When it comes to baking, sugar is one of the most important ingredients in the kitchen. Its purpose in adding taste to cookies, cakes and chocolate is obvious. But behind the scenes, sugar is also busy preserving, stabilising, adding texture and keeping products moist. So when is a good time to push the pantry staple aside and get creatve?
Sanding sugar is a large crystal sugar that’s somewhere between white granulated and coarse sugar in size. Its primary purpose in baking is for decorating and, not surprisingly, it comes in an array of vibrant colours.
The point that really sets sanding sugar apart is its brilliant sparkle. In fact, its ability to reflect light has made it a particularly popular decorating element for special-occasion cakes and biscuits.
“If you don’t want to spend forever decorating cookies and want a really easy, quick way to pretty up some sugar cookies, give sanding sugar a go,” Kara Conaty from Butter Hearts Sugar says.
Particularly well-suited to baking, demerara is a large-grained raw sugar with warm caramel notes. The golden, sparkling crystal and creamy, molasses-like flavour remains throughout the baking process, with Sugar Australia marketing manager foodservice Jacinta Firman saying it’s a great option for crumbles, cheesecake bases and biscuits that need a bit of crunch.
“It’s also perfect for sprinkling on top of muffins and cakes and it makes an excellent topping for brulée,” she says.
“Pastries and sweets are experiencing a rise in popularity so chefs are constantly looking for ways to be creative and innovative. Embracing different ingredients is a key part of this and with it’s unique flavour and texture, demerara sugar lends depth and complexity to recipes.
“In a nut shell, it’s perfect for pastry chefs wanting to experiment.”
To make demerara sugar, sugar producers press sugarcane and steam the juice of the first pressing to form thick cane syrup. The cane syrup is allowed to dehydrate, leaving behind large golden brown crystals of sugar.
Another version of the sugar, known as London demerara, is refined sugar with added molasses, rather than raw sugar. London demerara retains the crunchy, big grain of standard demerara, but the flavour tends to be less complex.
“We all know sugar is essential for baking, after all, it’s what makes sweets taste sweet. But thanks to its unique chemical nature, sugar also performs many other essential functions in cookies, cakes and other baked goods. When you understand how this ingredient behaves in recipes, you’ll be on your way to becoming a better baker,” Jacinta says.
Unlike refined sugars, which remove molasses during processing, panela is a solid form of sucrose derived from the boiling and evaporation of sugarcane juice. Typical of Central and South America, panela is used in place of refined sugar as it is more accessible and affordable, and carries a slightly better nutritional profile.
Panela adds a caramelised element to baking, which Trill Foods owners Jacqueline Baum and Laurie Rothstein say gives a richness of flavour hard to replicate with off-the-shelf sugars.
“Our cookies get a lot of their fruity flavour and chewiness from panela sugar. Without the refinement and chemicals that create white sugar and molasses, panela’s robust flavours and micro-nutrients remain intact,” Jacqueline says.
“By comparison, commercial brown sugar – molasses mixed back into white sugar – has a flat flavour profile.”
Apart from enhancing the flavour of most recipes, panela does tick some nutritional boxes. As a natural sweetener, it has a lower GI than refined sugars, is less acidic and contains minerals, antioxidants and vitamins – albeit in very small portions.
Similar to jiggery, it’s most often bought in blocks and shaved for use as a dark brown sugar substitute, or dissolved in water. Capirotada, a Colombian bread pudding made with cheese, almonds and raisins, is a traditional Latin American baking recipe featuring panela. Combined with water, cinnamon sticks and cloves, the panela makes a thick, full-flavoured syrup that can also be used to reconstitute dried fruit for compotes.
This is another unrefined brown sugar that has been purified. It has a finer grain than demerara sugar and is much more moist. With colours ranging from light to dark brown, this British brown sugar has a very strong molasses taste.
Stickier than other brown sugars, muscovado – also referred to as Barbados sugar – is perfect in sweets with rich flavours such as gingerbread, coffee cake and fudge. In fact, it can be used in most recipes where brown sugar is called for by slightly reducing the liquid content of the recipe.
As its name suggests, preserving sugar is used for making marmalades and jams using fruits that are naturally high in pectin, such as plums, redcurrants, blackcurrants and oranges.
The large sugar crystals dissolve more slowly than those of standard granulated sugar and do not settle in the bottom of the pot or rise up as froth to the surface, reducing the risk of burning and the need for stirring, which allows impurities to rise for skimming.
