Sugar serves a number of roles. All sugar is an important and versatile food ingredient in baking recipes, other than merely providing sweetness and flavor:

Besides its pleasant sweetness, sugar performs a host of less-obvious and important functions in cooking, baking, candy-making and the like.

Flavor Enhancement: Sugar "potentates," blends and balances flavor components, much like a seasoning. For example, a pinch of sugar added to corn, carrots and peas produces a better-tasting product. In most tomato based products, such as barbecue, spaghetti, and chili sauces, sugar softens the acidity of the tomatoes and blends the flavors.

Solubility: Sugar is readily soluble in water. The ability to produce solutions of varying degrees of sweetness is important in many food applications, particularly beverages and confectionery. Sugar’s capacity to produce a supersaturated solution and then crystallize when cooled is the basis for rock candies. The wonderful variety of confectionery draws from the candy maker’s ability to vary sugar concentration, along with temperature and agitation, to produce different crystal sizes and textures.

Boiling Point Rise, Freezing Point Depression: In solution, sugar has the effect of lowering the freezing point and raising the boiling point of that solution. These are important properties in preparing frozen desserts and candy, respectively. In ice cream, for example, sugar’s ability to depress the freezing point slows the freezing process, promoting a smooth, creamy consistency. In shortening-based cakes, sugar raises, delays and controls the temperature at which the batter goes from fluid to solid, which allows the leavening agent to produce the maximum amount of carbon dioxide. The gas is held inside the air cells of the structure, resulting in a fine, uniformly- grained cake with a soft, smooth crumb texture.

Hydrolysis (inversion): In food processing, hydrolysis decreases the tendency of sugar to crystallize from thick syrups or jellies.

Caramelization or Sugar Caramelizes (thermal decomposition): When sugar is heated to a sufficiently high temperature (320 degrees F +), it decomposes or "caramelizes." The melted substance is known as caramel. Its color changes first to yellow, then to brown, and it develops a distinctive and appealing flavor and aroma. One of the important products of sugar caramelization is an aromatic chemical, diacetyl, that provides a pronounced buttery aroma of cultured butter.

SARAH SAYS: Sometimes these sugars are naturally occurring, such as the case with onions -- when gently sautéed in butter, onions will turn brown and quite sweet and are called caramelized onions (caramelize onions). The brown color of toasted bread is the result of caramelization.

Other times, the caramelizing is man-made. Sugar is caramelized with one of three different methods: the two classic methods, dry or wet, and the third being the microwave method. The dry method is where sugar is heated alone until it liquefies. The wet method is where the sugar is first dissolved in water and is then heated. The microwave method is done using the microwave as the heating source. There are certain advantages of doing one over another.

QUESTION: How do you know when you have reached the desirable color and temperature?
SARAH SAYS: Caramelization of sugar occurs usually within a temperature range of 320 to about 360 degrees F. At 375 to 410 degrees F it will turn dark brown and then black. It's determined by simply removing the pan from the heat and measuring it with a Candy Thermometer. The temperature to boil to is always specified in a candy recipe and can be looked up on the SUGAR SYRUP TEMPERATURE CHART.

Light and Dark Caramel: Color is important when making caramel; recipes are separated into two types, light or dark because each has it's own attributes. As caramel is cooked, it develops an appealing flavor and aroma, getting more intense as it darkens, and more pliable in texture, resulting in different types of candy. As the color and flavor become more intense, the texture becomes softer when cooled. For most recipes, amber is the desired color. It has a rich, sweetly mellow flavor and hardens to a perfect texture.

The just-melted sugar syrup is called light caramel. As the sugar syrup continues to cook, it reaches the golden stage, followed by the slightly darker amber stage and then the dark stage. If the color becomes excessively dark, the caramel will be bitter and can quickly burn. If you undercook it, it won't have enough flavor.

Light caramel tastes very different from dark, and behaves differently for caramel work, such as caramel cages or pulled sugar. Light caramel will harden into a very hard, glasslike sheet. Dark will harden into a softer texture; the darker the caramel, the softer it will be when it hardens with the most caramel taste.

Crème Brûlée - Granulated or brown sugar can also be sprinkled on top of a custard dessert and placed under a heat source, such as a broiler, until the sugar melts and caramelizes.

QUESTION: When making Crème Brûlée, how can you properly caramelize the sugar under the broiler without it burning?
SARAH SAYS: I've done it many times in the oven at 350 degrees, instead of a broiler. Just keep watching it. This way, you are not burning it under a broiler. Or you can use a mini blowtorch, available at kitchen ware stores.

Flan: is an oven-baked caramel custard dessert that is very popular in Spain and in Mexico. It is made with a top layer of custard paired with the sweetness of a light caramel sauce, that is put in the bottom of the pan underneath it. Both are baked together. When chilled and then inverted to unmold, the sauce pours over the custard and is served as is.

