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The Ingredient That's About to Change the Way You Bake

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I once worked in a basement kitchen that could drop down to 50° F in winter, chilling cookie doughs and cake batters to the extent they couldn’t be creamed. As a workaround, I often warmed my sugar in a low oven to knock off the chill, bringing it up to about 70° F. One day, sidetracked by a series of phone calls, deliveries, and other office-related duties, I forgot all about it.

Several hours later, the smell of caramel drifted over to my desk and I took off at light speed, expecting to find smoke billowing from the oven and a hotel pan filled with bubbling caramel. When I threw open the oven door, there was nothing but an innocent tray of what looked like turbinado sugar.

Roasted Sugar
Roasted Sugar

It seemed a little lumpy and damp, but to my surprise, the sugar cooled into something powdery and dry, with a toasty, if not outright caramelized, flavor that tasted significantly less sweet than plain sugar. Curious as to how it would behave as an ingredient, I whipped it into a meringue for angel’s food. The cake turned out as tender and fluffy as ever, with a intriguing sense of richness and a gentle ivory hue.

Many hours of research later, I’ve learned that sugar doesn’t actually melt. Melting is simply a phase change, when something solid becomes liquid with no impact on the chemical composition of a substance. Ice is still water after it melts. Butter is still butter. Chocolate is still chocolate. But “melted” sugar is caramel.

But unlike pure sucrose (table sugar), C12H22O11, caramel has a chemical composition so complex it can’t be expressed with a single formula. Within every sample, scientists find hundreds of different compounds, collectively known as caramelins. As it turns out, when you heat sugar up, it doesn’t melt—it decomposes.

This is the kind of beach we want to spend all summer playing on.
This is the kind of beach we want to spend all summer playing on. Photo by Julia Gartland

It seems like a pedantic distinction at first. Regardless of what’s technically happening, solid sugar becomes liquid caramel. Who cares? But if you stop to think about it, the implications are huge. If sugar isn’t melting, that means thermal decomposition can be initiated at any temperature, given enough time. With the right balance of temperature and time, you can make a light caramel that’s powdery and dry.

Unlike caramel powder, which is made from fully caramelized sugar that’s cooled and ground fine, “roasted sugar” still contains enough sucrose to behave like plain sugar in any given recipe. Yet because it’s not pure sucrose, it tastes less sweet than table sugar (chemically speaking, it’s actually less caloric too), with only a faint hint of caramel.

Those properties make it downright miraculous in hyper-sweet desserts that rely on sugar for structure (ice cream, meringue, nougat, or marshmallows, even simple syrup) because it tames their sweetness without changing their overall flavor profile, unlike raw or semi-refined options such as brown sugar, demerara, and turbinado. It’s also pH neutral, so it won’t affect how cookies and cakes spread, rise, and brown.

Plain old white sugar (left) versus caramelized sugar (right).
Plain old white sugar (left) versus caramelized sugar (right). Photo by Julia Gartland

It’s a perfect one-to-one replacement for white sugar in any dessert recipe, especially handy in desserts like marshmallows and fudge, which need sugar for composition but have a reputation for tooth-aching sweetness. By swapping in sugar that’s been roasted even for one hour, you can bring these desserts into balance without sacrificing structure, distracting from their classic flavor, or adding more salt.

Yet of all its potential uses, none can compare to the absolute magic of roasted sugar in angel’s food—especially for those who’ve been put off by the cake’s traditional sweetness. Not only does it make the cake demonstrably less sweet, it adds a hint of complexity without overtly deviating from the classic flavor profile.

Roasted Sugar

Roasted Sugar

Stella Parks Stella Parks
Makes 4 pounds (9 cups)
  • 9 cups (4 pounds) refined white sugar
Go to Recipe

This piece was excerpted and amended from Stella Parks’ new book BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts and is based on her 2017 Serious Eats article.

Reprinted with permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Tags: Kitchen Hacks, Dessert, Bake, Tips & Techniques, Books