Most home bakers are missing out on the full flavor of one of the most basic pantry staples – sugar. There’s a surprisingly simple way to elevate this essential sweetener to new heights and to make it taste like the very best version of itself: make toasted sugar.
To get the most flavor out of sugar, all you have to do is toast it.
That’s right, you literally toast the sugar in the oven until it turns a beautiful caramel color, releasing wonderful aromas and unlocking complex flavor. Much like toasting nuts or roasting fruit, it makes the taste more robust, bold, and undeniably delicious.
So why haven’t we always been toasting our sugar? It took a happy accident for one baker, Stella Parks, to popularized this technique in 2016. The cookbook author and recipe developer says that one day, she forgot about a tray of sugar in her oven. She tried to warm up her basement kitchen by turning the oven on low heat and ended up uncovering the delight that is toasted sugar.
Thanks to a happy accident, we learned a delicious ingredient could be made from simple granulated sugar, heat, and time: toasted sugar.
So is it really that easy? Just forget about some sugar in your oven and soon you'll have sweet, toasted sugar?
Truth be told, toasting sugar takes some advance planning and time in the kitchen. (The sugar needs to toast for 1 to 4 hours.) But thankfully, our clever test kitchen bakers have found the perfect way to fold it into your baking schedule so you don’t waste any time at all.
Still not convinced? Let us show you why you need to toast your next bag of sugar.
Why you should toast sugar: The science of deliciousness
When you heat granulated white sugar for a long period of time in a low oven, the flavor becomes complex and rich. It tastes less sweet yet more flavorful. The sugar literally transforms in the oven.
During the heating process, the complex sugar molecules (sucrose) break down into simple sugars (fructose and glucose). These simple sugars dehydrate and take on a nutty, caramel flavor and golden brown color.
Some might think it's more efficient to cook sugar on the stovetop and caramelize it, let it harden, then pulse it in a food processor. But sugar that’s been caramelized (rather than toasted) is more alkaline and becomes tricky to fold into recipes.
Toasted sugar, on the other hand, still contains enough sucrose to perform like normal sugar in recipes, unlike caramelized sugar.
Same goes for brown sugar — it's just not the same as toasted sugar. Brown sugar is acidic, which means it reacts differently than granulated sugar in recipes, so you can't make a 1:1 swap. Plus, the flavor profile of brown sugar is less nuanced. The dominating flavor is molasses.
Toasted sugar, on the other hand, has a sophisticated, unique flavor profile and it's not any more difficult to use in recipes than granulated sugar. What could be better than that? This stuff is pure gold!
How to make toasted sugar
Ready to toast some sugar? I thought so!
Start with a 4-pound bag of granulated white sugar. (Most standard bags of sugar come in this size.)
Preheat the oven to 325°F. At this low temperature, the sugar will toast rather than melt.
Pour the sugar into a glass or ceramic 9” x 13” pan. Avoid using a metal pan — it will conduct more heat and is more likely to melt the sugar.
Toast the sugar for 1 to 4 hours, stirring every 30 minutes to release the steam and break up clumps. While the stirring may seem cumbersome, it's critical. Be sure to bring the sugar from the edges of the pan towards the center to distribute the heat evenly. Otherwise, the sugar that's in contact with the pan may begin to melt.
How long do I toast sugar?
If you cook the sugar for 1 to 2 hours, it will be a light golden color and the flavor will be subtle. The longer you toast the sugar, the more robust the caramel flavor will be. Cooking the sugar for 4 or 5 hours produces something reminiscent of muscovado sugar — a cousin of brown sugar that’s known for complex flavors of vanilla, caramel, and molasses.
An even better way to toast sugar
At this point, you might be thinking, caramel-flavored sugar? Yum! But who has 5 hours to sit around and toast sugar?
We hear you.
Our test kitchen bakers thought the very same thing. So we came up with ways to toast sugar while baking other things — namely, pie crust.
If you’ve ever baked custard or cream pie, you might have prebaked the crust. (This is when pie crust is baked without the filling until it's either partially or fully baked.) Usually, bakers use a pie chain, pie weights, or even beans to weigh down the crust during baking to keep it from puffing up.
