Types of Sugar for Baking and Cooking

White sugar, brown sugar, demerara, maple syrup, sorghum - the list of sugar products goes on and on. If you're feeling overwhelmed, never fear! This guide will cover everything you need to know about the most common sugar varieties used for baking and cooking.

Liquid and dry sugar varieties

Simply Recipes / Lori Rice

Despite the limited pantry space in my home kitchen, I'm always interested in experimenting with new ingredients from the grocery store. Of course, my favorite aisle to peruse is the baking aisle, where I look for the latest flours to try and exciting sugars to bake with.

In cooking and baking with sugar, I researched everything I could on the different varieties. Curious about all of these sugar varieties, too? Let's dig in.

Overview of dry sugar varieties

Simply Recipes / Lori Rice

An Overview of Sugar Varieties

The following sugar products are all made of sucrose, a disaccharide extracted from sugar cane or sugar beets.

Granulated sugar: Granulated sugar, also known as white sugar or table sugar, is the go-to sugar in baking and cooking. Granulated sugar is white in color, highly refined, and often fine in texture. Finely granulated sugars are practical for baking because of their ability to dissolve easily into a liquid or batter. Granulated sugar consists of about 99% sucrose.

Note that sugar labeled as "cane sugar" is simply granulated sugar made exclusively from sugar cane instead of sugar beets.

Brown sugar: Brown sugar is a mixture of white sugar and molasses, producing a slightly moist texture and caramel flavor. There are two types of brown sugar: light and dark, and as expected, light brown sugar has less molasses content than its darker counterpart. Generally, you can use the two types interchangeably with one caveat: molasses is a liquid, so that extra liquid in dark brown sugar adds slightly more moisture to your baked goods compared to light brown sugar.

Caster sugar: Caster sugar, also known as superfine sugar or baker's sugar, is a popular sugar used in the United Kingdom. Caster sugar is finer than granulated sugar but less fine than powdered sugar. This type of sugar melts easily and quickly into batters, sauces, and meringues.

Powdered sugar: Powdered sugar is also known as confectioner's sugar or icing sugar. It has a powdery texture that smoothly mixes into frostings or mixed drinks. Powdered sugar often contains an anti-caking agent, like cornstarch, to prevent it from clumping. 

Demerara sugar: Demerara has large grains that create a crunchy texture, ideal for topping for baking goods, such as muffins or scones. The flavor evokes notes of toffee, so it is also often used to sweeten hot beverages.

Turbinado sugar: Turbinado sugar is partially refined but retains some molasses; the crystals are large and golden-brown in color with a subtle caramel flavor. Turbinado sugar is finer in texture than demerara.

Muscovado sugar: Muscovado is an unrefined cane sugar with molasses. Its deep, brown hue and moist texture add a robust flavor to drinks and confections.

Liquid sugar varieties maple molasses honey and sorghum

Simply Recipes / Lori Rice

An Overview of Liquid Sugars

These liquid sugars vary in texture and flavor, but all have a sweet, syrupy consistency that works well in both sweet and savory applications.

Molasses: Molasses is a thick, dark syrup created from extracting sugarcane into sugar. Boiling and reducing sugar cane juice yields two products: sugar crystals and a liquid syrup - that liquid syrup is called molasses.

The boiling process typically has three consecutive cycles, and each subsequent cycle yields a darker and more bitter syrup. Blackstrap molasses, for example, is the darkest extraction. Molasses has a sweet, smoky, robust flavor that lends itself well to cookies, baked beans, and barbecued meats.

Sorghum syrup: Sorghum traced its origins to Africa and was introduced to the U.S. in the early 17th century on ships transporting enslaved Africans. It later became a common sweetener in the south during the 19th century, especially during the Civil War.

Nowadays, it is more difficult to find as other cheaper alternatives decreased its popularity significantly. It has a thinner consistency than molasses and a slightly sour taste. Sorghum syrup is often drizzled on top of cakes, biscuits, and bread or used in marinades.

Maple Syrup: Maple syrup has a fluid, viscous texture and caramel flavor. There are multiple grades of maple syrup that yield varying flavor and thickness. There are many delicious use cases for maple syrup, from a drizzle over pancakes to a glaze for meats and roasted vegetables to a flavoring for pies, bars, and cookies.

Honey: Honey is a popular sugar product used in desserts such as baklava, halvah, or nougat or savory applications such as salad dressings, BBQ sauces, or marinades.

Piles of different kinds of sugar

Simply Recipes / Lori Rice

Frequently Asked Questions about Baking with Sugar

1. What is the difference between refined and unrefined sugars?

Refined sugar is sugar that has undergone any type of processing. Processing could mean the removal of fibers, vitamins, or minerals. White granulated sugar, for instance, is refined because the molasses (and nutrients in the molasses) are removed.

On the other hand, unrefined sugars, such as honey or maple syrup, are less processed. Though these sugars retain nutrients, they are likely in too small of a quantity to have any meaningful impact on our health. Many experts say there is not a substantial difference in nutrition between unrefined and refined sugars.

2. What is the role of sugar in baking?

Sugar is a magical ingredient, not only because of its sweetness but also its ability to transform baked goods. Sugar adds flavor, moisture, caramelization, and so much more. Even the type of sugar you're using, from simple table sugar to beet sugar to honey to maple syrup, can alter the finished product. Liquid sugars, for example, add more moisture to desserts.

3. Can I substitute brown sugar for white sugar?

In some cases, you can substitute brown sugar for white sugar with a one-to-one ratio. However, brown sugar has a complex, rich flavor that will slightly alter the final taste of the dish. Additionally, its molasses content will create a moister result. For more details, head to this article on The Best Substitutes for Brown Sugar.

4. How would I substitute a liquid sugar for a solid sugar in a recipe?

When substituting sugars, there are two key pieces to think through. First, different sugars have different levels of sweetness. For example, honey is much sweeter than granulated sugar. Therefore, if you're adjusting a recipe, you may need to alter the sweetness accordingly.

Second, a liquid sugar, as expected, contains more liquid. Honey contains around 20% liquid, so you will need to reduce the amount of other liquid ingredients in the recipe to account for that.