Meet Your Ingredients: Sugar

Meet Your Ingredients: Sugar

Tasty and essential in baking and cooking, there’s a lot to know about sugar. Read on for my guide on choosing, using, and storing various sweeteners.

We’re sweetening things up this month with a focus on sugar! From Derby Day desserts to Mother’s Day brunch and Memorial Day Weekend treats, many of us will be cooking or baking with some form of sweetener.

So today we’re doing a brief introduction into sugar: what is is, why it’s useful in cooking and baking, nutritional aspects to consider, and how to choose the right sweetener for your recipe.

The Basics

Love it or hate it, sugar is a naturally occurring compound that seems to everywhere (naturally or added).

While there seems to be an ever ongoing war against sugar, it hasn’t always been the villain of the food world. In fact, naturally occuring sugars found in fruits, vegetables, and animal milks once served as an important source of energy for early humans.

However, for those of us fortunate enough to not have to worry about adequate calorie intake, it’s easy to get too much sugar in our diets.

But before you go and swear off all sugar in your diet, let’s talk about what sugar’s role is in our bodies and food. Afterall, what’s life without a little sweetness?

Nutrition Overview

Let’s quickly go back to high school science: carbohydrates are compounds that are made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms. The simplest form of carbs are sugars known as monosaccharides, which are the building blocks for all all other carbohydrates.

The three most common simple sugars that you may have heard of are glucose (easily the most important fuel source in the human body), galactose (needed to create lactose), and fructose (found in high amounts in fruits).

Table sugar (also known as sucrose) is a disaccharide, meaning that it’s made up of two simple sugars, specifically glucose and fructose. It can be extracted from sugar cane or sugar beet, as well as is naturally occurring in fruits and vegetables.

Other sugars you may have heard of are lactose, found in milk and dairy products, and maltose, which is also known as malt sugar (hello beer!).

When we ingest carbohydrates, they get broken down into glucose, which is then carried in the bloodstream to cells. Here, it can either be stored if we already have enough glucose circulating our bodies, or converted into energy and used to carry out essential functions.

What are these functions exactly? While there are many processes that glucose is a part of, some of the highlights include muscle contraction, temperature regulation, and normal brain functioning.

While all sugars are made up of the same basic ingredients (carbon, hydrogen and oxygen), the source of the sugar greatly affects how quickly it’s digested, and therefore, it’s potential effects on our health.

Plus, some sugar sources, like maple syrup and honey, also come with additional vitamins and minerals that are beneficial for health. We’ll touch on the exact nutrition impact of different sugar sources in ingredient-specific posts.

Raw cane sugar, maple syrup, brown sugar, dates, and honey

Sugar’s role in cooking/baking

Okay, enough science, let’s get onto the good stuff!

Just as glucose has essential functions in the body, sugar plays a key role in many culinary processes as well.

However, as different sugars have different chemical properties, it’s important to be careful when swapping one out for another as it could have a significant effect on the final texture and taste of the baked good!

Types of Culinary Sweeteners and When to Use

When it comes to buying sugar and other natural sweeteners for cooking and baking, there are a TON of options – and that’s not even including artificial and alternative sugars, like stevia or splenda. While not exhaustive, here are some of the more common sources of sugar that you may come across in recipes.

