The Science of Sugar (And My Favorite Sugars for Baking!)

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Hi Friends! Have you ever looked at sugar–I mean, really looked at it–and wondered what it is? Have you ever wondered why you need to use so much of it in your baked goods, if its only purpose is to make things sweet?

Spoiler alert: it’s not just there to make things sweet!

Want to know more? Read on!

In This Post:

Where Do We Get Sugar?

I bet that many of you are familiar with the fact that sugar comes from sugarcane. Sugarcane is a type of thick, fibrous grass that grows up to 20 feet tall. The inside of that fibrous grass contains sucrose, which is the essential element for any kind of sugar, from granulated sugar to natural sugar to sanding sugar.

Sugar cane. Photo by mbpogue form PxHere

In the United States, sugarcane is typically grown in parts of Louisiana, Florida, Texas, and Hawaii.

Some of you might also know that sugar can also come from sugar beets! As in, beets the vegetable.

So, sugar is a vegetable. You’re welcome.

{Sadly, sugar is not a vegetable}

Sugar beets are grown in parts of Wyoming, California, Colorado, Montana, Michigan, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Minnesota.

Cane sugar and beet sugar are nearly identical in their makeup, and there’s no difference in taste or texture. In fact, depending on which brand you buy, you might already be using them interchangeably in your kitchen! Popular brands of cane sugar are Domino, C&H, and Sugar in the Raw. Popular brands of beet sugar are GW and Pioneer.

Both sugar beets and sugarcane are inedible when they’re raw (although sucking on sugarcane is a popular pasttime). Sugar from both of these sources has to be refined into its final form. By the time they reach that final form, one is indistinguishable from the other!

Sugar’s Impact on Baking: It’s Not Just About the Sweetness!

It’s common to believe that sugar only impacts the sweetness level in your baked goods.

While that’s a common belief, it’s not quite accurate. It is true that sugar impacts the sweetness level of your baked goods, but it also impacts so much more! For instance:

  • Sugar helps baked goods retain moisture. This happens because sugar bonds with liquid in the recipe and retains that liquid. That bond helps keep baked good more moist (I know) for a longer period of time, increasing the shelf life of your baked goods! You can also brush simple syrup (sugar + water) on cakes to help with this as well!
  • Sugar keeps your baked goods from getting too tough. Remember when we talked about how gluten bonds form when flour meets water? Well, sugar weakens that bond just a bit and gives your baked goods a more tender crumb (texture). So, instead of a cake that has the structure of a loaf of bread, sugar helps you make cake that has the structure of…cake.
Photo Credit: Begin with Butter
  • Sugar + fat = air! Sugar aids in the leavening process for baked goods that use the creaming method. When you combine sugar and fat (usually butter or vegetable shortening) at high speed for about 3-5 minutes, the friction creates little pockets of air for your leavening to get nice and cozy in. Without sugar, this reaction cannot happen.
  • Sugar carmelizes and helps your baked goods brown. The amount of sugar impacts how beautifully golden brown your baked goods will get. This is a matter of taste, but if you like your pound cakes to be a deep golden color, then sugar is going to play a huge part!
Photo Credit: Begin with Butter
  • Sugar helps stabilize egg whites. Whipping egg whites for pancakes? Need them to stay stiff for a few more minutes? Add a little bit of sugar to help keep those egg whites stable and firm so that they don’t flop while you’re starting breakfast bacon. To do this, add a couple of teaspoons of superfine sugar to two egg whites after about a minute of beating. The result will be a more glossy, stable egg white! Note: this is the technique (but not the recipe) for making meringue! So look at you and your fancy skills!
  • Sugar feeds yeast. In your bread recipes, yeast needs sugar and liquid to activate. Without sugar, yeast cannot reach its full potential. And don’t we want our ingredients to flourish?
  • Sugar slows things down. Have you ever wondered why the eggs in your custards and curds don’t immediately scramble when you add them? The sugar in those custards and curds slows down the cooking (or “coagulation”) process of those eggs, allowing them to blend slowly and avoid scrambling. You still have to add those eggs slowly though! It’s all about the “temper”ament! (Couldn’t help myself.)

Common Types of Sugar for Home Baking

Friends. There are so many types of sugar. It’s not just about granulated sugar any more! Keep in mind, these are the sugars that I keep in my kitchen. As you go on your baking journey, you’ll find your own favorites!