Preserving sugar differs from gelling sugar, also called jam sugar, because the latter contains pectin while preserving sugar is 100 per cent sugar.
Inverted sugar, or invert sugar syrup, is a mixture of glucose and fructose obtained by splitting sucrose into these two components – making it sweeter than its precursor. Bakers value it because it helps products retain moisture and be less prone to crystallisation.
Also referred to as trimoline, inverted sugar lengthens the shelf life of products, making it a popular option for cookies, biscuits, chocolates, caramels and other confectionery that need to last longer than a few days.
“Its ability for controlling crystallisation and creating a smoother mouth feel is the main reason why it is used,” pastry chef and host of US television show Bake It! Eddy Van Damme says.
“Invert sugar is hygroscopic, which leads to a reduction of available water in food preparations, resulting in a longer shelf life. It lowers the spread of bacteria and basically acts as a preservative. The humectant properties of invert sugar are high and will keep products such as fillings for chocolates and fudge much longer moist and tender.
“It also contributes to the Maillard reaction (caramelising) and consequently will aid the browning process.”
The science behind inverting sugar has a fairly lengthy explanation, but bakers essentially carry out the process whenever a recipe calls for a sugar to be gently boiled in a mixture of water and lemon juice.
“It’s important to remember the relative sweetness of invert sugar is higher than that of sucrose and, therefore, you do need to be a little cautious when recipes call for it. We often use invert sugar to reduce the water activity of ganaches,” Tina Partsioglou from artisan chocolate company Xocolatl says.
Stevia isn’t a sugar, but it is a natural sweetener that rose to fame in 2012 and remains a leader in the Australian consumer market.
Compared with zero-calorie artificial sweeteners, including aspartame, sucralose, sorbitol and xylitol, stevia derives from the native South American stevia plant. It has been used by health-conscious Japanese bakers and chefs for more than 30 years as, when compared with standard sugar, it does not have as many kilojules and a much smaller amount is required to achieve the same sweetness.
Consumer backlash against sugar, spurred on by World Health Organisation warnings as recently as October last year, has had a profound impact on the food sector with many manufacturers forced to reduce sugar content and adopt natural alternatives to artificial sweeteners.
For the baking sector, however, stevia faces huge technical hurdles, with more research and development needed before it can be fully adopted.
“Stevia is highly demanded in baking, but not enough research has been done. People are using it for their requirements, but it has not been tapped to the extent it can be,” stevia manufacturer SweetLeaf chief scientific officer Sai Prakash Chaturvedula told New Orleans.
He said a growing number of bakery manufacturers in the US are using stevia in combination with sugar – particularly with cane sugar – for partial replacement, However, stevia molecules could not always withstand high temperatures and long baking times.
“It also needs to be combined with a bulking agent, such as erythritol or inulin as it does not have the bulking attributes of sugar, and these agents can add their own calories,” Datamonitor innovation insights director Tom Vierhile adds.
WHATS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH SUGAR
Phillippa Grogan, owner of Phillippa’s Bakery
Lately, I’ve been experimenting with panela sugar, a dry sugarcane juice, because of its full flavour profile and unrefined nature.
Depending on what variety you get, it can taste caramelised, or even be a little nutty. It’s much more like treacle, whereas more traditional sugars used in baking are simply sweet. It’s a great tasting sugar, with so much more depth than sweeteners. I really don’t like the taste of stevia or agave!
At the moment I’m only using panela sugar on top of crumbles before I bake them and in hot chocolates, because I’m waiting to see if it becomes available locally. I never like to use imported products because I’m such a purist.
In general, sugar isn’t an ingredient that’s high on the priority list for a baker, unless they are making sticky buns. In fact, Phillippa’s Bakery only features sugar in one of our breads, the cornbread, in which case it’s caster sugar.
The market is really swinging towards the health-conscious consumer at the moment and I do always keep an eye out for ingredients that are pure, natural and have a more positive nutritional profile. Panela ticks a few boxes because it’s low GI.
Luckily customers seem to be willing to pay the price for healthy alternatives, because at the moment, panela is substantially more expensive than normal sugar. It’s premium and would only appeal to a very small part of the market, so there is always an economic side to this discussion about sugar.
The Pastry Chef
Darren Purchase, owner of Burch and Purchase Sweet Studio
Sugar is obviously crucial to my business. Without it, there would be no Sweet Studio! But I do have a sense of responsibility when using it, making sure I only use it to enhance flavours, rather than being heavy-handed just for the sake of it.
