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The Function of Sugar in Baking

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  • Baking Fundamentals Lesson #6: All About the Function of Sugar in Baking
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The Function of Sugar in Baking Lesson Overview:

Today we are diving in deep into the sweet stuff, sugar! When we think about how ingredients function in baking, sugar is the first one that comes to my mind. And while we all know the obvious function of sugar in baking, that it makes things sweet, it actually serves many other functions.

Today let’s review all of sugar’s various functions in baking as well as all of the different varieties of sugar and how they function differently. This lesson is not going to go in depth about alternative sugar such as liquid sweeteners, and sugar substitutes, rather it will focus on traditional sugar in its many forms and how it functions in baking.

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What is Sugar?

Sugar is a sweet substance that is made up of a molecule known as sucrose. Sucrose, while found in all plants, but is available in very high quantities in sugar cane and sugar beets. Therefore, these are the plants where almost all of our sugar for baking is derived from.

Sugar harvested from cane sugar is chemically identical to sugar harvested from sugar beets. The two are not easy to tell apart from each other and likely you have purchased both. Chances are if your package of sugar does not specify “cane sugar” on it, you have purchased beet sugar.

Sugar’s Functions in Baking

Piles of various types of sugar

While we all know that sugar sweetens baked goods, it actually plays many different roles in baking regarding the structure, texture, and color of baked goods.

Sugar Sweetens & Flavors

The first and most obvious role of sugar in baking is that it adds sweetness and flavor. While granulated sugar is a fairly neutral sweetness, other varieties of sugar, such as brown sugar, add more depth of flavor in addition to the sweetness.

Sugar Encourages Browning

Because of the way sugar caramelizes when heated, sugar also promotes browning of baked goods. Baked goods with higher ratios of sugar will brown more quickly and readily than baked goods with little to no sugar present.

Cookies baked with different types of sugar

In the above picture, I baked 4 batches of a simple shortbread cookie. Each has varying levels of sugar, starting with no sugar on the left to a high ratio of sugar on the right. You can see the significant difference in color as the sugar is increased.

Sugar Holds onto Moisture

A brownie square with a cup of coffee

Sugar has hygroscopic properties, meaning that it grabs and holds onto moisture. Because sugar holds onto moisture, baked goods made with sugar do not stale as quickly as baked goods made without sugar.

An example I like to think of to illustrate this point is to consider a crusty loaf of bread, such as a baguette. This style of bread is made without any sugar at all. Now consider a sweet yeast roll. If you left these two things out overnight, chances are the crusty loaf is going to be so hard that you might break a tooth if you tried to take a bite. And while the sweet yeast roll will likely have begun to stale as well, the amount of change will be significantly different.

Sugar Tenderizes

Light and fluffy chiffon cake

Due to the previously mentioned hygroscopic nature of sugar, sugar also serves to help reduce gluten development and tenderize baked goods. Because sugar grabs and holds onto moisture it leaves less moisture readily available, delaying gluten development. Additionally, because sugar holds onto moisture, it keeps baked goods tender for a longer period of time.

Sugar Leavens

Sugar and butter creamed together

Sugar serves to help leaven baked goods in a variety of ways. When sugar is creamed with butter it forces a web of air to get trapped between the two ingredients. This web of air lightens and helps to leaven baked goods.

But sugar doesn’t just help leaven when it is creamed with butter. Sugar also leavens baked goods even when creaming is not part of the process. Because sugar holds onto water, it provides structure for gas expansion in the oven, promoting lift and rise in baked goods.

When considering leavening, don’t just think of it as rising up, but also spreading when there is room to do so. The cookies pictured above are the perfect example. They were scooped with the exact same size of scoop and the cookie on the left that has no sugar at all completely held the shape that it started out in. While the cookie on the right spread out a great deal. There is not baking soda or baking powder present in these cookies, the sugar is doing all of the leavening.

Sugar Stabilizes

Stiff peaked meringue

When sugar is beaten into an egg white foam, like when making a meringue, it begins to dissolve and it takes up space between the air bubbles beating beaten into the egg whites. The sugar essentially serves as a cushion between the bubbles which stabilizes the egg foam.

Sugar Decorates and Garnishes

Donut holes tossed in cinnamon sugar

Sugar can be used as a garnish in a variety of ways. Powdered sugar can be dusted over cakes, brownies, and tarts for a simple elegant topping. Cookies can be rolled in plain sugar or cinnamon sugar for a quick bit of texture. Coarse sugar can be sprinkled on pastries and muffins to add a pretty sparkling finish and some crunch. Additionally, sugar can be heated into a syrup or caramelized and used to make intricate sugar decorations.

Types of Sugar in Baking

Granulated Sugar

A pile of white granulated sugar

  • What is granulated sugar?: Granulated sugar is a refined sugar that is white in color and is the most common type of sugar used in baking. Granulated sugar has a slight coarseness to it but is still a very fine grain.
  • Best uses for granulated sugar: Granulated sugar is the sugar most commonly used in baking. Use it for almost any sweet baked good.

