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15 Types of Sugar, Their Origins, Forms, and How to Use Each One

There are an incredible number of different sugars in existence, used in everything from BBQ rubs to cups of tea, in pickling liquids to cakes. In this guide, we look at the 15 most common types, advising which ones you should have on hand to cover everything you’re likely to do in cooking.

Last Updated: May 17, 2021

Many different types of sugar, in bowls, in a sack, spilled onto a table and more

Are you confused about the many different types of sugar? If so, read on to learn about the many varieties and how to use them.

Sugar is sugar, right? Wrong! With a history stretching back several millennia, humans have had plenty of time to develop a wide range of sugars and sugar products.

There are so many kinds of sugars, choosing the right one for the job can be confusing. To simplify your life, we’ve compiled a sweet selection of information about 15 kinds of sugar, including where they come from, what they taste like, and what you can do with them.

We’ll close out with a quick round-up of which varieties you should always have in your pantry and suitable substitutes when you’re in a pinch and don’t have time to run to the store.

The Different Types of Sugar

There are only two sources of commercially available sugar: sugar cane and sugar beets. Sugar cane is a tropical plant native to Southeast Asia but now grown around the world. Sugar beets grow in temperate climates, including Europe and across the middle of North America in both Canada and the United States.

How the cane or beets are processed determines what kind of sugar is produced. Let’s run through the whole gamut of sweetness.

White Granulated Sugar

A bowl of granulated white sugar with a wooden spoon in it.

Origins and Composition: Pure crystalized sucrose from either cane or beets. This is what’s left after all the impurities and by-products are removed during the refining process.

Flavor and Uses: It’s light and sweet but low on what you’d call “flavor.” White sugar, also known as refined or table sugar, is the most versatile of all sugars, with a wide range of uses. Of course, it’s the go-to for sweetening coffee, tea, and powdered drink mixes. It’s also popular for baking, adding sweetness but allowing other ingredients to create the flavor profile.

Powdered Sugar/Confectioners Sugar

Confectioners sugar being sieved onto a wooden table

Origins and Composition: A blend of white cane or beet sugar ground into a fine powder and corn starch (to prevent clumping).

Flavor and Uses: Sweet but virtually weightless, it takes a lot of it to register on your tastebuds. It’s the sugar of choice for making icing and frosting because it dissolves readily. It’s often used as a topping for baked treats like donuts and loaves or cakes that aren’t frosted.

Fruit Sugar

A pile of fruit sugar on a shallow dark colored dish

Origins and Composition: White cane or beet sugar ground very fine.

Flavor and Uses: Exactly the same as white granulated sugar in flavor, but with much smaller crystals, it’s ideal for stirring into pudding mixes and gelatin. It gets its name because it’s often used for sprinkling on fruit for making preserves. Other names include instant dissolving and ultra-fine.

Don’t confuse this with sugar products extracted from fruit or the sugar that occurs naturally in all fruits.

Cane Sugar

Cane sugar on a cane leaf, next to some sugar cane segments

Origins and Composition: Extracted from sugar cane plants. Can be turned into any kind of sugar.

Flavor and Uses: Most commercial sugars are cane sugar, whether they’re white or brown. There is a public perception that it is healthier and more desirable than beet sugars, so many brands call out their sugar is cane sugar, even though it’s not really a significant point of difference.

Bakers Sugar/Caster Sugar

A wooden spoon with a flower on the handle full of caster sugar

Origins and Composition: White cane or beet sugar reduced to smaller crystals.

Flavor and Uses: Once again, this is just white sugar, so the flavor is no different. What sets it apart is the tiny crystals. Pro bakers favor this sugar for being light and easy to dissolve in egg whites. As such, it’s commonly used in delicate confections like meringue and Angel food cake. You may also see it sold as superfine sugar.

Coarse Sugar

A pile of coarse sugar granules on a white surface

Origins and Composition: White cane or beet sugar, but with large crystals.

Flavor and Uses: Has the same flavor as regular granulated white sugar, but doesn’t dissolve or melt as easily. For that reason, it’s usually reserved for decorating the tops of baked goods. You can purchase coarse sugar in a rainbow of colors or tint it yourself with food coloring.

Sanding Sugar

A wooden bowl full of blue sanding sugar isolated on white

Origins and Composition: White cane or beet sugar, with larger crystals than regular granulated but smaller than coarse.

Flavor and Uses: Same flavor as all white sugars, but not easily dissolved or melted. Another decorating sugar, it’s ideal for using on cookies as it’s not as crunchy for small teeth as coarse sugar. It comes in many colors from baking supply stores, or you can color your own.

Light Brown Sugar/Golden Sugar/Golden Yellow Sugar

A pile of light brown sugar isolated on white

Origins and Composition: Cane or beet sugar boiled and crystalized from brown sugar syrup, or white sugar spun with some of the molasses extracted during processing. Lightly moist and fluffy in texture. Brown beet sugar uses molasses from sugar cane refining.

Flavor and Uses: Richer than white sugars but still light, light brown or golden sugars have subtle undertones of caramel. They add moisture and color along with rich sweetness to baked goods like cookies and cupcakes. Barbecuers love it as a base for sweetening BBQ sauces, especially tangy mustard sauces. Its moisture helps it adhere to meats, so it’s a good choice for sweet dry rubs.