  • Brown sugar (light and dark) is refined, granulated sugar that’s been mixed with a small amount of molasses. It has a moister, sandier texture than granulated and a slight caramel flavor. As a result, it creates softer, more deeply flavored and colored baked goods than white sugar. It’s used in baked goods as well as marinades, sauces, and dry rubs. The only difference between light and dark brown sugar is that the dark has more molasses added.
  • Cane sugar is, unsurprisingly, made from sugarcane and is minimally processed. As a result, it has a darker color than granulated sugar and is often slightly larger. However, it can be used interchangeably for granulated sugar in recipes.
  • Caster sugar is a superfine granulated white sugar that dissolves quickly. It’s commonly used to make meringues and syrups.
  • Coconut sugar is made from coconut palm sap that’s been dried out and crystalized. While it tastes similar to brown sugar, it’s less moist and doesn’t cream with butter the same way that white and brown sugars do. We’ll touch more on this sugar in it’s own post this month.
  • Confectioners sugar is also known as powdered sugar. It’s made by grinding white sugar into a powder and then has cornstarch added to prevent clumping. It dissolves quickly in liquid and is often used to make icing and frosting.
  • Date paste is made from dates, which are a natural source of sugar. With slight caramel notes, date paste is becoming a trendy natural source of sugar. When used in place of dry sugar, expect your baked good to end up softer; however if using it in place of maple syrup or honey, you’ll likely need to add additional liquid to the recipe.
  • Demerara sugar is raw cane sugar with a characteristic amber color and slight molasses flavor. It’s mostly used to sweeten tea or coffee, but can also be used to top baked goods.
  • Granulated sugar is what you probably picture when someone says “sugar.” Also called white or table sugar, it comes from sugarcane or sugar beets. It’s a highly refined, multi-purpose sugar that’s most commonly used in cooking and baking.
  • Honey is produced by bees, using the nectar of flowering plants. As a result, different honeys can have very different flavors. We’ll talk more about benefits of local, raw honey in a separate post, but honey can be used to make salad dressings and marinades, added to baked goods, or drizzled over oats, yogurt or toast.
  • Maple sugar is made by by boiling and then crystalizing the sap of maple trees. Similar in flavor as maple syrup, it acts more like granulated sugar in baking. However, maple sugar is sweeter and has a distinct flavor, so it’s best to start by only subbing ⅓ of ½ of the white sugar for maple. It goes great in most breakfast foods: pancakes, waffles, granola, and even coffee and tea.
  • Maple syrup is made from the sap of the sugar maple tree and has a distinct rich, almost nutty flavor. While it’s usually poured over breakfast goods, it also does well in baking and marinades. It can be substituted for other liquid sweeteners in a 1:1 ratio, but of course the flavor will change.
  • Molasses is a byproduct of refining cane sugar. It’s known for being rich in minerals as well as having a distinctive bitter taste. You do not want to sub molasses 1:1 with other sweeteners. Instead, you can start by using ½ molasses and ½ maple syrup or other liquid sweetener. While it’s a traditional ingredient in some cookies, molasses is largely used for more savory dishes, such as sauces and marinades.
  • Muscovado sugar is an unrefined cane sugar that hasn’t had the molasses taken out. As a result, it is moister than other unrefined sugars and has a darker color. While it can be used in place of brown sugar, note that it does have a stronger molasses flavor. It’s most often used in marinades and sauces.
  • Pearl sugar is common in Scandinavian baking as a decoration on baked goods as it doesn’t melt when heated. It’s also a variety of white sugar, but it has a characteristic coarse hard texture with an opaque color.
  • Sanding sugar is another form that’s primarily just used for decorating. It’s large crystals are resistant to heat, providing a nice crunch when sprinkled on top of baked goods.  
Bowl of raw cane sugar

May’s Featured Sugars:

While there are many ways to sweeten up recipes (as you just read), we’re focusing on four that you’re likely to come across on THT as well as other healthy and lifestyle blogs:

  • Local Honey
  • Pure Maple Syrup
  • Date Paste (super excited for this one!)
  • Coconut Sugar

Learned more about sugar? Awesome! Be sure to share this post with your friends and family on Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest!

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About Kelli McGrane Headshot

I’m Kelli MS, RD, and my mission is to prove that eating healthier doesn’t have to be complicated or restrictive. Follow along to learn more about food and cooking, with an emphasis on breakfast and sweet treats!

About Kelli McGrane Headshot

Welcome to The Healthy Toast!

Here you’ll find realistic healthy recipes designed by a registered dietitian with your busy lifestyle in mind.

Whether you’re a busy professional or new mom, the goal of The Healthy Toast is to provide you with the recipes and nutrition info you need to live your healthiest life, even when life gets crazy. As I’m a firm believer in a whole-foods, non-diet approach, I hope my website shows that good nutrition doesn’t have to be complicated or restrictive. 

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