White Sugars

First, there is granulated sugar. It’s the most common form of sugar that’s used in home baking recipes. If a recipe doesn’t specifically say to use another sugar, then granulated sugar is the way to go. When a recipe calls for you to cream butter and sugar together, granulated sugar mixes into the butter and actually increases the volume of the butter. Hello there, air!

There’s also confectioner’s sugar (also known as powdered sugar or icing sugar), which is common in the United States for buttercream (frosting) and dusting.

You might know that confectioner’s sugar is finer than granulated sugar and mixed with a kiss of corn starch, but did you know that there are levels of confectioner’s sugar?

I know. It’s mind blowing.

Confectioner’s sugar comes in 6x, 10x, and 12x versions. The most common form of confectioner’s sugar that’s on grocery store shelves is 10x sugar. The others can be hard to come by unless you’re a commercial baker (or you have a hookup at a restaurant supply store).

Don’t worry! For home baking, 10x sugar is perfect!

The last kind of white sugar that I keep on hand in my kitchen is sanding sugar. This is a decorating sugar that adds crunchy texture and a touch of shine to whatever you’re baking. Whether it’s extra crunch on the top of a cupcake or a finishing touch for a pie or some cookies, this sugar adds that professional-looking pop that makes your treats a treat to look at.

Photo Credit: Begin with Butter

::Brown Sugars Have Entered The Chat::

My absolute favorite sugars on earth are the ones that have a bit of molasses left in them. I say “left in” because molasses is a naturally-occurring part of sugar that is stripped during the production process.

Photo Credit: Begin with Butter

That’s right; molasses is a byproduct! For granulated sugar, it’s stripped completely from the product. For turbinado (or demerara sugar), a tiny bit of molasses remains.

For light brown sugar and dark brown sugar, the molasses is partially stripped and then added back. For muscovado sugar, it’s not stripped at all. The more molasses you find in the sugar, the higher the moisture content in your baked goods and the more rich molasses flavor you’ll get.

Why do I care about molasses? Molasses adds moisture to baked goods, which gives that extra chewy texture to your chocolate chip cookies and gingerbread. And, of course, there’s that rich molasses flavor…and the smell…

::blissful eye roll::

Wrap Up

Sugar impacts so much more than just the sweetness of your baked goods. As you gain confidence in the kitchen and start developing your own recipes, you’ll want to take advantage of every benefit that sugar has to offer when you create your own showstopping desserts. Now you have the know-how to do just that!

I hope you found this helpful and look forward to seeing your beautiful creations!

Epilogue: A Note About the History of Sugarcane

Sugarcane grows in the more tropical regions of the United States, South America, and the Caribbean. It requires back-breaking labor for planting, harvesting, and production.

In the antebellum world, much of this dangerous labor was performed by enslaved people under oppressive and dangerous conditions. Even after chattel slavery ended, people of African descent were disproportionately represented among sugarcane laborers.

As a black woman and a baker, the history of sugar production saddens me. I still feel a deep connection the the souls in my own family who toiled for cotton, soybeans, and tobacco in Virginia; I would never discount the experiences of those who toiled and died on sugarcane plantations for this crop by ignoring this history.

It is a present thought in my mind all the time; I can only hope that those ancestors are resting peacefully and that they are proud of the freedom we have now. I hope my choice–to live in this space and honor their recipes in a new way–makes them proud. I hope that I am making the most of the freedom that they longed for, and that I am showing honor for their sacrifice by shedding light on the truth.

✌🏾 ❤️ 🍞 🧁

Until next time!

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Take a Peek at My Favorite Baking Science Books!

Home » Featured Recipes » baking science

“I wasn’t born with the baking gene, but God didn’t give me this sweet tooth for nothing.” –Shani

I need sweet treats on demand. Before I could bake, this…was problematic.

That all changed one fateful fall day in 2013, and I haven’t looked back. I made some splendidly mediocre sugar cookies over a feverish and sleepless night, and that was it, Friends. I was HOOKED on baking. HOOKED.

At the beginning, I worked with simple, go-to recipes that never failed. Those recipes helped me build confidence during those early days.