Brown Sugar (Light & Dark)

  • What is brown sugar?: Brown sugar is granulated sugar that has molasses added into it. Light brown sugar has a small amount of molasses added while dark brown sugar has a larger amount of molasses added into it. Molasses is even more hygroscopic in nature than plain granulated sugar so it keeps baked goods even more moist and adds chewiness.

It is worth noting here that molasses is actually a by-product of refining sugar. When sugar is refined, it is processed into smaller granules and the molasses is removed. This is then added back into the fine grain refined sugar to make brown sugar.

  • Best uses for brown sugar: Brown sugar should be used in baked goods where chewiness is desirable, such as for chocolate chip cookies. Use dark brown sugar for even more chewiness and more caramel flavors.

Powdered Sugar (aka Confectioners Sugar, Icing Sugar, or 10x Sugar)

A pile of powdered sugar

  • What is powdered sugar?: Powdered sugar, which is also called confectioner’s sugar, icing sugar, or 10x sugar, is a very finely ground white sugar. Because powdered sugar is so finely ground it is also combined with a bit of cornstarch, or other starch, to prevent it from clumping. Powdered sugar dissolves extremely quickly into baked goods, and because of its fine texture and the addition of cornstarch it can create very tender baked goods.
  • Best uses for powdered sugar: Powdered sugar works beautifully to make icings and frostings because it dissolves so easily. Powdered sugar also works well to dust over cakes or pastries as a simple decoration.

Superfine Sugar (Castor or Caster Sugar)

A pile of castor sugar

  • What is superfine sugar?: Superfine sugar, also known as castor or caster sugar, is a more finely ground granulated sugar, though not as finely ground as powdered sugar. This type of sugar is popular for professional baking, and is very commonly used in the UK, because it more readily dissolves into batters and doughs. However, it is difficult to find in the US and is typically more pricey than granulated sugar.
  • Best uses for superfine (castor/caster) sugar: Superfine sugar is best used for baking uses when it is necessary to beat air into ingredients such as when whipping egg whites for a cake or meringue, whipped cream, or for frostings.

Note: It is possible to make a superfine/castor/caster sugar substitute by pulsing granulated sugar in a food processor or spice grinder. Be careful not to over-process or it will become powdered sugar.

Muscovado Sugar

A pile of muscovado sugar

  • What is muscovado Sugar?: Muscovado sugar is an unrefined cane sugar that is similar in texture to brown sugar due to the molasses naturally remaining in this type of sugar. Muscovado sugar has a very strong molasses flavor, more so than dark brown sugar, and is more moist than regular brown sugar. Muscovado sugar can be found in both light and dark varieties, similar to brown sugar.
  • Best uses for muscovado sugar: Muscovado sugar is best used for baked goods where a strong molasses flavor is desirable or complimentary of the other flavors such as for gingerbread, molasses cookies, or other baked goods with warming spices.

Sanding Sugar

A pile of sanding sugar

  • What is sanding sugar?: Sanding sugar is a very coarse type of granulated sugar that is kept clear or sometimes colored a variety of colors.
  • Best uses for sanding sugar: For topping and decorating desserts.

Turbinado Sugar (Raw Sugar or Sugar in the Raw)

A pile of turbinado sugar

  • What is turbinado sugar?: Turbinado sugar, also known as raw sugar or sugar in the raw, is a type of sugar that has been minimally processed. The texture of the sugar is very coarse, similar to the texture of sanding sugar, and is light brown in color. Almost all of the molasses is removed from this type of sugar so it is dry in texture but does have a hint of molasses flavor lingering.
  • Best uses for turbinado sugar in baking: Use it like sanding sugar, to top and decorate baking goods. Adds a crunchy texture.

Pearl Sugar (Nib Sugar)

A pile of pearl sugar

  • What is pearl sugar?: Pearl sugar, also called nib sugar, is a type of specialty sugar that is made by compressing granulated sugar into large hunks of sugar. This type of sugar is only used for very specific baking purposes as it does not dissolve into baked goods. Read more about pearl sugar and how it’s used here. 
  • Best uses for pearl sugar: Pearl sugar is most commonly used to make Belgian Liege Waffles but is also used as a very coarse topping on a variety of pastries.

Making Sugar Substitutions in Baking

Because sugar does have so much effect on the structure and texture of a baked good, making substitutions with sugar should be done with caution. It is also important to note that each type of sugar has varying density levels so if you will be substituting one for another it is important to do so by weight instead of by volume. Consult this ingredient weight conversion chart when making these substitutions.

Below is a list of fairly safe substitutions for sugars, however, always keep in mind that results will vary when making substitutions in baking.

