What is the difference among the various sugars found in the baking aisle?
Sugar has uses other than just sweetening. In the test kitchen, we use it to accelerate the browning of meats, vegetables, and baked goods; to tenderize doughs; for textural contrast; and to stabilize meringues. Because different types of sugar taste and behave differently in cooking applications, we stock several kinds in the test kitchen. Here are the sugars we used over the years, with notes on usage and substitutions; the first four sugars (white, brown, confectioners', and turbinado) are sugars we always keep on hand in the test kitchen.
White Granulated Sugar
This common "table" sugar is (like all sugar) refined from sugar cane or beets; in taste tests, cane and beet sugars were indistinguishable from each other. The relatively fine crystals and neutral flavor make this sugar the most versatile sweetening agent.
Brown sugar, whether light or dark, is simply white sugar with molasses added. Dark brown sugar has more molasses and thus a stronger flavor than light brown. If brown sugar is exposed to air, moisture in the molasses can evaporate, causing the brown sugar to dry out. To revive hard brown sugar, spread the sugar on a pie plate (or square of aluminum foil) and place in a 250-degree oven for 3 to 7 minutes, checking often. Cool the softened sugar before using.
* To approximate 1 cup of dark brown sugar, add 2 tablespoons of molasses to 1 cup of granulated sugar and pulse three or four times in a food processor; to approximate light brown sugar, add 1 tablespoon of molasses to 1 cup of granulated sugar and pulse.
Confectioners' (Powdered) Sugar
This sugar is ground to a fine powder and mixed with a small amount of cornstarch to prevent clumping. This sugar is preferred for icings and candy because it dissolves very easily; it is also used as a decorative dusting for baked goods. * To approximate 1 cup of confectioners' sugar, grind 1 cup of granulated sugar and 1 teaspoon of cornstarch together in a blender (a food processor will not work) for about 3 minutes.
Turbinado is a type of raw cane sugar: It's made from the residue remaining after sugar cane has been processed into granulated sugar. We don't use turbinado sugar in batters or doughs, because its large crystals do not readily dissolve in those applications. We prefer this sugar for topping muffins or other baked goods where its crunchy texture is desirable.
Superfine or Castor Sugar
When processed to a smaller size, white sugar is known as superfine sugar. Castor sugar is essentially the British equivalent of American superfine granulated sugar. Since it dissolves more readily than regular sugar, it is used to sweeten beverages and fruit, as well as meringues and very fine-textured cakes. If you don't have superfine sugar on hand, you can substitute regular granulated sugar that has been ground in a food processor for a minute or two.
Indian Sugar or Granulated Maple Sugar
Indian sugar or granulated maple sugar is made by heating maple syrup to about 260 degrees Fahrenheit, removing it from the heat source, and stirring continuously until all of the moisture is gone, leaving behind light brown granules of sugar. Indian sugar is also called maple powder, maple sprinkles, and maple granules and can be found at most natural foods stores as well as online. Brown sugar, while lacking in maple flavor, is similar in texture and makes a decent substitute in recipes, cup for cup.
Natural Cane Sugar
Natural cane sugar or evaporated cane juice--made from filtered sugar cane juice that is evaporated into a syrup, then crystallized and dried—is slightly less processed than granulated sugar, has marginally coarser straw-colored granules, and tastes faintly of molasses. It is a reasonable substitute for turbinado sugar.
Sanding sugar is type of large crystal or granulated white sugar. Because these large crystals reflect light and therefore appear to sparkle they are widely used in the confectionery industry, most often sprinkled on top of baked goods.