Browning (Maillard reactions): Color is also produced in cooking when sugars and proteins interact in complex ways. This is known as the browning (Maillard) reaction, important in candy making, baking and other processes.

Yeast Fermentation: Sugar is consumed by yeast cells in a thoroughly natural process called "fermentation." Carbon dioxide gas is released, and alcohol is produced, reactions vital to bread rising and baking and alcoholic beverage production.

Bodying/Bulking Agent: Sugar imparts satisfying texture, body, mouthfeel and bulk to many processed foods, such as ice cream, baked goods, icings, beverages and candy.

Texture Modification: Granulated white sugar and brown sugar are integral to the creaming process that incorporates air into batters. For example, as sugar is creamed with shortening (creaming mixing method) in baked goods, the irregularities of the of the sugar crystals help create air pockets that contribute to a uniformly fine crumb structure. In gingersnaps and sugar cookies, the desirable surface cracking pattern is imparted when sugar crystallizes by rapid loss of moisture from the surface during baking.

Preservative: By binding water, sugar acts as a very effective, natural preservative. For example, the high sugar levels in jams, jellies and sauces make them more immune to the microorganism development common in thinner, high-moisture products like commercial applesauce. Sugar is the preferred sweetener in cereal coatings because of its ability to crystallize into a frosty surface forming a hard, continuous glaze. This protects the product from air and moisture, extending its shelf life.

Dispersant: In dry beverage, dessert and bakery mixes, sugar prevents lumping and clumping when the mix is hydrated.

Whipping Aid: In foam-type cakes, such as angel and sponge, sugar enables the creation of a light foam that serves as the basic structure of the cake.

Humectant: When the sucrose molecule is "inverted", by the application of heat, acids or enzyme, the resulting fructose (especially) and dextrose contribute a moistening property, desirable in such foods as icings, fudge, cakes, marshmallows, soft cookies, and so forth.

Microwave Properties: Sugar has unique dielectric properties that enable it to produce desired surface browning and crisping. Sugar can shield lower food layers from heating, as in microwavable ice cream toppings. Sugar can function as a control agent to minimize uneven heating. (from sugars.com)

Honey, molasses, maple and corn syrup are liquid sweeteners, and while they do provide sweetness, they do not cream well, just as liquid vegetable oils can't substitute for solid shorteners.

  • Honey: the globally popular liquid sugar produced by bees, is comprised of glucose, fructose, maltose and sucrose. It has a distinctive flavor, is sweeter than regular sugar, and produces moist and dense baked goods.
  • Molasses: a byproduct of refined sugar production, is made up of sucrose, glucose and fructose as well as small amounts of Vitamin B, calcium and iron. It is not as sweet as sugar and imparts a dark color and stronger flavor to baked foods.
  • Maple syrup: the sumptuous liquid most famous for sweetening hotcakes, waffles and French toast, is also very good when baked into cookies, pies and cakes. Grade B maple syrup has a vibrant flavor conducive to eliciting exquisitely baked products

Sugar plays many important roles in baking recipes:

Cakes, in General: For pound cakes, crystalline sugar helps produce pound cakes of fine grain and good volume. Pound cakes, although prepared with shortening, usually contain no leavening agent other than air. The air is incorporated into the batter through a relatively large quantity of beaten eggs. Creaming the sugar with the shortening contributes fluffiness to the shortening by providing tiny air pockets that undergo heat expansion during baking. Sugar also acts as a tenderizing agent during mixing by inhibiting gluten development and during baking by delaying gelatinization or the cake's structure from setting.

  • Shortened Cakes: In shortened cakes, crystalline sugar helps to create air in the batter during the creaming step. The more delicate its structure, the higher it will rise. Sugar helps produce fine crumb texture and good volume during mixing and baking. During mixing, sugar tenderizes cakes by absorbing liquid and preventing complete hydration of gluten strands. During baking, sugar tenderizes shortened cakes by absorbing water and keeping batter from setting too quickly, which allows it to rise higher in the oven. In addition, sugar contributes pleasing, sweet flavors and tender browned surfaces to shortened cakes.
  • Unshortened Cakes: Unshortened cakes such as sponge and angel food cake contain no fat, but include a large proportion of eggs or egg whites. Much of the cellular structure of the cake is derived from egg protein. The leavening agent is the air that has been beaten into the eggs. Crystalline sugar serves as a whipping aid to stabilize the beaten foam. Part of the sugar also is combined with flour before it is folded into the foam mixture. This sugar disperses throughout the flour, separating the flour's starch particles and keeping them from lumping when the flour is folded into the foam mixture. By raising the temperature at which egg proteins set, sugar delays coagulation long enough to permit entrapment of optimum air. The resulting cakes have tender texture and excellent volume.

