Sugar is commonplace and familiar to all cooks. Whether it is crystallized or in the form of a syrup, sugar is a key component of desserts and of many entrees as well. In the hands of a cook who can exercise restraint, it can enhance flavors and textures or it can ruin a meal if you don’t know how to use it. To ensure that sugar improves your meal without any negative effects, follow the dos and don’ts below.
Do learn the difference between the different types of sugar.
When it is used with no modifiers, the word sugar usually means refined white sugar in American cookbooks, but may refer to other sugar types in recipes from other parts of the world. There are many different varieties of sugar and while all are sweeteners, they can differ in color and may have other flavor notes aside from sweetness. White sugar has been processed to remove the molasses flavor and color; brown sugar is white sugar with some of that molasses flavor and color added to it. Powdered sugar has been ground finely and mixed with cornstarch. Each sugar has its own qualities and is not necessarily interchangeable with the others.
Do use sugar in moderation.
Aside from the effects of excess sugar on your health and the fact that it can have a negative effect on the taste of food, there are the other effects on dishes. A cake with too much sugar will be crumbly due to sugar’s tendency to attract moisture. Too much moisture keeps cakes from holding together. A high sugar content will also result in it browning or burning more easily. A barbecue sauce or rub with too much sugar may scorch even over a moderate flame. While some amount of charring is acceptable, too much makes meat unappetizing.
Do measure sugar correctly.
When measuring sugar, keep in mind that different types of sugar can have different textures and levels of moisture. White sugar and powdered sugar can be measured like flour. You simply scoop it into a measuring cup and then level it off. Because brown sugar is stickier and tends to clump, you will have to press it into the measuring cup to eliminate air pockets.
Do keep in mind that sugar burns easily.
This is important to remember if you are cooking meat over an open flame or if you are making caramel. While the taste of burnt sugar is a crucial part of barbecue for many, too much of that taste makes meat bitter. Caramel is made by heating sugar to the point where it takes on a little bitterness and an amber color; a little too far beyond that point results in the sugar darkening considerably and becoming very bitter and possibly inedible.
Do store sugar correctly.
Sugar has a very long shelf life if stored correctly. Correct storage involves placing it in an airtight container and keeping it in a cool, dry location. Moisture can cause sugar to form rock-hard clumps. In some cases, a humid environment and high temperatures can result in mold growth.
Don’t use confectioner’s sugar in beverages.
Packaged confectioner’s sugar is often mixed with cornstarch to keep it from clumping. Uncooked cornstarch will give beverages a chalky flavor. Powdered sugar is best reserved for frosting and other applications related to baked goods.