Tips & Techniques

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

August 18, 2017

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.

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.

With the right balance of temperature and time, you can make a light caramel that’s powdery and dry.

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.

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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. 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.

It's downright miraculous in hyper-sweet desserts that rely on sugar for structure.

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.

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Top Comment:
“It's SO much easier and more effective than using beans or pie weights, and the sugar can be used several times before moving on to its new life as a caramel toasted addition to baked goods. It's one the best kitchen hacks I ever learned - it's functional, inventive and creates a great by-product. ”
— jennifer

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). 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.

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.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Pastry Wizard at Serious Eats


anne May 19, 2024
Sounds ideal for meringue. I love it by my goodness, the sugar content gives me a headache just thinking about it. I'm always one less spoonful away from disaster trying to minimize the sugar content in it. Can't wait to give this a go and see if we can get a good pavlova without sending everyone into diabetic shock.
Ann D. July 15, 2023
I've used your method of using regular white sugar to blind-bake pie crusts (instead of pie weights, and with a tin foil barrier) for years. Each time I use the sugar, it becomes a slightly darker shade of light, toasty brown--and you recommend using that sugar in other recipes--so this article makes me think I should finally do that! Thank you for the ideas--I've been using your blind-bake sugar method for years!
HopeD July 12, 2023
Can this sugar be used to make jam?
Cao July 12, 2023
I was wondering the same thing
Sounds amazing! I’m planning on making butter pecan ice cream this week, might need to make some roast sugar beforehand to use in the ice cream! 😍
Jenny A. July 14, 2023
Um, comments are supposed to be helpful and relate to advice on the recipe, not mere thoughts. Maybe you could comment on whether it changed the taste of the pecan ice cream.
Alex March 6, 2018
My toasted sugar sticks together in big chunks that are hard to break apart. Do I need to store it with a dessicant, or do I need to add moisture?
Tim March 24, 2019
You would actually want *less* moisture. It's the little bit of moisture that was reabsorbed by the toasted sugar which is causing it to clump. I'd imagine it was still slightly warm or something when you put it away, causing your clumpage. I'd say just run it in a food processor to mill it down.
Candace C. February 1, 2018
That is a fabulous idea to use sugar in blind bake pie crusts! Do you have to stir the sugar while the crust is baking because of the high oven temperature? Thank you Stella & Jennifer for sharing this great baking hack!
jennifer February 2, 2018
I don't. Though, of course it's hard not to stir it around a bit after the baking is done - it's fun to swirl the color around. If you store it in a container between uses, it will naturally get a good 'stir' as it's poured back into the container. You can see it take on a bit more color each use. For specific instructions on how Stella does this - you can check out her articles on blind baking pie crusts here:
jennifer February 1, 2018
I've been baking sugar for some time, but putting it to good use in the process. Thanks to Stella Parks herself, I've learned to use sugar to blind bake pie crusts. It's SO much easier and more effective than using beans or pie weights, and the sugar can be used several times before moving on to its new life as a caramel toasted addition to baked goods. It's one the best kitchen hacks I ever learned - it's functional, inventive and creates a great by-product.
Lucy February 2, 2018
This is a wonderful idea. I used pennies in the past. the copper heats up quickly but had to be careful of the weight. I am excited to use sugar. I am assuming the sugar can be poured back into the container from the parchment. I love how the baking community shares ideas.
Candace C. September 23, 2017
Hey everyone - if you actually read Stella's great post it will answer most of the questions you all are asking about what kind of sugar to use and why she uses it.
cosmiccook September 23, 2017
Interesting because I did try that and was unsuccessful--and Stella Parks graciously explained why. I do have superb results using the type of sugar that Stella recommends in her post and book.
cosmiccook September 22, 2017
Klye Stampe what type/brand sugar are you using I found the organic sugar didn't brown as well and Stella backs this up w science.
Kyle S. September 22, 2017
