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Sugar, how do we love thee? Let us count the ways: Mixed into chocolate cakes, swirled into buttercream frosting, paired with cinnamon and sprinkled atop muffins — we could go on.

But while sweetening is sugar’s most famed attribute, this star baking ingredient is actually quite dynamic. Sugar serves multiple functions, and exactly what those functions are depends on the type of sugar.

To help you parse out these delicious details, we mixed up this handy guide to baking with different sugars.

What *is* sugar, anyway?

In simple terms, sugar is sucrose — two carbohydrates (glucose and fructose) bound together. While sugarcane is an abundant source of sugar, 55 percent of table sugar in the United States comes from a surprising source: beets!

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Key featuresCommon usesHow to substitute (1 cup)
Granulated (aka white, table)small grains (doesn’t clump); neutral flavorcakes, candy, cookies, pastries, jams 1 cup light brown sugar
Powdered (aka confection
very light, dust-like texturefrosting; as a dusting atop pastries1 cup white sugar + 1 tsp cornstarch
Light brownhigh moisture; caramel flavorchewy cookies, muffins, quick breads, streusels1 cup coconut sugar or 1 cup white sugar + 1 tbsp maple syrup
Dark brownhigh moisture; deep, molasses-like tastespice cakes, sweet breads, brown breads1 cup coconut sugar or 1 cup white sugar + 2 tbsp maple syrup
Turbinado (aka raw cane)large grains; subtle caramel flavorstirred into hot beverages; sprinkled on top of baked goods for extra crunch1 cup white sugar
Honeythick texture; rich flavorMediterranean desserts, quick breads, some cakes and pies1 cup maple syrup (flavor may change a little)
Molasseshigh viscosity; very high moisturemolasses cookies, gingerbread, brown breads1/2 cup honey + 1/2 cup brown sugar

Refined vs. unrefined

Refined sugar — aka your average granulated table sugar — has gone through a multistep process that removes the sugar’s naturally dark color, turning it into the grainy, refined white sand you know and love.

Unrefined sugar, meanwhile, is any sugar that has been extracted from a plant but not put through a refining process. Raw honey, molasses, maple syrup, and date sugar all fall into this category.

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So let’s say you’re all set to get started on snickerdoodles or Black Forest cake when suddenly — eek! — you realize you’ve only got one kind of sugar. Can you substitute white for brown willy-nilly?

The baking experts would tell you no. Since white and brown sugars have different characteristics, they will have slightly different effects on your baked goods. But the impact will vary depending on what exactly you’re baking (sometimes, it’s not that big of a deal to use one in place of the other).

To help you know when to use brown or white, here are their main differences.

When to use brown sugar

  • For a richer flavor and color. “Brown sugar adds a slight caramel or molasses flavor to foods,” says Marlene Koch, RDN, author of the cookbook series Eat What You Love.
  • When you want more moisture. “While both white and brown sugar add moisture to recipes, brown sugar does so more,” says Koch.

When to use white sugar

  • For crisp and crunch. This is how you nail that perfectly crispy outside on certain cookies and pastries. “As a rule, white sugar can create more crunch,” says Koch.
  • To let other flavors shine. Since white sugar only adds sweetness to the flavor, it won’t overpower other ingredients in your project.
  • For more rise / an airier consistency. Cakes, for example, generally call for white sugar.

Because of these sugars’ differences, the tastiest baked goods use them both! “White and brown sugar are often combined to create the best flavor, color, and texture,” Koch notes.

Which is healthier?

Even though brown food often seems healthier, there’s minimal nutritional difference between brown and white sugars. Brown sugar contains 1 more calorie per teaspoon and a tiny bit more micronutrients than white, but there’s really no need to split hairs. Sugar is sugar.

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Sugar’s abilities actually go beyond pleasing our taste buds. In baking, sugar serves several functions.

Adds and intensifies flavor

Sugar can bring out the natural flavors in other ingredients, like fruit or chocolate. The fascinating reason: Sugar increases the aroma of other flavors, which boosts taste perception.


You might think traditional leaveners like baking soda and baking powder do all the heavy lifting in baking, but sugar plays a role too.

When it’s creamed with butter, sugar helps add air for extra volume. Plus, it increases the temperature at which ingredients gelatinize, giving the gluten in wheat flour more time to stretch.

In yeasted breads, sugar even serves as “food” for the yeast, helping dough rise to domed perfection.

Adds moisture

Despite sugar’s dry texture, it actually adds moisture to many baked goods. This happens because sugar attracts water molecules, helping cakes and muffins hang on to liquid.


Mmm… caramel. When you want that perfectly caramelized outer crust on a pie or bread, sugar works its magic through a chemical process called the Maillard reaction, as amino acids react with reducing sugars.

1. Keep the heat low

We’ll grant that, sometimes, burnt sugar can be delish — crème brûlée, anyone? — but typically, you’re probably going for caramelized, not burnt.

“Keeping the heat moderately low and adding a small amount of water to the sugar (using a ‘wet caramel’ method) will reduce the risk of burning the sugar,” says Koch. “Do not exceed 350 degrees, if using a candy thermometer.”

2. Use a stand mixer or handheld mixer to cream with butter

While you may have heard that an immersion blender is the ideal method for the all-important step of creaming, Koch begs to differ. But in a pinch, you can use a little elbow grease and mix vigorously by hand.

3. Don’t reduce it by more than 25 percent

If you’re looking to dial back the sweet stuff, 25 percent is about as much as you can get away with without risking a flat, unsightly finished product.

4. Store tightly sealed in a cool, dry, place

Sugar will last for up to a year when stored well, so stash white and brown sugars in your pantry.

Oh, and the old trick of placing a piece of bread in your brown sugar to soften it up? Yep, it really works. Brown sugar will absorb the moisture in the bread, gaining new life for soft and chewy cookies and cakes.