicate bakes and incorporate them into recipes more easily; before I cover the uses, the refining process of sugar helps to explain.

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How Sugar Is Processed

Whether granulated, brown, or powdered, every bag of sugar you’ve purchased comes from sugar cane. The canes are shredded and pressed to separate the juice from stalks after harvest. The juice is then clarified and concentrated into granules. If sold at this stage, you would be buying light or dark brown, depending on the molasses content. Granules need additional processing to dry by removing the molasses entirely. Once fully clarified, the granules are further ground to various consistencies. While no traces of molasses remain, reducing the size allows better absorption and creates delicate pastries. 

sugar cane

How Molasses Affects Baking

When choosing sugar for recipes, there are two factors to consider. The first element is deciding how moist a recipe you would like to achieve. Because of the absence of molasses in granulated, baked goods will be dryer than light or dark brown. Granulated absorbs moisture from the dough and batter, creating crispy cookies and crumbly brownies. Because light and dark brown contain moisture from the molasses, less water absorbs during a bake. Dark brown will absorb the least amount of liquids during a bake, creating as moist a texture as possible.  

When is Powdered Sugar Ideal?

The second element considered is how well the sugar needs to blend and the weight of the granules.  Powdered offers a few benefits over granulated, thanks to additional processing, reducing the size of the granules. Once processed, powdered sugar is ideal for decorative dusting and creates smooth icings. There are three types of powdered available:

  • XXX (mind out of the gutter)
  • XXXX
  • 10x 

Each X indicates how many times manufacturers process the sugar. The more X’s, the finer the powder. The most common variety used in home baking and sold by grocers is 10X. The consistency blends easily into icings, whether made with butter, milk, or cream cheese. When decorating, the powder can be sifted through a mesh sieve over stencils to create patterns on top of cakes. If decorating with powder, I recommend doing so once cooled, not when removing from an oven. If still warm, the sugar may melt from the heat.

One difference about powdered sugar is that it provides an advantage when making homemade whipped cream. Manufacturers add a small percentage of corn starch to powdered sugar to prevent powdered sugar from caking during storage. The cornstarch will not affect the flavor but will act as a stabilizer in whipped cream and help the shape of piped ribbons. If you wish to avoid powdered sugars with corn starch, check the ingredients. 

What is Caster Sugar?

Caster, also known as superfine, is smaller than granulated sugar but not as fine of a powder as confectioners. Caster incorporates more smoothly than coarse while offering more structure than powdered. Bakers regularly use caster when creating macarons and other egg-based recipes that require air whipped in. 

sugar macarons
Caster sugar is commonly used in place of granulated sugar when making macarons

The smaller grains incorporate more smoothly than larger granules and produce a lighter bake. While common in the UK, caster is less common in American grocery stores. However, it’s easily found online through retailers such as Amazon. There are two varieties available; regular and golden caster. Caster, like light and dark brown, retains some molasses at the end of the refinement process. It creates butter and caramel flavor undertones, as well as adding moisture.

Can Sugars be Interchanged in Recipes?

If you wish to tweak a bake’s moisture level or texture, it’s possible to achieve by using different sugars, to a degree, that is. A general rule to follow when swapping out sugars in a recipe is to use varieties equal in size or smaller. Stepping down in granule size will help avoid desserts like macarons collapsing when mixing and icings with a grainy texture. 

Another element to remember is the liquid factor when substituting brown or caster for granulated. The molasses content of caster is lower than brown sugar but still creates moisture. While macarons made with golden caster still rise, the water content matters. If I’m using golden caster in macarons, I will use gel food coloring, if not powdered colors, in place of liquid drops. Eliminating liquid food coloring is enough to offset the addition of molasses in caster. 

How to Measure Sugar if Converting

When substituting brown for white sugar, don’t be tempted to replace 1 cup of granulated for 1 cup of brown. The sugars need to be measured differently because of the molasses added and the coarseness. Packing brown sugar helps account for air gaps, whereas granulated is scooped and leveled. Powdered will weigh less per ounce than coarse due to the size of the granules. When swapping types in a recipe, use a kitchen scale and weigh the amount in grams rather than volume measurements. To help with weights, use the chart below for quick conversion. 

Measure by Weight, Not Volume

For example, a recipe I was making called for a cup of granulated sugar. If I wanted to substitute with brown or powdered, I would need 200 grams, no matter the variety. If I were to measure by volume, I would need a packed cup of brown or 1 and 5/8 cups of powder to make up the difference in volume. It’s possible to do the math for converting using volume measurements, but if you have a kitchen scale, measuring by weight is much easier. Using a scale also lowers the chance of air gaps creating incorrect measurements by volume. If substituting for alternative sugars, such as sugar-free alternatives or stevia powder, follow the manufacturer’s conversion suggestion. The table above represents glucose-based, not sugar-free options. When swapping sugar in your favorite recipes, what was the result? We’d love to hear in the comments!

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