Sugar -- when you hear or see the word, what comes to mind? Think for a minute -- you probably picture the granular white crystals in a sugar bowl or jar and not sugarcane, sugar beets or a sucrose molecule. As a modern people, we've lost all conception of where our foods come from. But that white stuff that you're thinking about? Well it's actually very highly refined sugar -- it's come a long way from sugarcane. But what really is refined sugar? Is it natural? We're here to clear up any misconceptions you may have.
The sugar we use as a sweetener starts out as juice extracted from plants that have the highest amount of sugar: sugar beets and sugarcane, which makes up the majority of world production at about 60 percent. The juice goes through a long process where it's purified and filtered, then boiled down and crystallized. The crystallization process produces a liquid that becomes molasses. To separate the crystals from the liquid, the sugar is put in a centrifuge. The result is basically raw sugar (with a light brown tint), which is further refined by clarification using chemicals to bleach the color. Now you have white refined sugar -- you know, the granulated sugar you buy at the grocery store that comes in a bag or a box. So really, it's as far from nature as you can get, but it's still more natural than the laboratory-made artificial sweeteners like aspartame.
But in the process of making sugar, many other types of sugar are made, not just regular granulated white. First, there's the byproduct molasses, which is great for baking. Then there are other sugars in varying shades from light brown to very dark brown, including the lately popularized raw sugar. Browse our gallery to see all the major different types of sugar available.
What's your sugar of choice? Let us know below.
This is the sugar that most everyone recognizes as "sugar." It's the most refined kind (as mentioned above) and is very free-flowing because its moisture content has been removed. This sugar can be used in baking or for coffee/tea and other beverages. It's available in both coarse (a.k.a. sanding sugar) and superfine (a.k.a. caster). Best for: Baking and sweetening beverages. Use sanding sugar for sprinkling baked goods before they go in the oven. Superfine sugar is ideal for sweetening cocktails and making meringue or any other foods that require rapid dissolving.
Commercial brown sugar is basically refined white sugar that has had molasses added back in. This sugar has a high moisture content and is prone to clumping. It's available in both light-brown (3.5% molasses) and dark-brown (6.5% molasses). Best for: Baking. Chocolate chip cookies are best made with brown sugar, because the moisture content helps them spread and get crispy. But you wouldn't necessarily want to use brown sugar in a recipe that would get weighed down by it, like a cake.
Also known as confectioners' sugar, icing sugar or frosting sugar, powdered sugar is very finely ground refined sugar. It usually contains cornstarch to keep the sugar from clumping. Best for: Baking and desserts. Use it for frosting or icing and use it to sprinkle baked goods.
Raw sugar is an unrefined- to partially-refined sugar with a natural brown color. It comes in varying styles -- some are moister than others with a higher trace of molasses. The crystals are larger and don't clump as easily as commercial brown sugar. Types of raw sugars include Demerara, Turbinado and Muscovado, which has the darkest color, highest moisture content and retains the strongest molasses flavor. Best for: Sweetening beverages (though the sugar takes longer to dissolve). Raw sugar is not recommended for baking, because the crystals don't dissolve. Like with sanding sugar, use raw sugar to sprinkle baked goods before placing in the oven. Image courtesy of Pen Waggener, Flickr.
Brown sugar a brick? Store it in the freezer, inside a freezer bag. Let it reach room temperature before using.
Image courtesy of Silly Jilly, Flickr.