Guess what works even better and also produces a delicious ingredient along the way? That’s right! Sugar!
The next time you prebake a pie crust, line it with parchment paper, fill it with about 2 cups of granulated sugar, or enough to make a 1"-thick layer of sugar. (If you use less than this, the sugar may heat up quickly and melt around the edges.)
Once the pie crust is out of the oven, stir the sugar periodically while it cools. Once it's at room temperature, use the parchment paper like a funnel to pour it into a container. (I label my jar “Toasted sugar in progress”!)
It’ll take a few rounds of using this sugar for it to achieve a toasty look and taste, but if you’re prebaking crust anyways, you might as well toast some sugar at the same time. After a few rounds of prebaking it’ll taste heavenly, and in the meantime it’s a perfect pie weight.
Recipes to bake while toasting sugar
If you’re not someone who prebakes pie crust very often, you can also put the sugar in a 9” x 13” pan and bake it along with anything else that bakes at 325°F. Here are some of my favorite recipes that bake at this temperature:
- Classic Birthday Cake
- Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies
- Our Ultimate Chewy Brownies
- Caribbean-Style Rum Cake
- Chocolate Crinkles
- Whole-Grain Banana Bread
If you set the oven temperature to 325°F, just think: it’s sugar-toasting time! Grab your sugar and throw it into a pan on the bottom rack of the oven. Just remember to stir it every 30 minutes or so, and in a few bakes, you’ll have a whole bag of toasted sugar to make magic with.
How to use toasted sugar: it’s easy!
Once you have a glorious bag of toasted sugar, it’s time to showcase it in some of your favorite recipes. Remember that it’s easy to use — just swap it 1:1 for the granulated sugar called for in the recipe.
The tricky part of baking with toasted sugar is choosing the right recipes to show it off. Remember that the flavor of toasted sugar is delicious but subtle. It’s best used in recipes where the flavor will shine through. Don’t risk its delicate taste being lost in a cookie recipe with lots of chips, chunks, and spices, for example. Instead, highlight it in recipes that only use a handful of ingredients.
A few ways to put it to good use include toasted sugar meringues, whipped cream, and pastry cream. Toasted sugar marshmallows and simple syrup would also be nice. Perhaps macarons and shortbread, too? I think so!
Stella Parks says she fell head over heels for toasted sugar when she first tasted it in an angel food cake. Since she’s the toasted sugar champion, we follow her lead and use it in angel food cake and other sponge-cake like desserts often. The results are truly heavenly.
Tips and troubleshooting
If you follow these instructions, you'll end up with perfectly toasted sugar. (Think positive!) Here are a few things to look out for to guarantee your success:
- It's worth repeating: don't skimp on stirring. Otherwise, you'll end up with some melted patches and clumps of sugar that are difficult to break up once the sugar is cool. Still, if this happens, don't panic! You can use a food processor to return it to granular form.
- Make sure your oven is the right temperature. If your oven is too cool, you won't get visibly toasted results. If your oven is too warm, you'll melt the sugar. It's worth using an oven thermometer to check if you're unsure whether or not the temperature is accurate.
- Avoid using a large pan. It's tempting to use a giant baking sheet or half-sheet pan to increase the surface area of the sugar and toast more quickly. Resist this urge; you'll melt the sugar and end up with clumps, or worse: a layer or caramelized sugar that just might be more difficult to remove from your pan than cement.
- Stir the sugar once it comes out of the oven a final time, and continue to stir periodically until it's cooled to room temperature. Otherwise the sugar can harden into a solid block.
Make your ingredients taste the best: Toast your sugar
Toasting sugar takes time and planning, yes. But it’s a simple way to make sugar (and all your baking) taste out-of-this-world delicious.
This holiday season, try making one of our single-crust pie recipes that call for prebaking (like Chocolate Cream Pie or Cherry-Vanilla Cream Pie) and toast some sugar while you’re at it. Use the toasted sugar to sweeten the whipped cream that goes on top of the pie. It’ll be an impressive story to share with your family and friends while they’re devouring your dessert.
Let us know your favorite ways to bake with toasted sugar in the comments, below.
Thanks to Anne Mientka for taking the photographs for this post.