When a recipe calls for "sugar," it typically means regular, white, granulated sugar. Not all sugars are created equally, though. In addition to there being many types of white sugar, the same goes for brown sugars and liquid sugars. Not to mention the many sugar alternatives on the market today. Before you start baking, get familiar with sugar so you know exactly which one to use.
White sugars are also called granulated sugars. They appear as small, white crystals and are most common in baking. Most people keep "regular" white sugar in their homes, and if a recipe doesn't specify the kind of sugar, it is your best bet to use this type. By food industry standards, regular white sugar has to be ground into fine or superfine crystals. You can also find even finer white sugar in the forms of fruit sugar, baker's special sugar or ultrafine sugar (also called caster in the U.K.). Fruit sugar is typically used in drink mixes and other powdered mixes, while baker's special sugar is used mostly commercially for sweetening doughnuts and cookies. Ultrafine sugar is best for delicate recipes in which the sugar needs to dissolve easily and quickly. (See "Sugar: Sweet By Nature" below in References.)
Confectioner's sugar is also known as powdered sugar. This is a form of white sugar, but it has been pounded into a silky texture and sifted. It also contains about 3 percent cornstarch, which helps prevent clumps. The most common type of confectioner's sugar is 10X sugar, which is the finest powdered sugar grade available. There are also less-fine grades, which are only used commercially. (See "Sugar: Sweet By Nature" link.)
Coarse sugars have larger crystals than those found in white sugar, though they are molecularly the same as white sugar. These sugars form when sugar syrups cool and crystallize. They're most commonly used for creating confections and sugar art. Sanding sugar is also a type of coarse sugar. This sugar, with large crystals that sparkle, is often used to decorate the tops of cakes, cookies and other baked goods. (See "Sugar: Sweet By Nature" link.)
When referring to brown sugar, the most common types are those available in most supermarkets: light brown sugar and dark brown sugar. These sugars retain molasses syrup, which gives it a deeper taste, a darker color and more moisture. Brown sugar clumps easily, and you should pack down the measurement for the recipe when using it. You can also find free-flowing brown sugar, which is less common. This sugar goes through a unique crystallization process that allows it to retain its color and taste, but lose the moisture. Other less popularly used brown sugars include Muscovado and Demerara, which are used in tea or coffee in the U.K., as well as Turbinado, which is a type of raw brown sugar. (See "Sugar: Sweet By Nature" link.)
White sugar can be dissolved into water to create liquid sugar, or sucrose, which is used in some recipes in which the sugar needs to be dissolved. You can also find invert sugar, in which the components of sucrose (glucose and fructose) are put through a process called inversion to create a sweeter product. Invert sugar is most commonly used by manufacturers in pre-packaged foods and drinks. (See "Sugar: Sweet By Nature" link.)
If you do not want to use regular sugar, artificial varieties are available. These are not found naturally and are instead made through chemical processes. The five types of FDA-approved artificial sugars are acesulfame K (Sunett), aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal), Neotame, saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low), and sucralose (Splenda). (See Artificial Sweeteners link below.)
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