Few things can make someone happy as quickly as sugar. A sweet treat is often an amazing reward for a life accomplishment, a hard day, or a small gift to a friend. In fact, sugar is the most popular ingredient added to foods in the entire United States! Clearly we just can't get enough of that sweet flavor.
These days, the average American eats almost 152 pounds of sugar each year, compared to 123 pounds of sugar per year in 1970. This is definitely more than our recommended amount of sugar each year according to nutritionists.
So why do we love sugar so much, and what is the function of sugar in baking? How essential is it to the baking process and to the foods we love so much? Today, we’re exploring the uses of sugar and some of its essential functions.
Sugar and Sweetness
As sweet as sugar! The forefront of sugar in baking is, of course, its added sweetness to any bake. This flavor is often associated with comfort, happiness, joy, and a release of dopamine in the brain.
Granulated sugar, also known as white sugar or table sugar, is the most commonly used sugar in bakes, offering a simple yet effective added sweetness level. Light brown sugar or dark brown sugar is also prevalent and plays an important role in baking, giving your dish more deep, caramel, and delicious, complex flavors.
There are so many different types of sugars used in food applications that give us the sweet delicious flavors; cane sugar, corn syrup, maple syrup, invert sugar, caster sugar, confectioners' sugar, etc. It seems the list grows longer each year, and there is no doubt the role that sugar plays as an important ingredient in our sweetness obsession.
Sugar as a Leavening Agent
It’s no big surprise to many bakers that yeast is responsible for various bakes for the rise and fluff of delicious bites. Think of your favorite bread dough that you love to make. Sugar makes the yeast more effective and can start the gluten development process, acting as the yeast’s food and nourishment.
The yeast molecules can break down the sugar and release carbon dioxide gas more quickly, creating bubbles and dough rises.
Outside of bakes involving yeast, sugar still aids in rises when creamed with butter and even as a standalone ingredient. Many cookies start with the creaming process, basically, the creaming of sugar and butter together, which traps air between the two ingredients and helps lighten and leaven the mix.
Alone, sugar also tends to hold onto water, resulting in gas expansion once in the oven. I’m sure you’ve made a cookie batch or 100 that included sugar, yet no baking soda or baking powder. In those cases, sugar is the culprit behind not just the small cookie rises but the cookie’s overall shape, too. Sugar is also responsible for the cracking of cookies during baking. Think gingersnaps or your favorite crinkle cookies.
Sugar and Golden-Brown Bake Colors
Did you know that that golden-brown color you’re looking for as a signifier that your quick breads are done appears because of sugar? During the cooking process, the sugar caramelizes starting at 347℉, giving off that beautiful slightly browned color.
This also has to do with the phenomenon known as the Maillard Reaction. The French scientist Louis Maillard first described this reaction in 1912 and entails what happens when amino acids and sugars are heated and browned.
Humans are the only creatures who cook their food, and the reason why this reaction results in mouth-watering can be traced back to hunting assumptions. Browned and cooked food would suggest that the food is harmless (dead) and contains nutritional content (amino acids and sugars).
I know, I know- you don’t have to think this deeply when you’re simply looking forward to a great snack or meal! But hey, we’re a big proponent of baked goods as delicious treats here. Yum!
Sugar as a Preservative
I’m sure you’ve noticed that cereals, jams, and even store-bought cookie dough seem to have a longer shelf life compared to fresh eggs or milk. Sugar is a natural preservative, and in many items with long shelf lives, sugar has been added outside of natural occurrences.
Particularly in jams and preserves, sugar also helps create that bouncy yet firm texture known as a gel-forming process. Gelation as a process occurs when pectin, a component in fruits, combines with sugar and acid.
Once opened, jars of jams and preserves are exposed to air. Sugar helps combat spoiling of the jar’s contents by holding and attracting water molecules instead, denying water to microorganisms that could spoil your food. It's pretty fascinating to think how the food industry has used sugar science to extend shelf life.
Sugar and Baked Good Structure
The other week, we explored different types of flour and how different amounts of protein can affect gluten formation. Too much gluten and your bake may become too tough and dense. Too little, and you’ll have some sad, drooping dough.
Sugar acts as a counterbalance to gluten-forming proteins. As an ingredient that bonds with water, sugar pulls moisture away from other starches and proteins. This lessens gluten formation and helps maintain some softness to a bake.
Without sugar, you might create an unfortunately tough bake without enough sweetness to be delicious. No thanks!
Sugar vs. Artificial & Alternative Sweeteners in Bakes
Sugar is essential for a deliciously sweet bake and even helps in leavening, color, preservatives, and structure. So how does it rank against artificial sweeteners or sugar substitutes? Some extremely popular alternatives to sugarcane sugar include aspartame, the sweet herb stevia, and fruit juice concentrates.
Overall, artificial and alternative sweeteners in baking can definitely offset some calorie count concerns. However, alternatives often lack the browning and moisture-retaining properties of granulated sugar.
If you’re looking to try an alternative in baking, make sure to do your research into your chosen product for safety and proper replacement measurements.
The Function of Sugar in Baking and Life
No one has to be a scientist to bake delicious baked goods. But it can be so fun to take a look into the science behind our favorite ingredients, as recipes are, after all, based on science, trial & error!
When it comes to sugar in baking, sugar is more than a simple sweetening ingredient. It has a vital part to play in preserving foods, lending texture, tenderness, and even that to-die-for smell that makes your mouth water.
Whether or not your sugar intake is something to be concerned about is a personal choice; however, added sugars to processed food products are arguably more of a problem than at-home bakes that you have control over in terms of creation and quantity.
There’s no harm in indulging healthily, and there is beauty to be made and eaten in baked goods. Ready to up your baking game and try a few scrumptious recipes? Try our delicious Apple Cinnamon Muffin recipe or Chocolate Donut Bread Pudding. We also have a plethora of additional recipes to choose from right here on SerenaLissy.com.
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I had no idea that sugar had so many functions in texture and consistency. This was a great post to improve my baking skills
What a useful post it is! Thanks a lot for sharing your knowledge. And I completely agree that sugar is responsible for more things than just sweetness. 🙂 Well, I bake a lot. 🙂
It's definitely one of those superstar ingredients 🙂
This was a very helpful and interesting post! It's always helpful to understand how the different components work when baking.
Amanda Dixon says
Wow, it's amazing how sugar serves so many functions that you wouldn't even consider! That's for all the information -- it's very insightful and helpful for baking.
Wow, Americans eat so much sugar a year, it's crazy! It's soo delicious and addicting.. I can't bake without it! I had no idea of all its uses other than that sweet flavor it gives so thanks for this very informative post.
Right! I was in shock at how much sugar is consumed by people!