Sugar, like salt, is one of those mysterious kitchen staples that is simultaneously super basic and extremely complex. Once upon a time, sugar was one of the most valuable commodities in the world, leading global trade routes, socio-economic foundations, culinary awakenings, and providing the basis for the propagation of the slave trade. Now, sugar is one of the most common, if not grossly overused agricultural products in the world, with an annual production of nearly 180 million tons, 80 percent of which comes from sugarcane and 20 percent from sugar beets.
In composition, there is virtually no difference between the sugar from sugar beets and sugarcane, but there are many differences between the varieties of sugar produced by these crops. These plants are transformed into dry grains of sweet sugar by collecting the juice from the vegetable material, then heating and refining it to extract pure sucrose. When you’re in the kitchen reflecting on the historical importance of the sugar trade (I dare to dream) or, more likely, wondering if it really matters if you replace the brown sugar in that cookie recipe with white sugar, check back here. They all might come from the same two crops, but each sweet variety plays its own unique culinary role.
This is the sugar you’re picturing in your mind. Granulated sugar may also be called refined, table, or white sugar, and is the most ubiquitous, multi-purpose variety. This product is made by using a combination of heating techniques, treatments of lime and sulfur dioxide, and refining processes to extract molasses from the pure sucrose and produce the addictively delicious white sugar found in many commercial foods. Because it’s highly processed, and therefore highly reliable and stable, granulated sugar is a staple in cooking and baking.
Caster sugar is simply granulated sugar that has been made superfine. Because of its smaller granules, it can dissolve quicker and finer than standard white sugar, which is ideal for making candies, meringues, and syrups.
Raw sugars such as turbinado, demerara, or cane sugar are minimally refined, and are identifiable by larger, amber colored granules and subtle caramel or molasses flavors. This is the stuff you find at coffee shops in those Sugar in the Raw packets. You can often use raw sugars interchangeably with granulated white sugar, but mostly they are used for garnishing baked goods or sweetening beverages since they are considerably more expensive.
Unlike raw sugars, which retain some of the liquid (aka molasses) usually extracted during the crystallization of white sugar, brown sugar is made by adding 5-10% molasses back into already refined white granular sugar. The two varieties you’re familiar with—light and dark brown sugar—differ by the amount of molasses added, which alters the taste and moisture in a recipe.
Otherwise known as powdered sugar, this variety is simply granulated white sugar that has been ground into a fine powder. It’s basically only used in dessert recipes for things like frostings and cakes. Fun fact: You can easily make your own powdered sugar by blasting granulated sugar in a blender or food processor for a few seconds.
Pearl and Sanding Sugar
Finishing sugars like pearl and sanding sugar are made by compressing granulated sugar to form larger, opaque granules that won’t dissolve at high temperatures, which makes them perfect for sprinkling on top of pastries. There are subtle differences between Swedish pearl sugar, Belgian pearl sugar (think of Liege waffles), and the many sanding sugar varieties, but they all serve the same purpose.
Header image courtesy of Veganbaking.net.