February 18, 2022 4 min read

Baking 101: Working With Sugars 

It's Friday! If you're like us the weekend means you've got baking on your mind. There's nothing like a weekend of baking to really lift the spirits. But have you ever wondered what role sugar plays in baking cakes or brownies? 

An image of different sugars

There's more than one way to say Sugar

Sugar is a staple in baking. Most of the time, you won’t be able to bake standard cakes, brownies or muffins without some sugar at hand. Most sugar free or sugar substitute recipes mean a whole new recipe formulation.

We think of sugar simply as a sweetener. But actually, it does more than sweeten up our baked good. Sugar plays a vital role in preparation of cakes, brownies and other baked products.

Because of the different types of sugar and the functions they perform, a cake or brownie recipe may callfor a specific type of sugar, and sometimes, a combination of two or three. 

More than a Sweetener 

While the primary purpose of adding sugar, in many cases, is to add sweetness in the food, in baking, sugar has a more complex role. More than boosting the taste and flavour of the baked good, sugar also adds volume, colour, texture and tenderness, and acts as a preservative. Wonder why sweets don’t spoil easily? Yes, now you know. 

Sugar is also used to incorporate as much air in the batter (like when making sponge cakes). In cases like this when a recipe calls for creaming the sugar and fat, you don’t simply mix the two ingredients together. You're also incorporating air into the mixture by whisking to produce a light and fluffy mixture. During the creaming process, the sugar molecules rub against the fat, producing air bubbles.  The air bubbles eventually contribute to the texture of the baked good.

Sugar also has a role in making your baked good tender and lighter. That is sugar absorbs moisture in the batter, thus reducing the amount of gluten formed in the flour. This results in a batter which has a tender crumb.  And since less gluten is formed, the batter will rise more and a lighter baked good will be produced. You can read more about the role of gluten formation in baking, flour and cake flour in this article.

The ability of sugar to hold moisture makes it a great preservative. This ability to hold water is what makes the cake or brownie more moist and often impacts the keeping quality of the baked good.

The sweet stuff also has an effect on the colour of the batter when baked. The browning of the baked good is the result of sugar reacting with the protein present in other ingredients like milk and egg. The colour changes as a result of the interaction between the protein and sugar. A chemical process known as the Mailiard reaction occurs resulting in new tastes and aromas of the baked good. Further the sugar also caramelises. The process of caramelisation occurs as sugar heats up and breaks down into small molecules. Formation of these small molecules as sugar heats creates an ever browning colour and a complex array of deeper flavours - what we know as caramel!

Sugar also adds ‘crunch’ in baked products. In the oven, moisture evaporates from the surface of the batter, allowing the dissolved sugar to re-crystalize. This, in turn, creates a crunchy, sweet crust that you have probably enjoyed in brownies, muffins, cakes and more. 

The Different Types of Sugar 

Does it matter what type of sugar you use in baking? If the recipe calls for white granulated sugar, would it make a difference if you use brown sugar instead?  

The answer is YES. 

Sugar comes in different types and properties. They vary in colour, from white to brown and dark. They also differ in granule sizes. White sugar has finer granules than brown sugar, while confectioner sugar has powdery texture. The size of crystal affects how quickly the sugar will dissolve in the batter. Superfine sugar, also known as caster sugar, has very small granules and dissolves easily, making them perfect for making meringues. 

Granulated White Sugar 

Most cake recipes call for this type of sugar. It has fine to medium-sized granules. When heated, it produces a toffee-like colour and flavour. Since we want our cake to be fairly light white sugar is often the best choice. 

Brown Sugar 

Brown sugar is a refined type of sugar that varies in colour, from light to dark brown. They are technically the same with white sugar but have some of the natural molasses left or added. The colour depends on the amount of molasses present in the sugar. The darker the colour is, the more molasses it has. Dark brown sugar also has a stronger flavour than brown sugar. Brown sugar makes a baked good that is a little moister with a slight butterscotch flavour. It's perfect for making banana bread, fruit cake, and other baked good that requires a dense and moist texture. 

Muscovado or Barbados Sugar 

This is a type of British brown sugar which is very dark brown in colour. The sugar crystals are also a little bigger than the regular brown sugar and has a sticker texture. Muscavado sugar is unrefined cane sugar with the molasses has not been removed. It is courser and has a sandy texture. It is darker and has a strong molasses flavour.  Muscovado sugar is great for making coffee cake, fudge and other baked goods where a rich deep flavour is required. 

The role of sugar in many cake recipes, brownie recipes and indeed a range of baked goods is significant. It is possible to alter sugar levels in recipes however the critical balance of starch, fat, protein and sugar will mean you need to take care when reengineering any baked good recipe. 


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