“Crystallized pleasure” is how Harold McGee describes sugar in his seminal text On Food and Cooking, and I agree with him. (Somewhere in Florida, my dentist cousin sobs.)

But while sugar may seem straightforward, it’s anything but. The grocery store baking aisle is stocked with tremendous variety — so what’s the difference? Can you substitute one sweetener for another? And if so, how?

We’ve got the answers — read on.

What is sugar?

Granulated white sugar — what we mainly use in baking — is derived from either sugar beets or sugarcane. (We test all our recipes with cane sugar, as outlined in our Recipe Success Guide.) It's technically sucrose (a disaccharide) which is made up of two simple sugars (monosaccharides): glucose and fructose. And while it might be the most popular sugar in baking, it’s hardly the only one. There are plenty of other ingredients from which sugar can be derived, from coconut to maple to dates, all of which perform slightly differently in baking.

Creamed butter and sugar in stand mixer Photography by Mark Weinberg; food styling by Liz Neily
Sugar is essential for creaming with butter.

What does sugar do in baking?

The first, and most obvious: It sweetens baked goods. But it doesn’t just add sweetness. Sugar is also a flavor enhancer that, like salt, can elevate or complement other flavors, like cutting the bitterness of cocoa powder in a chocolate cake.

Sugar also helps with browning. As it’s heated, the sugar caramelizes and plays a role in the Maillard reaction — that’s why some pie crusts, for instance, will include a small amount of sugar. This browning and caramelization add flavor; think of dark crispy bread crusts or amber-colored caramel, for instance. In addition, sugar is hygroscopic, meaning it attracts water. This attribute can be a good thing — it helps baked goods retain moisture — or a bad one — a frosted cake may become dry quickly because all the sugar in the frosting pulls moisture from the cake layers. Also of note: Sugar tenderizes baked goods because it interferes with the coagulation of proteins, including the gluten network.

But there’s even more that sugar can do, depending on how it’s used in a recipe. Sugar is key to stabilizing whipped eggs or egg whites for recipes like meringue cookies and sponge cakes, which rely on them for leavening and structure. When whipped together, sugar dissolves in the water from eggs to form a viscous liquid that helps stabilize the structure of whipped egg whites, helping them trap air bubbles. When it’s creamed with butter, meanwhile, it helps lighten and leaven a baked good: As the two are beaten together, the hard sugar crystals create pockets of air in the solid butter, and those air pockets translate to a lighter cake. And in yeast baking, sugar provides food for the yeast organisms, speeding up fermentation, though too much — generally, more than 1/4 cup per 3 cups of flour — actually slows yeast down.

A field guide to sugar

We like to think of sugar in three categories: everyday sugars, specialty sugars, and finishing sugars.

Everyday sugars are self-explanatory — they’re the ones we most frequently pull out of our pantries to bake with. Specialty sugars are less common but can contribute flavor and/or texture in a way that favorites like granulated or brown sugar can’t. Lastly, there are finishing sugars: They don’t go into a batter or dough but instead are used to garnish baked goods for an elegant appearance, pleasing texture, or both. 

Read on for a description of each sugar, the best recipes to make with them, and the best substitutions. 

One note: We’re not talking about liquid sugars today; that’s a whole different topic!

Glass baking dish full of granulated sugar Anne Mientka
There’s a reason every baker’s pantry has a stash of granulated sugar.

Everyday sugars for baking

Granulated sugar: Derived from either sugarcane or sugar beets, this is the most commonly used sugar in baking, and for good reason. It’s neutral in flavor and has medium-sized, uniform crystals that are small enough to dissolve into batters and large enough to create air pockets when creamed with butter. If you only stock one sugar, this is the best choice.

Brown sugar: Perhaps the second-most common sugar in baking, brown sugar is basically granulated sugar with a small amount of molasses added. You’ll typically find two types of brown sugar: light brown and dark brown. The latter has slightly more molasses and as a result will provide more flavor and darker color, but for the most part they can be used interchangeably in baked goods. The inclusion of molasses gives brown sugar its toasty color, additional depth of flavor, slight acidity (important for leaveners!), and moisture. As a result, brown sugar is typically used in recipes to provide both more flavor and a softer texture, like in these Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies.

Confectioners’ sugar: Also called powdered sugar or icing sugar, confectioners’ sugar is granulated white sugar that has been blitzed to a fine white powder with a bit of cornstarch added to prevent clumping. Because of its fine consistency, confectioners’ sugar dissolves easily and is used for icings, frostings, and glazes. It can also be sifted over baked goods as a finishing touch (though our preference for that is actually non-melting sugar — see more below!). It’s not good for creaming because it doesn’t have defined crystals to cut through the butter; on the flipside, it’s great in dense, buttery cookies like shortbread because it doesn’t incorporate air and yields a supremely tender, melt-in-your-mouth texture.

  • Recommended confectioners’ sugar substitute: 1 cup (198g) granulated sugar + 1 tablespoon cornstarch whizzed in a blender or food processor until fine (sub by weight if using in a batter or dough; by volume if you’re dusting on top of a baked good) 

  • Recipes: Wedding Cookies; Whipped Lemon Shortbread; Quick Buttercream Frosting

super-fine sugar next to granulated sugar Anne Mientka
See how much smaller the superfine sugar granules are?

Specialty sugars for baking

Note: There are so many different sugars and sweeteners in the world that we simply couldn’t list every single one here, but we encourage you to fall down this sweet rabbit hole and explore more.

Superfine sugar: Also called baker’s special sugar, extra-fine, or caster sugar, this is granulated sugar that has been finely ground so the crystals are smaller. As a result, it dissolves easily and is an excellent choice for meringues, egg foams, and simple syrups.

