Sugar 101

Ah, sugar! We can’t do without it, especially when baking cakes and pastries, where sugar does so much more than simply provide sweetness. In fact, by interacting with the other ingredients in the recipe, sugar plays an important role not only in shaping flavour, but also in determining colour, texture and storage potential. Sugar, brown sugar, honey, maple syrup: do all these sugars work the same way? Not quite.

Sugar's many role


Of course, sugar’s most important role is to impart a sweet taste. But sugar has another effect, too: it enhances the flavours of ingredients such as vanilla, chocolate and fruit. Different sugars have different sweetening power. Some give more sweetness than white sugar (e.g. fructose and honey) while others provide less (e.g. corn syrup).


The brown colour of baked goods and pastries is the result of caramelization and the Maillard reaction, which both occur when sugars are heated. In the presence of heat and proteins, sugar is transformed into a wide array of brownish-coloured molecules that happen to give off delicious caramel and toasted aromas. Fructose and honey, which is naturally fructose-rich, brown more easily than ordinary sugar (sucrose); when they’re used instead of sugar, deeper brown colours result.


Sugars interact with flour and hinder the development of an elastic network of proteins known as gluten. This is especially important for cakes. It is actually the large quantity of sugar present in cakes that gives them that soft, melt-in-your-mouth quality that sets them apart, texture-wise, from bread and muffins.


When butter is creamed with granulated sugar (the first step in making many cakes, cookies and quick breads), the friction of sugar crystals rubbing against the fat helps trap air bubbles in the mix. When these bubbles are released during baking, they expand to help produce a light, airy structure. The size of the sugar crystals is important: if they are too small, they don’t create enough friction; if they are too large, they don’t dissolve properly in the cake batter. With no crystals at all, liquid sugars such as honey, molasses and corn syrup produce baked goods with a much denser, more compact texture.


Sugars are hygroscopic, which means they attract and absorb water. This strong affinity for water slows the loss of moisture in baked goods and pastries. Honey, molasses and corn syrup, in addition to bringing their own water to the mix, retain more moisture than white sugar. Honey-based cakes and molasses-based spice cakes stay moist longer than cakes made with refined sugar.

White sugars

Granulated white sugar

By far the most common type of white sugar sold in Canada is that refined from sugarcane. On store shelves, it is usually labelled fine or special fine granulated sugar. This all-purpose sugar is perfect for creaming with butter. Other crystal sizes, both coarser and finer, are available. When a recipe simply calls for sugar, this is what is meant.

Instant dissolving or berry sugar

Berry sugar is simply a smaller-crystal sugar that dissolves more quickly than regular sugar in cold dishes such as fruit salads, drinks and desserts. Sometimes referred to as superfine, ultrafine or bar sugar, it is also known as caster sugar in Britain. You can make your own by grinding regular fine sugar in the food processor for a few seconds.

Icing sugar

This powdered sugar, called confectioner’s sugar in the United States, contains 3 to 5% cornstarch to prevent clumping. Icing sugar is used mainly to make frostings or is sprinkled on desserts. It cannot be substituted for granulated sugar.


This sugar is made from cornstarch or from refined sugar using a chemical reaction that converts glucose into fructose. It is used in the same way as cane sugar, but gives cakes and pastries a different character. Because it is 1.5 to 1.7 times sweeter than cane sugar, less is required. Fructose caramelizes and browns much more readily than sugar.

Liquid sugars


Molasses is a by-product of sugarcane refining (sugar-beet molasses is very bitter and used mostly in animal feed). The most common type is fancy grade, which has a lighter flavour than blackstrap molasses. The flavour and colour of molasses are crucial for spice breads and molasses cookies, but those same qualities limit its usefulness for more delicate recipes.


Honey’s colour and flavour are determined by the type of flower foraged by the bees. It is sweeter than sugar and caramelizes and browns more quickly. It contains about 17% water.

Maple syrup

Maple syrup is about 62% sugar and 35% water. Its flavour is partly the result of the Maillard reaction, which occurs during the boiling of the sap. Light syrups (Canada No. 1 Extra Light, Light or Medium) have a subtler flavour than darker syrups (Canada No. 2 Amber, Canada No. 3 Dark).

