Here’s the Difference Between All Those Varieties of Sugar

Demerara, pearled, brown, confectioners’, and cane sugar each have a place in our pantry.

Various sugars
Various sugars. Photo:

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Finding the right sugar for your recipes can make the difference between a good bake and a superior one, and for reasons beyond flavor. The type of sugar you use can be key to the success of chemical processes in baking. But how do you know which sugar to choose and when to use it? Many recipes specify certain sugars, but without much explanation of why you need one over another. Is there a big difference between light and dark brown sugar? What is superfine sugar and is it the same as confectioners’? Here are the sweet facts on the different types of sugar and when you can substitute one for another.  

Brown Sugar

Brown sugar is granulated sugar blended with some molasses. It has the texture of soft moist sand, and a caramel flavor that lends complexity to cakes, pies, and crostatas. The difference between light and dark brown sugar is how much molasses is included in the recipe. Ultimately, they are pretty interchangeable in recipes, with the note that dishes made with dark brown sugar will have a stronger molasses note than those made with light brown sugar, making it essential to savory dishes where the brown sugar is used to glaze lamb, salmon, ham, or roast turkey

What do you do when you have a recipe that calls for brown sugar but don’t have it on-hand? You can DIY brown sugar by combining granulated sugar and molasses. For light brown sugar, add a tablespoon of molasses for every cup of granulated, for dark brown sugar, use two tablespoons per cup. If you have light brown sugar and your recipe calls for dark brown sugar, you can add a tablespoon of molasses per cup to darken your sugar. Just pulse it in a food processor until it’s well mixed.

Granulated Sugar

This pure white sugar has a light pourable sandy texture and is standard in many baking recipes. It has gone through a series of processes to refine and bleach it, so it will not change the color of baked goods, such as meringues or angel food cakes. The refining processes make it resistant to clumping.

Cane Sugar

A more minimally processed version of granulated sugar, this pale beige sugar can be used interchangeably in baking. It will make pale or white dishes slightly colored, so it is not ideal when a pure white result is desired, but is ideal in drinks or other preparations. It can be used interchangeably with granulated in recipes.

Superfine Sugar 

Sometimes called bar sugar or caster sugar, especially in British recipes, this is a version of granulated sugar that has been processed into smaller crystals, about halfway between standard granulated sugar and confectioner’s sugar. It is great for cocktails or other dishes like Pavlova, that require fast dissolving, but is not a substitute for confectioner’s sugar. You can make your own by pulsing standard granulated sugar in a food processor until it is a bit finer. Superfine and granulated can be used interchangeably in recipes.

Confectioners’ Sugar

This sugar, also sometimes called powdered or icing sugar, has been processed into a fine powder. It is ideal for use in frostings, to dust French toast, cookies, or chocolate desserts, or in dishes that require fast and smooth dissolving, like whipped cream or glazes. 


This coarse sugar, also known as raw or turbinado sugar has large brown crystals and a pourable texture. This is a great finishing sugar with caramel flavor and good crunch, making it ideal for topping pie crusts, cookies, breads or muffins, or for garnishing fresh fruit. It should not be used as a replacement for granulated sugar in baking, as the large crystals will not dissolve in the same way.

Sanding Sugar

These sugars can be white or brightly colored and have a sparkle to them. They are designed to retain their integrity during baking, so they can be used decoratively, most often on cookies. They should not be used in baking except as garnish, as they will not dissolve into recipes like regular sugar.

Pearl Sugar

These pure white chunks of sugar come in different levels of coarseness, and like sanding sugar, are designed to stay white and crunchy and not dissolve during baking. They are a great garnishing sugar for baked goods, and are also used in dishes like Liege-style waffles, where they create pockets of sugar within the dough.

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