Candy Making: In candy making, the structural role of crystallization from sugar is critical.

Cookies: Cookies, like cakes, are chemically leavened with baking soda or baking powder. Cookies, however, have more sugar and shortening and less water proportionately. In cookies, crystalline sugar introduces air into the batter during the creaming process. Approximately half the sugar remains undissolved at the end of mixing. When the cookie dough enters the oven, the temperature causes the shortening to melt and the dough to become more fluid. The undissolved sugar dissolves as the temperature increases and the sugar solution increases in volume. This leads to a more fluid dough, allowing the cookies to spread during baking. Sugar also helps produce the appealing surface cracking of some cookies, such as gingersnaps. In addition, sugar also caramelizing while the cookies are baked giving them a good flavor.

Custards: Crystalline sugar delays coagulation of egg proteins in custards and similar cooked egg dishes. Just as most baked products are essentially flour protein structures, custards are egg protein structures. If the egg white solidifies too soon from the heat in the cooking process, the liquid ingredients in the custard will be squeezed out in droplets. This is known as syneresis or "weeping." Sugar in a custard mixture breaks up the clumps of protein molecules so that they are finely dispersed in the liquid mixture. The temperature at which the custard sets is thus raised, permitting the egg proteins to coagulate slowly and enmesh the other ingredients, resulting in a smooth, stable consistency.

Frosting, Icings: Sugar's roles in icings are similar to those in candies. Sugar is the most important ingredient in icings, providing sweetness, flavor, bulk and structure, plus it's versatile.

Meringues: Crystalline sugar stabilizes foams such as meringues. Egg whites beaten for a meringue hold air bubbles because the mechanical action of the beaters partially coagulates the egg protein. When sugar is added, often with another stabilizer such as salt or cream of tartar, the protein film becomes more adhesive and its ability to hold air bubbles is increased. This results in a stiffer, higher and more stable foam. The amount of sugar added per egg white determines the nature of the meringue. For a meringue tart or pie shell that is to be filled with ice cream, fruit or other soft mixtures, four tablespoons of sugar are used for each egg white. The stiff, shaped meringue is then baked in a very slow oven to ensure even setting and thorough drying throughout. The baked meringue will be very crisp and dry, and there will be little, if any, browning. For the meringue topping that is to be used on a pie or pudding, only two tablespoons of sugar are required per egg white, and the mixture may be baked in a hotter oven. This produces a softer meringue with a slightly crisp crust and a golden-brown color due to the caramelization of the sugar. If no sugar is added to the beaten egg white topping, considerable air shrinkage occurs during baking, and the resulting product is flat, pale and gummy.

Puddings, Sauces and Pie and Tart Fillings: Sugar disperses among the starch particles of flour, cornstarch, or similar thickening ingredients used for pudding, sauce or pie filling. When dry starch is added directly to a hot liquid, the particles on the outside tend to cook first, enclosing raw starch particles in the interior. These lumps are unsightly and unpalatable, and they prevent proper thickening. When mixed with sugar before adding to the hot liquid, the starch particles disperse evenly into the mixture. Each particle comes in contact with the hot liquid at the same time, and all cook at the same rate. So vital is the dispersion of starch that unless the amount of sugar used in the recipe is twice the amount of the starch, a small amount of cold liquid should be blended with the sugar-starch mixture to further disperse the particles before adding to a hot liquid. Raw cocoa, which is about one-third starch, should also be combined with sugar before adding hot water. Dessert sauces, chocolate pudding, lemon, butterscotch and other pie fillings all benefit in body and smoothness from this function of sugar.

Quick Breads: Quick breads are prepared with leavening agents that act more rapidly than yeast. Since most quick breads contain relatively small amounts of shortening and little or no sugar, they require special care in mixing to obtain a tender baked product. In preparing quick breads, the chance of overdeveloping gluten because of the lack of sugar is a constant risk. With sugar scant or absent, the flour and liquid must be combined gently and stirred only enough to just moisten the dry ingredients. Overmixing results in muffins with large air tunnels. As the amount of sugar increases, the risk of coarse, uneven grain and chewy texture caused by overmixing decreases.

Yeast Breads: In small amounts, added sugar helps yeast begin producing gas for raising yeast dough. Sugar in large amounts slows yeast fermentation; in a very sweet dough the rising time is longer. During the mixing phase, sugar absorbs a high proportion of water, delaying gluten formation. The delayed gluten formation makes the bread dough's elasticity ideal for trapping gases and forming a good structure. Sugar contributes to the brown crust and delicious aromatic odor of bread (called the Maillard reaction). Also, some of the yeast fermentation by-products and proteins from the flour react with sugar contributing to bread's color and flavor. Adapted from www.sugar.org