Corn syrup

Corn syrup is made from cornstarch. It has a high glucose content, giving it a weaker sweetening power than regular sugar. It contains about 25% water. Corn syrup is colourless; to give it some colour and flavour, manufac¬turers add refiner’s syrup, vanilla and a small amount of salt. Golden and clear corn syrup are the two types found in stores.

Brown sugars

Turbinado sugar

A pale, crunchy, subtly flavoured sugar. Also known as plantation or raw sugar, it is made from raw sugar that is rinsed, leaving only a thin surface layer of molasses. Turbinado-style sugars, sometimes labelled sugar in the raw, are simply large-crystal sugar dosed with a thin coat of molasses. This sugar is mainly used to sweeten hot drinks (lovely in cappuccino!) and to garnish desserts (pies, cookies, pastries), rather than for cooking.

Demerara sugar

A brown sugar ranging from light brown to reddish, with an assertive flavour, a bit of crunch and a slight stickiness. True demerara sugar is made from cane sugar that contains residual molasses, meaning that the molasses is part of the crystals and not just a surface coating as with standard brown sugar. Demerara-style sugars are made by adding refiner’s syrup and caramel to large-crystal refined sugar. Demerara sugar can be used as a substitute for dark brown sugar, but its large crystals take longer to dissolve.

Brown sugar

Most brown sugar produced in Canada is made by adding refiner’s syrup (a type of molasses) to white sugar to coat the crystals. The amount and type of syrup determine the colour (from pale to dark) and the intensity of the flavour. The texture of brown sugar is very fine and slightly moist. Blonde or golden cane sugarA fine, delicately flavoured sugar made from golden sugarcane syrup. It makes an excellent substitute for white sugar and light brown sugar.

Muscovado sugar

Muscovado sugar, also known as Barbados or moist sugar, is distinguished from other brown sugars by its fine, moist texture and pronounced molasses and caramel flavours. Muscovado resembles dark brown sugar and makes a good substitute for it.


Sucanat (SUgar CAne NATural) is produced by dehydrating sugarcane juice under a vac¬uum seal and has a texture similar to instant coffee. The finished product contains about 15% molasses, giving it a fairly assertive flavour. Sucanat is used in the same way as dark brown sugar.

Can another sugar substitute for white sugar?

Yes, but expect differences in flavour, texture and colour. Ideally, you should replace only part of the white sugar with another kind. Here are some guidelines. They account for sweetening power, state (liquid vs. solid), acidity and response to heat (caramelization and browning).

For 250 ml (1 cup) of white sugar you can substitute:

  • 250 ml (1 cup) brown sugar
  • 250 ml (1 cup) demerara sugar
  • 250 ml (1 cup) turbinado sugar
  • 250 ml (1 cup) muscovado sugar
  • 250 ml (1 cup) sucanat
  • 150 ml (2/3 cup) crystalline fructose less is required because it is sweeter). Reduce oven temperature by 15°C (25°F) (because fructose browns faster during cooking).
  • 180 ml (3/4 cup) honey (less is required because it is sweeter). Omit 30 ml (2 tablespoons) of liquid from the recipe and reduce oven temperature by 15°C (25°F) (honey browns faster during cooking). Add 1 ml (1/4 teaspoon) of baking soda to balance the honey’s natural acidity.
  • 250 ml (1 cup) maple syrup. Omit 60 ml (1/4 cup) of liquid from the recipe or increase the amount of flour by 60 ml (1/4 cup).
  • 250 ml (1 cup) molasses. Omit 60 ml (1/4 cup) of liquid from the recipe or increase the amount of flour by 60 ml (1/4 cup). Add 1 ml (1/4 teaspoon) baking soda to balance the natural acidity of the molasses.
  • 310 ml (1 1/4 cup) corn syrup. A larger quantity is required because it is less sweet than cane sugar. Omit 60 ml (1/4 cup) of liquid from the recipe or increase the amount of flour by 60 ml (1/4 cup). The pro-duct will brown slightly more during cooking.

Christina Blais

For Christina Blais, explaining food chemistry to the masses is as simple as making a good omelet. Holding a Bachelor and Master degree in Nutrition, she has been a part-time lecturer for over 30 years in the Department of Nutrition at the Université de Montréal, where she teaches food science courses. She has been sharing the fruits of her experience with Ricardo since 2001, during his daily show broadcast on ICI Radio-Canada Télé. And diehards can also read her Food Chemistry on our website. You can follow her on Facebook at @Encuisineavecchristinablais.