Most of the sugar we consume today comes from two sources: the sugar cane grown in the tropics and the sugar beet grown mainly in temperate climates.
Sugar is either refined or unrefined and either white or brown. A refined sugar has had all impurities removed and been separated from its molasses—residue of sticky syrup produced during the initial sugar extraction process.
All white sugar is refined, and there is no difference in taste between beet and cane. Unrefined sugar is only partly purified and contains some molasses; how much affects color, texture and taste. As beet molasses is inedible, all unrefined sugars come from cane. Traditionally brown sugars are unrefined but today many are made from refined white sugar lightly coated with cane molasses. Unrefined sugar does not have any "ingredients," but for emphasis may have a label saying "raw" or "unrefined." Unrefined sugars have the best flavor and aroma.
Sugar is pure carbohydrate, a simple carbohydrate that is quickly absorbed and metabolized by the body to produce an instant but brief energy boost. Refined sugar is 99.9 percent sucrose. Unrefined sugar contains a minute proportion of minerals, vitamins and proteins. But the amounts are so small that their nutritional value is negligible.
Brown: A range of fine grain, moist sugars, light or dark brown in color, depending on molasses content. It is made either from unrefined cane sugar or, more generally, from refined white sugar with molasses added.
Confectioners': Very fine white sugar, made by grinding granulated into a powder, with an anti-caking agent such as cornstarch added. It dissolves instantly.
Cube: Made from white granulated sugar, moistened with water and molded into blocks then dried and cut into cubes. Brown varieties are also available.
Demerara: Golden brown with large sparkling crystals, a traditionally unrefined cane sugar. Has a relatively low molasses content, hence its pale color and mild flavor. Today some Demeraras are made from refined white sugar with molasses added. Less suitable for baking, but good for decorating cakes and cookies.
Fructose: Sweetest of all natural sugars, fructose is found in honey, fruit and vegetables, but for commercial purposes is extracted from sucrose. In the body, fructose metabolizes without insulin, which makes it suitable for diabetics. For cooking, use as sugar but reduce amounts by one third.
Golden granulated: Pale honey colored European granulated sugar, either refined cane with a slight residue of molasses or refined beet colored with molasses. A good general purpose sugar.
Granulated: The most common and inexpensive sugar, refined from cane or beet. It is white and free flowing with medium-sized crystals.
Molasses sugar: Soft, fine grain, dark brown, unrefined cane sugar available only in Europe. Has a very high molasses content, making it almost black and sticky with a strong caramelized sugar taste.
Muscovado: Soft, fine grain, European brown sugar, traditionally made from unrefined cane sugar; available light or dark.
Preserving: Not available in the United States, this European white sugar with large coarse crystals is designed for making jams, jellies and marmalade.
Raw: After boiling down cane sugar juice, the resultant gooey mixture is separated into molasses and raw sugar; this raw sugar is then either refined into white sugar or purified and sold as a brown sugar.
Rock: Not easy to find in the United States, this white sugar (produced in large crystals and often colored amber) is used in coffee.
Superfine: White free flowing sugar with very small crystals, particularly suitable for baking (it creams easily) and for sifting decoratively onto cakes and pastries. It is also quick dissolving, which makes it popular as a table sugar. Also available is golden caster sugar, made from finely crushed and sieved golden granulated sugar.
Vanilla sugar: Available in Europe, this is superfine sugar to which at least 10 percent pure vanilla extract or essence has been added.
How It's Used
As well as sweetening, sugar acts as a preserving agent, inhibiting the growth of bacteria, yeasts and molds. Fruits can be preserved in sugar syrup, and sugar is used to make jams, jellies and chutneys (it acts with the pectin and acid in fruit to set the jam or jelly). If you want fruit to keep its shape, cook it with sugar. If you want a soft pulpy mass, add the sugar when the fruit has been thoroughly cooked. Other flavors, even savory ones, are enhanced by sugar. A pinch can be added to bung out the flavor of a fresh tomato sauce if underage tomatoes are being used.
Sugar has a stabilizing effect on some frozen desserts: homemade sorbets with the smoothest texture have the most sugar in them. Reduced sugar sorbets have a fruity flavor, but are hard, granular and uneven. Sugar is also important in baking as it encourages rising and aerating. When using eggs in sauces, souffles and custards, adding sugar retards thickening, helping to produce the correct texture.