What does baking with sugar mean, exactly? That's not intended as a trick question. Yes, we all know it adds sweetness to cakes, cookies, cinnamon rolls, a divine chocolate cake from scratch and a variety of other baked goods. The very thought of these treats without sugar is a prospect that would give you shivers — and not in a good way.
But flavor isn't the only role that sugar plays in baking. Sugar is a vital component in the chemical process that takes your recipe from batter to baked good. Without it, not only would our cakes and cookies and not be sweet — but they wouldn't bake at all like we know them.
Let's take a few moments to explore the role of sugar in baking, including a review of some of the key functions it performs.
Sugar aerates baked goods
Many cookie and cake recipes call for creaming butter and sugar together before adding other ingredients. This has a definite purpose. By beating the butter until fluffy, you are incorporating air into it. When you add the sugar, those little granules act like little knives, but instead of murderous intent, they are cutting little holes of air into the batter, even while the softness of the butter is making them dissolve into the batter. Later on, that air will come together with your leavening agent and expand, making your cookies or cakes rise to perfection. Among other advantages, this gives the baker a perfect cake decorating surface: light, fluffy cakes, or perfectly formed cookies.
Sugar softens gluten
You know how when you boil sugar and water, it turns a toasty, rich brown color and thick? This is called caramelization. In the baking process, something related happens to your baked goods because of the addition of sugar.
When something is baked, a frequent marker of doneness is looking for a perfectly golden-brown color on the cake or cookies. This color is thanks to sugar, and a little something called the Maillard reaction. When heated, sugar reacts with proteins from other ingredients. This is what causes the browning.
Tip: So, for a crisp pie crust with a rich golden hue, you can brush the unbaked top of a pie crust with water, and sprinkle with sugar. This is one of the tricks of creating the perfect pie crust.
Note: This is also the answer to a common baking issue. Did your cake or cookies brown too quickly? The cause can be that you added too much sugar to your recipe.
Sugar attracts water
Did you know that sugar is hygroscopic? This means that it's able to attract and hold on to water molecules, "suspending" them evenly throughout a batter during the baking process. This allows you to go from soggy batter to moist-but-crispy-on-the-edges cakes and cookies.
Different varieties and amounts of sugar will have different results. Consider the difference in texture between a graham cracker and a chocolate chip cookie, for instance. The ability to attract moisture also has a stabilizing effect on baked goods, so that they may maintain texture and flavor, usually for least a few days.
These hygroscopic properties are not limited to granulated sugar. They are present in other sugars, such as brown sugar, molasses and honey, too (although the resulting baked goods will tend to be chewier and more dense with these sweeteners).
What amount of sugar is right?
Are you tempted to tinker with the amount of sugar in your recipe? Whether you think more will make cookies sweeter, or you want to reduce the amount of sugar for health reasons, this can have ruinous effects on your baked goods. Since the sugar does have a definite chemical reaction in the baking process, it can cause some problems.
Common problems due to adding too little sugar
Crumbly baked goods that don't hold together, baked goods won't properly brown (if a yellow cake doesn't turn golden, for instance, it's hard to tell when it's done), and of course, inferior flavor.
Common problems due to adding too much sugar
Cakes or cookies brown too rapidly on the top but are not completely baked on the inside, and finished baked goods are leaden or heavy.
Does it matter what kind of sugar you use?
It depends on the recipe. Generally, you should assume that a type of sugar was chosen for a recipe for a specific reason. For instance, if you're running low on confectioners' sugar and try to substitute granulated sugar in an icing, the taste may be just fine, but the texture will be gritty, not fine and smooth as the recipe intended.
Texture isn't the only issue. By swapping sweeteners in a recipe, you may alter the chemistry of a baked good, and you may seriously alter the outcome. For instance, if you swap molasses for sugar in a cookie recipe, you won't be able to engage in the creaming process, which aerates the batter. The resulting cookie will be a lot heavier than you may have intended.
When it comes to substituting, the general rule is that you can swap, but don't go out of the ballpark. Pair like with like. For instance, swapping dark brown sugar if the recipe intended light brown sugar won't mess up the baking, but it may alter the final flavor. Using honey instead of maple syrup or corn syrup will work, with the only major change being the flavor alteration. But you you can't stray too far: swapping molasses for granulated sugar in a recipe, for instance, will seriously alter the finished product.
Regarding alternative sweeteners
Many sugar substitutes are not appropriate for baking. There are a few reasons. First, many are far sweeter than natural sugar, and the flavor just doesn't work. Second, the chemical makeup of these sugar substitutes is different, so the chemical reactions during the baking process won't necessarily be the same.
If using a sugar substitute for baking, make sure it is labeled as being appropriate for baking.
FREE PDF Guide: Baking Essentials for Beginners
Download this FREE PDF guide to master baking essentials, from how & why we cream butter & sift flour to how to store cake.