Alas, friends, I am a creative by nature. So, while it was fun to make someone else’s recipes, I yearned to create my own.

I didn’t have money for pastry school, but I had an unquenchable desire to learn, so I bought the books and dedicated myself to study and practice. I’m happy today to share the books that I’ve found most useful as I’ve gone on my journey.

I’ll link to the books on Amazon in case you’re interested. I make no money from these recommendations; I just find these resources helpful. Let me know if you do too!

In this post:

Let’s do this.

The Professional Pastry Chef by Bo Friberg

Photo Credit: Begin with Butter

There are not enough lovely words to describe this book. It is a textbook, to be sure, but it is also literally the first baking resource I ever check when I’m looking for a definitive answer about something.

As the name suggests, this book is written for pastry students, but it is an incredible, comprehensive resource for anyone looking to up their baking game. It contains concise, easy-to-follow baking science, conversion charts, baker’s percentages, and clear-cut explanations for so. many. pastries.

Oh! And diagrams! I love diagrams and this book has them in spades. Diagrams teach you the method for working quickly and efficiently, while producing pastries worthy of a high-end pastry case. We love diagrams.

This book is how intermediate bakers become advanced bakers. How those looking to truly understand baking science learn that knowledge.

For the petty, this book is how those looking to dominate the dessert scene at Thanksgiving put the debate to bed forever and ever. Going forward, that will be [insert your name here]’s dessert table. Picture it.

The recipes in this book use weight measurements, and the yields are for professional kitchens, but if you’re using weight measurements, it’s easy enough to scale these recipes down to suit your needs. And, of course, there are instructions in this book for how to do that without ruining the the integrity of whatever you’re making.

The new edition of this book comes out in September, and while I’ve preordered it, this version has a very special place in my heart.

Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking by Michael Ruhlman

Photo Credit: Begin with Butter

Super fun fact: if you don’t know what you’re doing with basic baking ratios, it’s extremely difficult to create your own recipes without tons of food waste.

You see, the baking recipes that you see in cookbooks and online are generally based on basic ratios (formulas). That means, for example, knowing that for every cup of flour, you need x amount of sugar, x amount of fat, x amount of leavening, et cetera, et cetera.

These basic ratios are the foundation of baking recipes; they are time-tested to produce consistent texture, taste and color for your baked goods. Recipe development, then, depends mostly on knowing the ratios and making slight modifications to produce different variations. Once you know the ratios, you can let your creative flag fly!

This book cracks the code about ratios. For intermediate/advanced bakers who are ready to flex their creative muscles, this book will teach you basic ratios for baking that you can use to start your creative journey. Bonus: this book is not just for bakers! It is actually mostly dedicated to savory, but the information about baking is invaluable. (psst….the savory stuff is well worth the read too).

Not only will this book teach you about ratios, it will give you the industry-accepted ratios that pros use. If you’re ready to truly learn how to build baking recipes of your own, then this book is it. It’s a power-packed short read and a great resource.

The Great British Bake Off: How to Avoid a Soggy Bottom: And Other Secrets to Achieving a Good Bake by Gerard Baker

Photo Credit: Begin with Butter

This book-with-a-long-title is an amazing resource for quick answers about nagging baking questions. It’s broken into short, easy-to-find information.

Family, this is the book you need when you want a quick answer…like when you’re in the middle of a baking project and something is about to go horribly wrong. When you need a plainly-written, effective answer to help you get back on track (hopefully). Or when something goes horribly wrong and you want a quick resource to troubleshoot how to avoid the mistake in the future. This book is that book.

This book also has adorable history lessons (like about the history and use of baking powder and baking soda, and the cookie/biscuit distinction in American and British baking). Sometimes it’s fun to just get lost in this book for those cute history snips.

Of course, the writing is fluid and fun and you can absolutely kick your feet up with a cup of tea and just read straight through as well. While the sections in this book are a quick read, it is an excellent resource for learning bite-sized baking science in a Q&A style.

The Art of the Pie: A Practical Guide to Homemade Crusts, Fillings, and Life by Kate McDermott

Photo Credit: Begin with Butter

Friends, when I say that I saved pie making for the very last thing I ever learned about baking because I was so intimidated about pie crust? Because the humble pie will HUMBLE YOU.