  • Swapping granulated sugar and brown sugars: In most cookies, brownies, and bars, it is typically fairly safe to swap granulated sugar and brown sugar. Granulated sugar will make baked goods more crisp while brown sugar will create chewiness and a more moist texture.
  • Using powdered sugar in place of granulated sugar: This substitution should only be done in baked goods that are fairly forgiving such as cookies, brownies, bars, muffins, and quick breads. Make sure you are measuring by weight as the amount of volume needed of granulated sugar is significantly less than powdered sugar.
  • Swapping brown sugar and muscovado sugar: These two sugars function very similarly and can typically be swapped without issues. Keep in mind that muscovado sugar will add a much more intense molasses flavor to your baked goods.


As always, the homework is optional but is a good way to practice.

Option #1: In order to truly see sugar’s role in baking, I’d love for you to try your hand at baking an angel food cake. The reason angel food cake is such an amazing example of sugar’s role in baking is that the cake does not contain any fat or chemical leavening. Therefore, the sugar is absolutely crucial for the tenderness and leavening of the cake.

Option #2: Bake something, anything, that requires you to cream butter and sugar together. Be mindful to really cream long enough for the butter and sugar to become very fluffy. This can take up to 5 full minutes. The sugar is allowing the web of air to be trapped in the butter.

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16 comments on “The Function of Sugar in Baking”

  1. Very interesting, I didn’t know all of this! The problem is that I am trying to quit eating sugar!

  2. Hi Bettie,

    Than’k you for all the information, it was just what I was looking for.  I just made some chocolate chip cookies that called for 1 cup dark brown sugar and 1/2 cup white sugar.   After I chilled the dough and baked them, they did turn out very good, however, they seemed way too sweet to me.  I’m thinking of leaving out the 1/2 cup white sugar next time.  What are your thoughts?

    Thank you!

    • Hi Debbie, without seeing the other ratios in the recipe it is hard to know if reducing that much sugar would be too much. I would start by reducing it by a half cup. How much salt was in the recipe? I often find that cookie recipes do not include enough salt which can really help with the overly sweet taste.

  3. Interesting article with lots of good info, but where does honey fit into all of this. Often, especially in bread, I will substitute an equal amount of honey for sugar. I’ve also done the same with certain marinades. Don’t remember ever having the urge to sub honey in cookie or cake recipes. Your thoughts, please.

    • Hi Martin, good question! Things like honey and maple syrup are really in a completely different category than sugar in regards to baking. You have to ask yourself what is the function the sugar is performing and if that function can easily be substituted with honey. In a bread recipe, the sugar is adding sweetness and contributing to feeding the yeast. Those things are easily swapped with honey. Same goes for a marinade, the sugar is only for flavor. However in something like a cookie or a cake, the sugar is doing much more than just sweetening the baked good. It is what creates the structure and and also helps to leaven the baked good. Because of this, you can’t easily swap the two in those types of baked goods. Hope that helps!

  4. Hi Bettie,

    Thank you for the very informative and interesting video and information. I have been a home baker for many years and never knew most of what you presented about the functions of sugar. This will help me understand recipes better and where I can make adjustments. 

    I was going to ask about honey and maple syrup but saw your comment to another person—thanks for that too.

    I look forward to more lessons!

  5. I have run out of Demerara sugar and so has my supermarket, is there an alternative to use for quick Sticky Toffee Pudding please?

  6. This is super helpful! I plan to read more of your blog to get a better understanding of baking techniques. I recently made a cake with almond flour that called for a cup of sugar and it tasted way too sweet for me. But I would imagine reducing the sugar would be a precarious effort – do you know of a way to do that without losing the moistness (it also called for 7 eggs)?

  7. I have been on a low carb diet for a couple of years now, and have lost over 40 lbs. My problem is I still miss the baked treats. I have tried all the sugar subs available even the newer ones. The only one that does not cause me miserable digestive problems is Monkfruit. However, it’s not good for baking. I think because the amount of monk fruit needed to sweeten is way too small for the baking recipe. I’m not exactly sure. Anyway, your explanation on the part sugar plays in a recipe, by containing moisture and leveling. I was hoping you could tell me of anything I could use with the Monkfruit to get the desired results?

  8. Excellent article on the function of sugar in baking (beyond sweetness).

    I made some delicious blueberry muffins and noted that the blueberries provided plenty of sweetness. So I made a batch without sugar for a diabetic friend with a sweet tooth who can’t tolerate any added sugar. The muffins came out sweet, but damp and heavy.

    Your article explains that sugar helps trap water, creating air pockets as the muffins cook. So it’s back to the drawing board for me. Perhaps extra leavening agents will work next time… There has to be a way.

  9. Hi Bettie: I’m a high school teacher (from Canada) and I’m putting together a baking course that students can work on during our second COVID lockdown. This lesson is exactly what I was looking for ~ so thank you so much for taking the time to post this and for saving me hours and hours of work. I look forward to looking through your other lessons and I wish I’d found your site sooner.

    Happy 2021!

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