Hi cosmiccook, I've tried a few different types and what I've settled on is the Kirkland brand of organic cane sugar from Costco. It does have a bit of an off-white hue to start (definitely not pure white), but I think the key is it's "fine granulated" instead of the usual "extra fine granulated," so the grains are a bit more coarse than typical white sugar. In my experiments the larger grain size has made a big difference in allowing it to brown more without actually melting.
Therese M. September 14, 2017
use bulk "organic" sugar from the co-op, which has a brown unrefined look to it, but I think it is still, chemically speaking, just sugar. So I wonder how it would behave in her roasted recipe, vs. refined sugar?
Stella P. September 14, 2017
Alas, chemically it's not just sugar. Refined white sugar is 99% pure sucrose, but organic sugars are less refined, and still contain a portion of their natural glucose and fructose content (aka molasses, hence the brown hue). For that reason, organic sugars don't do well with roasting, as they will liquify at a much lower temperature.
Lucy September 1, 2017
So now I will share a trick I learned from the Swiss pastry chef I worked for. He mixes white and brown sugars and keeps them in a warm oven till they dry out thoroughly. That combination of dry dry sugars is what he uses on Creme brûlée before using the torch. It's the best flavored topping for one of my favorite desserts that I have ever had. Your wonderful idea of roasting it is simply stellar. I'm going to go buy your book !
Charlie September 5, 2017
What temperature did he put the oven on?
Lucy September 5, 2017
His oven had a pilot light so it was always somewhat warm. He just left it, and mixed it occasionally. of course, taking it out when we used the oven. In half and half combo it is the best flavor for a creme brulee i have ever tried. Once the sugars are thoroughly dried and mixed they can be stored in air tight container to prevent moisture absorption. Then we used a simple torch, not the expensive ones they create for creme brulee. the flavor of the brown sugar really comes through just enough to set it heads and shoulders above just white sugar...which is what is usually used, right!
Lucy September 5, 2017
Hey Charlie,
I should have added that at the end of the day when the ovens were turned off and had started to cool, the sugar would be placed inside and left overnight. I have also used this sugar blend for "sand" on a sea or sand castle cake. Works perfectly.
Charlie September 5, 2017
Thanks Lucy!
Ginny August 31, 2017
My oven starts at 170 degrees F. Did you mean to say 170 instead of 70 in the article?
Ginny August 31, 2017
Oh I just read through the actual recipe and see that the oven needs to be set at 325.
Charlie August 29, 2017
Can this be done with organic sugar or just white?
Stella P. August 29, 2017
Just refined sugar. Organic sugar still contains a portion of fructose, which changes how the sugar will behave in the oven.
Charlie August 30, 2017
Thank you!
I'll put a note on the recipe to remind me.
Elizabeth P. August 28, 2017
I've been substituting brown or turbinado sugar for years because i can't stand the taste of white sugar. This is a great idea. Had to deal with added moisture in brown and texture of Turbinado. This will solve that. Thank you!
Candace C. August 27, 2017
The sugar is actually dry caramelized as stated in the article. The sugar is
no longer white but sand colored.
mela August 27, 2017
One of Britain's largest breadmakers uses caramelized sugar as a standard ingredient, so it's been 'discovered' before. It's listed as the third ingredient in the Hovis wholemeal (whole wheat) bread, after flour and water.
beejay45 August 27, 2017
This isn't caramelized, just a bit dehydrated. Totally different thing.
Alan W. August 27, 2017
So you mean Stella's wrong when she says it's caramelized?
Stella P. August 27, 2017
From an objective, chemical stand point, it has most certainly been caramelized.
beejay45 August 27, 2017
Exactly, from an objective standpoint, but I am conjecturing that the caramelized sugar in the bread is different, is actually caramelized in the sense of cooked in a pan until it turns liquid. A totally different thing. But, as always, I cold be wrong about that last bit.
Stella P. August 27, 2017
oh, oh, oh, I gotcha.
Candace C. August 27, 2017
This idea to toast/roast white sugar is absolutely fabulous! If you love cooking and baking it is like being a mad scientist to create your own.
Thank you for sharing a GREAT idea!
Babette's S. August 27, 2017
Too bad some of the sugar producers have not caught on to this & start to market it along with white and the various brown sugars. Would be great to buy a bag or container already roasted so one does not have to take the time & oven heat to create it oneself.
Ruth G. August 27, 2017
Oh my gosh, can you imagine how expensive they would sell it for?
Charlie September 5, 2017
If sugar producers made it they would probably charge a small fortune for it.
Easier to make. Pop it in the oven, set timer and go do something else. Too easy. Oven heat wouldn't put the bill up more than a couple of cents.
Greenbeetlegirl August 27, 2017
Would be great to use in place of regular sugar in Banana Bread, sugar cookies & especially snicker doodles!