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A Guide To The Different Types Of Sugar And When To Use Them

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Granulated, raw, powdered, brown: can you distinguish the differences among all these types of sugars?

It's no secret that we at HuffPost Taste have a serious love affair with sugar. We'll eat dessert for breakfast, lunch and dinner if you let us. (Carrot cake counts as breakfast, guys. You know it's true.) As self-proclaimed sugar freaks, we feel it's our duty to understand the different types of sugar and clarify them for all of you. This way you'll never wonder when to use a certain kind of sugar and question whether you can substitute something. In other words, your desserts will be perfect, which means life will be worth living.

To understand the basic distinctions between the different types of sugar, you must first understand how sugar is made. The sugar we use as sweetener comes from juice extracted from plants that naturally have a high amount of sugar: sugar beets and sugarcane. The juice is purified and filtered, then boiled down and crystallized. A byproduct of the crystallization process is the liquid sugar we call 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, or the granulated sugar you buy at the grocery store.

Regular granulated white sugar isn't the only type of sugar that's made in this process. First comes the byproduct of molasses, which is great for baking. After that, other sugars in varying shades from light brown to very dark brown are made before you get highly processed white sugar. Here's your guide to seven types of sugar that you should know about, if you claim to be a serious sweet tooth like us:

(Note: We're only focusing on types of solid sugar here -- no liquids, like molasses. See here if you're curious about what molasses really is.)

  • Granulated Sugar
    What it is: This is the stuff most people think of when they think of "sugar." It's the most refined kind, and because its moisture has been removed, it's not sticky at all. It's also called table or refined sugar.

    What it's best for: Baking and sweetening beverages. This is your all-purpose sugar.
  • Coarse Sugar
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    What it is: Also known as sanding sugar, coarse sugar is exactly what it sounds like: coarse. The sugar crystals are larger, which means they take longer to melt or dissolve.

    What it's best for: Use coarse sugar for sprinkling on baked goods before they go in the oven or for decorating them when they come out.
  • Superfine Sugar
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    What it is: Also known as caster sugar, superfine sugar is, as the name would suggest, very fine. This means it melts faster and mixes into recipes faster. You can make your own superfine sugar at home by pulverizing regular sugar in your food processor.

    What it's best for: Superfine sugar is ideal for making simple syrup to sweeten cocktails or other beverages. It's also great for meringue or any other foods that require rapid dissolving.
  • Pearl Sugar
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    What it is: Also called nib or hail sugar, pearl sugar is course and opaque. It retains its shape and doesn't melt at high temperatures, which makes it great for decorating certain pastries and cookies.

    What it's best for: It's used for specific recipes, like Liege waffles, in which the sugar is folded into the dough, and these beautiful cinnamon rolls.
  • Brown Sugar
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    What it is: Commercial brown sugar is basically refined white sugar that has had molasses added back in. Yes, you can make it at home. Brown sugar has a high moisture content and is prone to clumping. It's available in both light-brown (3.5 percent molasses) and dark-brown (6.5 percent molasses). Light brown sugar has less molasses, which means it's lighter, has less moisture and less acid than dark brown sugar, Serious Eats explains. The different amounts of molasses in light and dark brown sugar are so small, however, that, it's barely noticeable.

    What it's 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. Even though light brown and dark brown are different, they can basically be used interchangeably.
  • Powdered Sugar
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    What it is: 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. You can make your own powdered sugar at home by pulverizing granulated sugar, adding corn starch and sifting the mixture through a fine sieve.

    What it's best for: Baking and desserts. Use it for frosting or icing and sprinkle baked goods with it. Powdered sugar is also great for whipped cream, because it doesn't weigh it down.
  • Raw Sugar
    What it is: 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.

    There are many types of raw sugar. Demerara consists of large crystals that haven't had all the molasses removed. It's popular in England. Muscovado or Barbados sugar is also popular in England, and is dark brown in color, has a high moisture content and a strong molasses flavor. Turbinado is more common in U.S. It's been only partially processed, and some molasses has remained in crystal form. It has a milder flavor than Muscovado.

    What it's best for: Sweetening beverages (though the sugar takes longer to dissolve). Raw sugar is not recommended for all baking, because the crystals don't dissolve, but depending on the recipe, it could be just right. In these awesome chocolate chip cookies, for example, the turbinado sugar imparts a great, crunchy texture. Like with sanding sugar, you can also use raw sugar to sprinkle baked goods before placing them in the oven.

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