The Ultimate Guide to Sugars and When Each Type Works Best

We all know granulated from powdered, but what about sugar in its other glorious forms? We break it down.

sugarPhoto: Shutterstock/ Gayvoronskaya_Yana

When it comes to baking up our favorite treats, we often rely on everyday granulated sugar to give it that irresistible sweetness. Of course powdered sugar and brown sugar have their place in the kitchen too (hello, chocolate chip cookie recipes!), but what about those uncommon types of sugar that specialty recipes call for? What makes them different from their pantry essential cousins?

Well, let me break down the difference between the most used types of sugar so you can shop and bake with confidence. By the way, here’s how to cream butter and sugar the right way.

Granulated Sugar

granulated sugar in spoon and sugar pile on woodenPhoto: Shutterstock/suriya yapin

Let’s start with the very basics. Granulated sugar is the white sugar that you rely upon everyday for stirring into your coffee or mixing up a batch of shortbread. Made from sugarcane, this sugar is sometimes known as white, table or refined sugar.

Powdered Sugar

powdered sugar in a metal strainer on a gray backgroundPhoto: Shutterstock/Dream79

Another pantry staple, powdered sugar is sometimes referred to as icing or confectioners’ sugar. This sugar is used frequently in glazes and frostings since it dissolves so easily. Powdered sugar is just very fine white sugar with a bit of added corn starch to prevent it from becoming cakey.

Superfine Sugar

sugarPhoto: Shutterstock/Corinna Haselmayer

Somewhere between granulated and powdered is superfine sugar (sometimes called caster sugar). It has smaller granules than regular white sugar, but isn’t quite ground into fine powder. This sugar variety dissolves quickly making it perfect for  meringues (you can get more meringue tips here). Superfine sugar is also a bar essential—the small granules dissolve faster than table sugar in cocktail, like this classic margarita.

Brown Sugar

DARK BROWN SOFT SUGARPhoto: Shutterstock/CKP1001

Available in light and dark varieties, brown sugar is another pantry staple you can use morning, noon and night. Both these sugars are granulated sugar with an added touch of molasses. While dark brown sugar does have a bit more molasses than its lighter counterpart, both these sugars can be used interchangeably in recipes to add a subtle caramel or toffee flavor.

Sanding Sugar

sugarPhoto: Shutterstock/Kostafly

This coarse sugar has large granules that don’t readily dissolve when exposed to heat or moisture. Sanding sugar isn’t typically mixed into any recipe, rather it’s used for decoration (and you can find it in a wide array of colors).

Turbinado Sugar

Brown cane sugar in a glass bowl on black background. Shallow depth of field. CloseupPhoto: Shutterstock/StepanPopov

Turbinado sugar is derived from sugar cane and is minimally processed. This variety has larger sugar crystals than it’s granulated counterparts and is also darker in color—it looks very similar to a light brown sugar. The difference here between turbinado and brown sugars is that molasses is not added. Instead, turbinado sugar retains a very (very!) light caramel flavor due to its light processing. In fact, turbinado sugar is a better substitute for white sugar than brown. Try it in this rustic blueberry tart.

Demerara Sugar

Heap of brown sugar and spoon on wooden backgroundPhoto: Shutterstock/Africa Studio

Demerara sugar is similar to turbinado sugar since it is also minimally processed and has a coarser grain. However, demerara sugar is darker and has more of a molasses flavor, making it a better substitute for brown sugar. Give demerara sugar a try on top of your overnight oats.

Muscovado Sugar

soft brown dark sugar and unrefined sugar cane in bowlsPhoto: Shutterstock/Quanthem

Muscovado is a type of unrefined cane sugar. Sometimes called Barbados sugar, this variety is dark brown and packed with the sugar’s natural molasses. You can substitute muscovado for traditional brown sugar, but be aware that the granules are larger and the molasses flavor much stronger. With that stronger flavor, muscovado lends itself well to savory applications, like homemade barbecue sauces.

Now that you know the difference between these sugars, you can start mixing up twists on your favorite sweets. We’ve got 150 for you to start on! If you’re looking for sugar alternatives, we’ve got you covered, too.

Treats! Treats! Treats!
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Lisa Kaminski
Lisa is an editor at Taste of Home where she gets to embrace her passion for baking. She pours this love of all things sweet (and sometimes savory) into Bakeable, Taste of Home's baking club. Lisa is also dedicated to finding and testing the best ingredients, kitchen gear and home products. At home, you'll find her working on embroidery and other crafts.