We have a wide range of sugars in Burch & Purchase Sweet Studio, not just processed white cane sugar. Different varieties are used for different reasons, including sweetness level, taste and functionality. We commonly use caster, soft light brown, muscovado dark and light, dextrose monohydrate, honey, glucose and sorbitol, but we also have certain uses for others such as lactose. It’s definitely a range that’s getting wider.
It does take experimentation to try and reduce the amount of caster sugar without compromising the taste and texture, or to try to introduce a new flavour into a familiar recipe. But I’m definitely open to new ingredients and their use and will replace an ingredient or develop a new recipe to fit a sugar I find exciting.
Flavour is always the most important factor for me – it has to have a use and not just be used for novelty value. Muscovado and dextrose sugars, for example, are great for flavour and aroma, as well as for texture.
Dr Jim Ralph, food science lecturer at TAFE SA
The roles of sugar in baking are diverse and complex; it has many aspects including chemistry, flavour, functionality and nutrition. It functions as a sweetener, a nutrient (for yeast as well as the consumer), a texturising agent and a humectant. It can generate colour as a product of caramelisation and Maillard browning, and can influence the shelf-life by, for example, retarding the development of gluten and the crystallisation of starch.
Sugars are not equally sweet. Fructose is sweeter and glucose is less sweet than sucrose. This aspect of sugar needs to be considered if the baker substitutes one source of sugar with another.
Many consumers are interested in the health effects of the sugar they eat and some seek to reduce their sugar intake. But the use of intense sweeteners poses a challenge for bakers and pastry chefs because these chemicals may not taste the same as sugar. Furthermore, when removing a large quantity of sugar from a recipe and replacing it with a very small quantity of an intense sweetener, the overall mass of the product is reduced. This mass needs to be replaced with flour, starch, water or a bulking material such as polydextrose or cellulose, which is likely to cause textural changes.
Bakers and pastry chefs who are keen to understand the science behind their products should contact their suppliers who can make useful recommendations that accelerate product development.
Tina Partsioglou, chocolatier at Xocalatl
Sugar and myself have a very tight relationship! Without sugar, chocolate is not chocolate. When developing new flavours we always consider how sweet the initial chocolate is. It is also important we take into account whether adding sugar to a recipe is crucial since we are becoming a more health conscious society.
At Xocolatl we use small amounts of specialty sugars, such as invert sugar and glucose, for stabilising and preserving the product, as well as a few others such as fondant and honey. When making jellies, glucose is important as the long glucose molecules get tangled with other molecules to help prevent other sugars from crystallising. Also, in our ganache, glucose helps with texture and also shelf life. Glucose is important as it helps reduce the water activity since it is a water binding sugar, which tightens and strengthens the texture. It’s also less than half the sweetness of sucrose (table sugar), which makes a suitable ingredient to use within our chocolates.
Our balsamic strawberries are a top seller at the moment. The strawberries are made with a balsamic vinegar caramel and a strawberry ganache. This chocolate uses sucrose within the caramel and invert sugar and glucose in the strawberry ganache.
Aloysa Hourigan, senior nutritionist at Nutrition Australia
Currently, there is a heightened level of discussion in the media around the amount of sugar in the diet, especially if people are following the paleo diet or the “I quit sugar diet” (Sarah Wilson). Having said this, it should be noted dietitians and nutritionists have been recommending Australians generally need to limit added sugars in their diet for a long time – and we’re backed by the World Health Organisation and our revised Australian Dietary Guidelines
These guidelines recommend we choose foods with less than 15g total sugars per 100g of food. When people are choosing bakery items it would be a good idea for them to check the nutrition information panel on the product or check with the manufacturer what the sugar content is. You do need to consider the food product as a whole. Some foods may be lower in sugar, but higher in fat and salt – this may not be a healthy option either.
Low calorie sweeteners do offer less kilojoules for the body to have to burn, however, they do continue to encourage our desire for sweet tasting food. Some concerns have been raised about the long-term health safety of certain sweeteners. My best advice is for people to gradually allow their taste buds to adapt to a less sweet taste and limit the portion size and frequency of eating high levels of sugar.
No one type of sugar is particularly better than the other, although they can have varying influence on the taste of food. The baking industry has already responded to calls to reduce the amount of salt (sodium) in bread and other bakery items – reformulating products gradually over time. Perhaps now, the same approach could be taken with added sugar.