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A Guide to Everyday Sweeteners

By Cook's Illustrated Published January 2012

Not just for desserts, these kitchen essentials play a crucial role in browning, tenderizing, adding structure to baked goods, and even enhancing savory dishes.

Granulated Sugar

The relatively fine crystals and neutral flavor of granulated sugar, highly refined from sugarcane or sugar beets, make it the most versatile sweetener we know. Superfine sugar is simply granulated sugar processed into tinier crystals.

How we Use It: We almost always turn to granulated sugar in cakes, singling out the superfine kind when a delicate, grit-free texture is desired  (e.g., in sponge cake, shortbread, and meringues). Superfine sugar is also ideal in drinks, where it dissolves almost instantly.

Make Your Own Superfine Sugar: Process 1 cup plus 2 teaspoons of granulated sugar in a food processor for 15 to 30 seconds. Yield: 1 cup

Brown Sugar

Whether light or dark, brown sugar is refined cane sugar that has molasses added back in, contributing flavor and moisture. Dark brown sugar is 6.5 percent molasses; light brown is 3.5 percent.

How we Use It: We like how the caramel notes of brown sugar add dimension to sauces, glazes, and baked goods. These sugars can also add chewiness to cookies because they attract and absorb moisture from the surrounding air.

Make Your Own: Mix 1 tablespoon of molasses into 1 cup of granulated sugar. (For dark brown sugar, use 2 tablespoons of molasses.) Yield: 1 cup

Swapping Light for Dark: In taste tests, we found it hard to distinguish between light and dark brown sugars. In baked goods, if a recipe calls for less than 1/4 cup, you’re safe using the two interchangeably. Anything more than that and the difference in moisture levels between the sugars can begin to affect the texture.

Properly Packed: We’re fans of weighing dry ingredients to eliminate any discrepancies in measuring. Whether light or dark, 1 cup of brown sugar that’s densely packed should weigh the same as 1 cup of granulated sugar: 7 ounces.

Confectioners’ Sugar

Confectioners’ sugar is granulated sugar processed 10 times to an ultra-fine powder, with cornstarch added to prevent clumping.

How We Use It: Ideal for dusting finished desserts, this sugar’s ability to dissolve easily also makes it a good choice for icings, glazes, and candy.

Make Your Own: Process 1 cup of granulated sugar and 1 teaspoon of cornstarch in a blender or spice grinder for three minutes. Strain through a mesh strainer to remove any remaining large particles. Yield: 1 cup

Turbinado and Demerara Sugar

Also referred to as “raw” sugar. The coarse amber grains of these products are the residue left after sugarcane has been partially processed to remove some of its molasses. They have a similar texture and delicate molasses taste, but turbinado sugar has been steam-washed and spun in a turbine.

How We Use It: the large crystals of these sugars do not readily dissolve—a reason to avoid them in dough. Instead, we like to sprinkle them on muffin tops to create crunch or to form the caramel crust on crème brûlée.

Honey

Honey varies considerably depending on the type of nectar from which it’s made. Color generally indicates depth of flavor: Lighter shades will be more mellow and darker shades richer and even slightly bitter.

How we Use It: In baking applications, we prefer milder honeys such as orange blossom and clover, which won’t compete with other flavors.

Maple Syrup

Maple syrup is from the boiled-down sap of the sugar maple tree. It comes in four grades that reflect when the sap was harvested: grade A light, medium amber, and dark amber; and grade B. (How we Use It: For most cooking applications, we prefer the darker, more assertive flavor of grade B. Grade A dark amber is a close second for cooking and our preference for topping pancakes.

Test Kitchen Favorite: Maple grove Farms Pure Maple Syrup

Molasses

A byproduct of the sugar-refining process, molasses boasts a naturally earthy, sweet, smoky flavor. With the exception of ultra-bitter blackstrap molasses, we find that all styles—mild, unsulfured, and robust—are equally acceptable in baking.

How we Use It: Molasses isn’t just for gingerbread or baked beans. We like adding 2 teaspoons of molasses to chili to give it more dimension.

Test Kitchen Favorite: Brer Rabbit All Natural Unsulphured Molasses Mild Flavor

Corn Syrup

Unlike cloyingly sweet high-fructose corn syrup used in processed foods, ordinary corn syrup is only about 65 percent as sweet as sugar. It comes in two forms—light and dark—but we’ve found that flavor differences are very subtle.

How We Use It: Because corn syrup won’t crystallize, it’s particularly valuable in ice cream, candy, and frosting—even in sauces and glazes