What's the Difference Between Sugar Varieties?

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Every pastry recipe seems to call for a different type of sugar: molasses, brown sugar, white sugar, confectioners’ sugar. If they’re all sugar, what’s the difference, and do I really need to have each one? Can’t white sugar just do the job of all four?

Today we’ll discuss how sugar is created, a few different types of sugars, and whether we can swap these four sugars interchangeably.

What is Sugar?

Sugar is the refined product of one of two plants: the sugar beet or the sugar cane. Both are pressed to extract their juice, then heated until turned into the solid form that we know of as sugar. The sugars we’ll be looking at today are molasses, brown sugar, white sugar, and confectioners’ sugar, which are all refinements of each other.

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The first iteration of sugar comes as molasses, which is a by-product of the refining juice in sugar production. Molasses is known for its spicy, rich, and metallic flavour, typically used in Christmas desserts in the United States and Western Europe.

Once the cane juice has been refined into its granulated state, there is white sugar. Brown sugar is the addition of molasses to refined white sugar. Confectioner’s or powdered sugar is finely ground white sugar with the addition of corn starch to prevent the newly fine sugar from clumping. This sugar is often used for icing desserts since it dissolves easily, or for decorating sweets with a light dusting.

Can These Sugars Be Swapped?

Sure, but you will end up with completely different textures and flavors in your baked goods. While they’ll still be sweet, molasses has a dark richness that white sugar doesn’t, and more so, extra moisture.

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The results of any baked good with different sugars also highly depend on the temperature of the oven, the cooking time, and the other ingredients. Swapping sugar could result in a crisp cookie becoming soft, or a chewy cookie spreading all over the sheet. Below I’ll walk you through the different types of sugars that come from refining beet and cane sugar and possible tips for the best results if you need to find a substitution for them.

If you’re feeling adventurous, switch them up in your favourite recipes to see what new textures and flavors you can create.

A Guide to 4 Varieties of Sugar

White Sugar

This is your staple and there isn’t a true substitute without altering the end-state of the baked good. You can of course experiment with other sweeteners, but keep an open mind when it comes to your results.

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Brown Sugar

Because brown sugar is the combination of molasses and white sugar, it’s an ingredient that brings more moisture and more flavor—especially caramelization—when added. Don’t have any brown sugar? There’s an easy at-home fix! For one cup of white sugar, add 1 to 2 tablespoons of molasses and combine. Add more depending on how dark you’d like your brown sugar.

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Homemade brown sugar

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Confectioner’s Sugar (or Powdered Sugar)

This type of sugar creates a unique texture and density because it has been finely ground. There really is no substitute for it. This is especially the case when making an icing or frosting which requires the superfine quality of the confectioners’ sugar to create the smooth texture, though in a baked good recipe you may be able to get away with subbing in white sugar. Confectioners’ sugar can be easily made at home by taking white sugar and grinding it in a coffee grinder. There’s no need to add cornstarch to the homemade version.

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Molasses

Molasses comes in a number of grades from black strap to light and unsulphured to sulphured. When baking, it is common to use the lighter and sweeter grades of molasses; these are typically labelled as light, mild, or sweet. Blackstrap molasses has a pronounced and bitter taste, so do not substitute this for other grades of molasses unless specifically called for in a recipe. Look for unsulphured molasses, as sulphur can be used as a preservative and leaves a chemical taste behind. If substituting molasses, look to use a liquid sweetener equivalent like a dark honey or maple syrup.

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What kind of sugar do you like to use when you’re baking? Do you have any substitution tricks and tips? Have we left out any important sugars that you want to learn more about? Let us know.