Coconut sugar: Made from the nectar of coconut blossoms, coconut sugar is a dark, gritty sugar with toffee-like flavor notes. It has a finer texture than brown sugar, but its caramel flavor and deep color mean they’re often likened to each other. It’s commonly used in paleo baking.

Date sugar: Made from ground, dehydrated dates, date sugar is coarser than white sugar and darker in color. Because it doesn’t melt fully, it can give some baked goods a gritty texture; we recommend trying it sprinkled on muffins or quick breads before baking.

Baking sugar alternative: Made from a blend of ingredients including monk fruit extract, stevia leaf extract, and other planted-based sweeteners, baking sugar alternative has zero net carbs and zero calories. It can be used 1:1 in place of granulated sugar for similar taste and texture in your baked goods.

Maple sugar: A granulated version of maple syrup, maple sugar has a light golden color and can be used to add pure, natural maple flavor to baked goods.

Muscovado sugar: A dark, slightly sticky sugar, muscovado retains the molasses from the sugarcane, yielding a pronounced burnt caramel-like flavor and deep brown color.

Whole cane sugars: These are unrefined sugars that retain the cooked cane juice from which they’re made because they don't undergo centrifugation. (They’re sometimes called non-centrifugal sugars.) This category includes whole sugars that often come in solid blocks, disks, or cones, such as jaggery and piloncillo. They can vary in color and flavor depending on how they were processed. Because of the minimal processing, they retain bitter, burnt, vegetal, and fruity notes that add depth to baked goods.

Sticky bun sugar: A King Arthur exclusive, sticky bun sugar is a special combination of sugar, glucose syrup, sunflower oil, honey, lecithin, cream, and natural flavors that’s blended with brown sugar and butter to create the ultra-gooey topping that makes sticky buns special.  

Baker sprinkling the top of an unbaked apple pie with sparkling sugar Photography by Kristin Teig; food styling by Liz Neily
Sparkling sugar gives pie crusts a lovely shimmer and crunch.

Finishing sugars

Demerara sugar: A less-processed version of granulated sugar, Demerara sugar contains some molasses, making it similar to brown sugar in taste, while in texture it’s more like sanding sugar, coarser and with larger granules, making it an excellent finishing sugar for topping cakes, quick breads, and muffins before baking because the prominent crystals remain intact and provide a pleasing crunch. For this same reason, it’s not a good substitute for granulated sugar, as it doesn’t dissolve as easily in batters.

Turbinado sugar: Similar to Demerara sugar, with a rich brown color, large crystals, and a molasses-y flavor. Use it the same way you would Demerara — to garnish the tops of baked goods for pleasing color and crunch.

Sparkling sugar: Also called sanding sugar, sparkling sugar has large, clear granules that retain their shape and crunch after baking, similar to Demerara sugar. It’s sprinkled on top of scones, snacking cakes, breads, and more.

Non-melting topping sugar: A fine, powdery sugar similar to confectioners’ sugar, snow white non-melting topping sugar won’t melt or dissolve with time, ensuring your baked goods retain a snowy surface.

Swedish pearl sugar: Pure white, coarse granules of Swedish pearl sugar can withstand high heat without melting, so the granules retain their shape after baking and lend baked goods like Cardamom Buns and Vanilla Polka Dots a pleasing crunch.

Can I swap a liquid sugar for a dry sugar?

You can, but don’t expect the recipe to turn out exactly the same. Liquid sweeteners like honey, molasses, and maple not only affect texture (which is pretty obvious, since you’re swapping out a dry ingredient for a liquid one) but also flavor. Liquid sweeteners are known as invert sugars, and they have different makeups of sucrose, glucose, and fructose; as a result, they contribute varying levels of sweetness, browning, and moisture retention.

Helpfully, we’ve done all the testing to see how effectively liquid sweeteners can be used in different types of baked goods that call for dry sugar. See our previous post: Baking with liquid sweeteners.

Bowl of confectioners' sugar next to chocolate cookies covered in confectioners' sugar Anne Mientka
Confectioners’ sugar is used to coat Chocolate Crinkles for their characteristic crackled appearance. 

Does it matter which sugar I use in a recipe? 

We recommend sticking with the specific sugar called for in a recipe, as the developer will have chosen the best sugar for the job and tested the recipe accordingly.

That said, there is some wiggle room for sugar substitutions. In general, use your best judgment if you need to substitute — only swap sugars that look and taste similarly (i.e., no confectioners’ sugar in place of granulated!). And remember that recipes won’t turn out exactly the same whenever you make a change. For handy reference, here’s a shortcut of common swaps:

  • Light brown sugar and dark brown sugar can be used interchangeably  

  • A combination of granulated sugar and molasses can be substituted for brown sugar (see more here: What can I substitute for brown sugar?

  • Brown sugar can be used in place of muscavado sugar by weight or volume, and vice versa  

  • Granulated sugar can be used in place of superfine sugar/caster sugar by weight; if possible, blitz in a food processor to make it more finely ground before baking 

  • Turbinado sugar and Demerara sugar can be used interchangeably when sprinkled on top of baked goods

Ready to make your baking a little sweeter? We have a wide variety of sugars and sweeteners available in our Shop.  

Cover photo by Rick Holbrook; food styling by Kaitlin Wayne.

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About Rossi Anastopoulo

Rossi Anastopoulo grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, which is how she fell in love with biscuits. She didn’t have any bakers in her household (with the exception of her grandmother’s perfect koulourakia), so she learned at a young age that the best way to satisfy her sweet tooth was to make dess...
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