Then this book came along and changed everything. Kate McDermott calmed my fears in the first five pages and made me realize that “it’s just pie.” Those words changed everything. I also felt quite silly because what was I freaking out about?

Then I got overconfident and underbaked my first pie by a mile. But this book helped me realize that pie, like life, is about growth. So I just kept making more pie.

Lucky for me, this book has easy-to-follow pie crust recipes and techniques that made me feel very accomplished very quickly. There are also a crazy number of filling recipes to choose from.

After working with this book for a while, I tried several online pie crust recipes and I have yet to find one that I love better than the all-butter crust on these pages. And the fillings are always on point. Considering my book’s overall worn appearance, you know that it’s been well-loved over the years.

Flour Water Salt Yeast: The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza by Ken Forkish

Photo Credit: Begin with Butter

Let me apologize in advance for the overall beat up appearance of this book. At least the book jacket is still on it. I consider that more than a minor miracle.

This, Friends, is the tome for advanced bread makers. This book is based on the premise that bread only needs four humble ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast.

Don’t be fooled though. This book shows that the secret to transforming those humble ingredients is in your technique. If you take the gentle hand this book extends and take a walk through the pages, you’ll see that those ingredients can be transformed in any number of ways.

In addition to more common straight doughs (bread doughs that use yeast only), this book offers the advanced baker a primer on those types of sourdough “starters” (biga, levain and poolish) that add are used to create spectacular, bakery-quality loaves. This book primarily uses baker’s percentages in place of “recipes” that you might be used to seeing online, so it really appeals to my nerdy heart.

This book also does a tremendous job of explaining, in simple terms, how external factors (like humidity and air temperature) impact your bread. It gives practical tips for addressing those external issues to help you get the best loaf possible. The loaves in these pages are a lot of work, but they are more than worth the effort.

This is a tremendous, tremendous book.

The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Jeff Herzberg and Zoë François

Photo Credit: Begin with Butter

For beginning bread makers, and intermediate/advanced bread makers who don’t want to babysit loaves all day, this book has the answer. Bread dough in five minutes that lasts in the fridge for several days.

These recipes are amazing because you can have fresh bread whenever you want it, with minimal effort. The recipes in this book are unfussy and can make anyone feel accomplished with just a few ingredients. The directions are clear-cut and easy to follow.

This book promises bread dough in five minutes and it delivers in a big way. It’s extremely accessible for home bakers who have a million things going on but still want to make good loaves with whole ingredients. For those intimidated about working with yeast, this book is a way to gain quick confidence for more ambitious bread projects!

The Bread Lover’s Bread Machine Cookbook by Beth Hensperger

Photo Credit: Begin with Butter

There some bakers who look down on bread machines because they feel that there’s too much sacrificing of quality for convenience.

I honestly think that’s unfortunate and don’t subscribe to that kind of thinking at all. We celebrate all bakers here. #PositivelyBetterBaking

There are a million reasons why someone might want to use a bread machine to make homemade bread. I, for one, truly appreciate any effort to make bread from scratch. And bread machine sandwich loaves > store bought sandwich loaves any day of the week.

My point is that there is no one true way to make bread. And again, for busy people who don’t have the time to babysit sandwich loaves, I support you! Get yourself a bread machine and some ingredients and have the best time. Seriously!

This book works for any baker with a bread machine. Whether you’re an advanced baker who wants a “throw and go” recipe that allows you to toss ingredients into a machine while you’re off to the market, or you’re brand new to working with yeast, there are tons of great recipes to experiment with and enjoy. I’m partial to the Cinnamon Raisin Oatmeal Walnut Whole Wheat bread recipe (sans nuts) myself.

The point is that there are a ton of well thought-out, truly delicious recipes in this book that are supported by baking science. Go for it! Have fun! It’s an amazing time saver and you’ll get bread with whole ingredients. Win!

Final Thoughts

I like to think that I graduated summa cum laude from the Culinary School of Hard Knocks. Mine has been an exceptionally worthwhile education, but it can be lonely trying to learn all of this stuff on your own.

I created this blog as a place to share what I’ve learned over the years. A place where you can find everything you need in one nice, neat baking blog package. For those of you who want to take supplement what you’re learning here with my favorite resources, feel free to check out one or all of these books and let me know how they worked out for you!

Until next time!

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