A few facts on a thing we know seemingly everything about:
- Sugar is a crystalline, powdered, and liquid substance used in cooking and baking for not only, well, sweetness, but also for leavening, moisture, stability, and tenderness.
- Most of the sugars we commonly use are, in fact, plant- or animal-derived.
- The crystallized juice of sugar beets or sugarcane makes up our largest, most common source of sucrose—or, what we know as common, regular, table, or granulated sugar.
- Raw sugar is white sugar that still has a bit of molasses present, while brown sugar is white sugar that’s processed with additional molasses.
So if all sugar is just a form of sucrose, then why are there so many types, and how many of them are actually necessary to keep around? (Like turbinado—aren't you just raw sugar?) Turns out, each sugar type's unique flavor and structure—from coarse grain to powdered to liquid, flavorless to caramelly to bitter—can be used and manipulated to specific ends.
While you don't need to keep your pantry stocked with every single type, there's definitely reason to keep a few around. Here are 13 types of sugar commonly used in cooking and baking, when and why to use each, and the best substitutes to consider in a pinch.
1. Granulated Sugar (aka table, common, regular, white)
When people say “sugar,” this is often the one they’re talking about. Granulated sugar is refined white sugar with relatively fine crystals. It dissolves easily in liquids and batters alike, but doesn’t caramelize too quickly, making it suitable for finishing pastries as well.
2. Cane sugar
Cane sugar is like granulated sugar, but exclusively made of sugarcane (as opposed to sugar beets), and processed way less. The crystals emerge ever-so-slightly larger than granulated, and are lightly golden. Despite these differences, cane sugar is a fine substitute for granulated sugar.
3. Pearl & Sanding sugar
Pearl and sanding sugars have larger crystals than granulated sugar, and this larger crystalline structure (and resulting higher resistance to heat) can be used to a crrrrrunchy advantage. Use sanding sugar to line cake pans, and pearl sugar to encrust slice-and-bake cookies or to top morning buns.
4. Caster sugar (aka superfine)
Caster sugar is finer than granulated but coarser than powdered. Its texture makes it ideal for applications where sugar needs to be dissolved quickly and thoroughly—like in meringues, cocktails, and unheated desserts.
5. Powdered Sugar (aka icing, confectioners’, 10x)
Powdered sugar is sugar that’s been so finely ground it's, erm, powdered, and mixed with a bit of cornstarch to keep things fluffy and dry. Because it dissolves easily and without heat, powdered sugar is ideal for frosting, pourable icing, and tender shortbread.
5. Light & Dark brown sugar
As mentioned above, brown sugar is white sugar that’s just been processed with a bit of molasses (more for dark, less for light). The added molasses imparts a deeper, more caramelly note to the sugar, and a wetter, sandier texture. You can substitute light for dark (and vice versa)—just know that you might be sacrificing depth of flavor with the former.
6. Light & Dark Muscovado Sugar
Like light and dark brown sugar, muscovado sugar has a sandy texture and caramelly, almost burnt (but in a good way!) flavor. Muscovado differs in that it's slightly less refined than brown sugars, and so contains a bit more molasses. That being said, the difference really is so slight—light and dark muscovado sugars can be used interchangeably with light and dark brown sugars. Again, just keep in mind that if swapping light for dark, you might be missing out on some depth.
7. Turbinado, Demerara & Raw Sugars
All three are minimally processed sugars—which means a light, molasses flavor and larger crystal structures (crunch)—and can be used interchangeably.
Panela (or piloncillo in Mexico), of Central/Latin American origin, is unrefined cane sugar that’s been molded into a cone or disk. Like the above unrefined brown sugars, panela adds an unmistakable caramel color and depth of flavor that white sugar just can’t offer. Panela/piloncillo is not used only in sweets, but also for jumpstarting ferments like tepache, beer, wine, and vinegar. While not totally the same, muscovado and brown sugars can act as good substitutes in a pinch.
9. Rock Sugar
Rock sugar is crystallized cane sugar that comes in large lumps, and is broken up for use. Prevalent in Asian cuisines, it adds sweetness to dishes without all that much flavor, making it an especially good candidate for savory recipes that need a hit of sweetness.
10. Simple Syrup
Simple syrup consists of equal parts sugar and water, by weight. Light syrup is two parts water to one part sugar; rich syrup is one part water to two parts sugar. Syrups are ideal for sweetening and flavoring liquids—from cocktails to iced coffee and tea—and can be used to keep cakes moist.
Honey contains the same amount of sucrose as sugar, but adds a distinctive flavor, moisture, and tenderness to whatever it touches. To sub honey for simple syrup, thin it with an equal amount, by weight, of water.
12. Light & Dark Corn Syrup
Light corn syrup is clear and has a sweet, subtly vanilla flavor. Dark corn syrup is light corn syrup mixed with molasses—the resulting syrup is toastier and more deeply flavored than light. Both are very viscous and used for their crystal prevention (adding a touch of corn syrup to marshmallows keeps them smooth) and shellacking powers (corn syrup is what gives caramel corn popcorn its hard shell).
13. Molasses (aka Treacle) & Blackstrap
Molasses, or black treacle, is made from boiled sugarcane or sugar beet juice. With each boiling, the molasses gets darker in color and less sweet. Blackstrap rum, famed for its rich, complex flavor is made of molasses that’s undergone three boilings (also called "blackstrap molasses").