Confectioners’ Sugar Vs. Powdered Sugar: SPICEography Showdown

In some contexts, the term powdered sugar is used to indicate all forms of refined sugar that have been ground or powdered. In other words, it encompasses any sugar with a fine grain including confectioners’ sugar. Confectioners’ sugar is a powdered sugar though not all powdered sugar is confectioners’ sugar.

In other cases, confectioners’ sugar may refer to a specific fineness, or the extent to which the sugar has been ground. The fineness of sugar is denoted by a number between 3 and 10 followed by an X. The higher the number, the finer the grind. Confectioners’ sugar is 10x sugar. Note that not all packages of sugar will have the fineness of the grind indicated on the label. Let’s review more of the similarities and differences between confectioners’ sugar and powdered sugar in another SPICEography Showdown. 

What is the difference between powdered sugar and confectioners’ sugar?

Aside from the difference in grain size, there is fact that confectioners’ sugar contains a small amount of cornstarch. Most confectioners’ sugar that you buy in a grocery store will have a small amount of cornstarch to keep it from clumping up. Cornstarch can be beneficial in some applications, but can cause other dishes to have a chalky taste.

Perceived sweetness is another factor that separates confectioners’ sugar from other larger grinds. Because its granules are so small, they dissolve more quickly on the tongue (similar to finer-grained salts) and may taste sweeter as a result.

Can you use one in place of the other?

For many applications, it will not matter if you use a 3X powdered sugar instead of a 10x grind or vice versa. Even the larger grinds are still fine enough for the sugar to dissolve quickly. However, when a recipe specifies one or the other, there is usually a reason. Consider the fact that the larger the granules are, the longer they will take to dissolve. If you use a larger-grained powdered sugar as a substitute for confectioners’ sugar, you might be able to detect a slight graininess in frostings and other applications where a smooth texture is desired.

Confectioners’ sugar is not a good substitute for powdered sugar when making drinks; this is one of the cases where it can cause the food item to have a chalky taste since the cornstarch particles will not dissolve in the liquid.

Meringues are an example of an item that often requires confectioners’ sugar. It is possible to make meringues using sugar that has larger granules, but there is a risk. Not only does the meringue rely on the cornstarch in confectioners’ sugar for stability, you may unintentionally over-whisk it to dissolve the larger sugar granules. Over-whisking causes the bubbles in the meringue to grow too large and then to collapse.

When should you use powdered sugar and when should you use confectioners’ sugar?

Powdered sugar with larger granules is a better option when dusting the surfaces of pastries since the larger granules do not dissolve as easily as those of powdered sugar with finer granules. The result is that the dusting of sugar lasts for longer. Use confectioners’ sugar for making frostings, icings, and for sweetened whipped cream since the granules dissolve faster to ensure a smooth texture.