The best sugars for cooking and baking
Want to know which sugar to use when cooking and baking? Our food director Janine Ratcliffe shares her tips on getting the most out of the sweet stuff in cooking and baking
From granulated sugar to refined white sugar and the best sugar substitutes, read our expert guide to the best sugar for baking and cooking...
Which type of sugar to use in cooking
The darkest and strongest tasting of all the brown sugars because of its high molasses content. It’s ideal in dense fruit cakes and Christmas puddings as well as sweet sauces and savoury marinades (especially BBQ marinades).
Probably the most widely used sugar in baking, caster is especially great for super-light, refined sponges such as genoise, meringues or for cakes that have a low flour content (such as brownies) which rely on eggs and sugar whisked to a mousse to provide the structure.
Unrefined golden caster sugar can be substituted like for like in most baking recipes and will give you an extra touch of richness, but if you want the meringues to be pure white then it’s best to stick to white caster.
The slightly larger crystals of granulated sugar mean it is good for making caramel, and you can substitute it for caster in a sponge but you may be sacrificing some of the lightness.
This is an unrefined raw cane sugar with large toffee-coloured crystals. Mostly used for texture in cakes, for example in a streusel top for a cake, in a crumble or as a crunchy topping for biscuits. The large crystals mean it retains its shape when cooked. It also adds toffee depth to quick caramel sauces and glazes (such as melting butter, demerara and cream together as in our the recipe for brown butter hazelnut cake).
Dark and light muscovado sugar
Both are unrefined sugars with a pronounced caramel flavour and can be used whenever dark or light brown sugar is called for. They are also great for rich desserts, bringing natural toffee flavour to sticky toffee puddings and dark gingerbread.
Dark and light soft brown sugar
Both these sugars are commonly used in baking. If the packet doesn’t specify ‘unrefined’ then this will be white sugar with added molasses (dark will have more). There will be a little more moisture in dark sugar but they are essentially interchangeable and the difference will be mostly in flavour (with the dark giving you a deeper, more toffee-like flavour). Good for adding colour and richness to ginger biscuits and flapjacks.
The difference between unrefined sugar and refined sugar
All sugar starts off with the same process – extraction from sugar cane or sugar beet.
Refined white sugar (such as caster and granulated) goes through many different processes in order to produce the distinctive pure white crystals.
Unrefined sugar doesn’t go through the same amount of steps so retains more of its natural colour and flavour. Always look for the word ‘unrefined’ when buying brown sugars – sugar labelled simply ‘soft brown sugar’ is often just refined white sugar that has had molasses added to give colour, texture and flavour.
How to store sugar
Keep sugar in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. Brown sugars are prone to hardening (this is perfectly natural and just occurs as a result of moisture loss). To reintroduce moisture, tip into a bowl and cover with a damp cloth and leave overnight to soften.
How sugar is used in baking
It’s never a good idea to drastically reduce sugar amounts in a recipe (especially when baking) as it will affect the finished result. Sugar does a lot more than just provide sweetness in recipes – it also performs the following functions:
Sugar adds moisture
Sugar is hygroscopic, which means it attracts and holds moisture, and so will change the finished dish when added. When baking cakes, this helps prevent the crumb from drying out. Also, sugar is essential to stabilise the mix when making meringues – it binds with the water in the egg white to create structure and so prevents the meringue from collapsing or leaking when baked.
Sugar impacts on the structure of cake batter, stopping gluten and proteins forming, and helping to make the cake tender rather than chewy (cakey rather than bready). This is also why adding sugar to a bread dough will give you a softer crumb.
Sugar changes character when heated, adding both colour and flavour when baked into a cake. Moisture evaporates from the surface of cakes when baking, creating browning and helping form a crunchy crust on higher-sugar recipes like brownies and biscuits. Equally, sugar, when heated on its own, will turn into a golden liquid – changing in character from a simple sweetness into a complex and rich caramel.
The reason so many cakes start with a butter and sugar creaming process – beating the sugar with the butter lightens the mix (you’ll actually see it change colour and texture) and creates trapped air pockets which expand when baked.