Dark Brown Sugar

A metal scoop full of dark brown sugar in a wooden bowl

Origins and Composition: Cane or beet sugar boiled and crystallized from brown sugar syrup or white sugar, spun with some of the molasses extracted during processing.

Flavor and Uses: There’s more molasses in Dark Brown than Light/Golden, so it has a more pronounced caramel flavor and a moister texture, and it tends to clump. Bakers choose it for decadent desserts, pie fillings, and more. For the griller, Dark Brown is exceptional for rubs and sauces, adding deeper color and flavor.

Turbinado Sugar

A green bowl full of turbinado sugar, with a wooden spoon in, sitting on a dark wooden table

Origins and Composition: This less-refined sugar is made from the first pressing of sugar cane which is then boiled just once. The resulting crystals are large and, because not all of the molasses is spun out, they’re a golden brown color.

Flavor and Uses: Turbinado will not melt as easily as other sugars, so it’s not generally used for baking. Typically, it’s a finishing sugar for adding a sweet, rich, crunchy topping to baked goods. It will melt in hot drinks, so it’s excellent for tea and coffee. Many people consider turbinado —also known as raw sugar— to be healthier than white sugar because it’s less refined.

Muscovado Sugar

A square wooden bowl full of dark muscovado sugar

Origins and Composition: Partially refined cane sugar that retains much of its natural molasses. Muscovado sugar is very moist, even tacky, and granular. India is the top producer of this kind of sugar, though Mauritius is known for making some of the world’s very best.

Flavor and Uses: This extra-rich sugar isn’t well-known in the Western world yet, though it’s catching on with health-conscious consumers looking for a less refined, more nutrient-dense sugar. It’s exceptional for all things chocolate or savoury glazes and sauces.

Demerara Sugar

A pile of demerara sugar on a table, with a wooden scoop dug into the side

Origins and Composition: Another so-called “raw” sugar, Demerara is a moist, small-grain sugar made from cane with higher molasses content than Dark Brown and Golden sugars. Originally produced in Guyana, which was known as Demerara until 1831.

Flavor and Uses: One of the richest brown sugars available, it’s excellent for anything into which you want to impart a deeper flavor. Use for baking, sweetening drinks, or sauces and rubs for exceptional flavor and color. Also makes a decadent rimmer for dark rum- or bourbon-based cocktails.

Granulated Brown Sugar

A brown bowl full of granulated brown sugar isolated on white

Origins and Composition: Nearly identical in texture to granulated white sugar but retaining the molasses-infused color and flavor of traditional brown sugars. One manufacturer in the US formerly called it “Brownulated,” but wisely stopped a few years ago.

Flavor and Uses: Tastes like light brown sugar, but without the moisture. You can swap it out 1:1 with white sugar in recipes, but if you substitute it for traditional browns, you’ll need to add something for moisture, or the results will be much drier than expected. Won’t stick to meat as easily in rubs, either, but will caramelize nicely in sauces.

Sugar Syrup – Simple Syrup

A small glass of simple sugar syrup sat on a wooden paddle, next to a spoonful of sugar

Origins and Composition: Water and melted sugar, usually in a ratio around 1 part sugar to 4–5 parts water. You can buy pre-made simple syrup from the grocery store, or you can make it at home. Some premium commercial products use organic sugar, or add in seasoning and other ingredients, such as maple syrup.

Flavor and Uses: The flavor depends on the type of sugar melted down for the syrup and what else is added. The most common use is for sweetening cocktails and cold drinks — it’s nearly impossible to get sugar to dissolve in a liquid that isn’t hot. You can also use it for a topping or an easy base for a marinade or glaze.

Invert Sugar

Inverted sugar being poured into a glass that is sitting next to sugar cubes

Origins and Composition: A liquid solution of glucose and fructose, the two sugar molecules that make up sucrose. They are chemically separated via hydrolysis so that the glucose and fructose are free-floating in the solution.

Flavor and Uses: You’ll find invert sugar used as a sweetener in many products. It’s very similar to Simple Syrup in that it easily mixes into cool or room temperature liquids, adding sweetness but little flavor. Use it for cocktails and cold drinks, marinades, sauces, and glazes.

Sugars We Recommend Every Chef Stock and Why

We certainly don’t expect you to stock up on every sugar on our list. But, here are a chosen few you should always have on hand for grilling, cooking, baking, and other uses.

Dark Brown Sugar

No budding pit boss should be without this moist, rich sugar. It’s the perfect base for creating succulent barbecue sauces and dry rubs for deep flavor and gorgeous caramelization. You can also use it for any kind of baking or as a topping for oatmeal and cereal.

White Granulated Sugar

It’s the workhorse of the sugar family, and you probably already have it in your home. From mixing powdered drinks and gelatin to sweetening coffee and tea to every kind of baking, it’s hard to go a day without using this stuff. It’s not our choice for BBQ applications, though, since it lacks the moisture of browns and won’t caramelize nicely.

Demerara Sugar

When you want to bring your mop sauce up a notch, this is the stuff. It’s as easy to work with as Dark Brown but with an even richer flavor. Muscovado is even better, but it’s not easy to get your hands on, making this the logical substitution.

Simple Syrup

For faster glaze and marinade prep, simple syrup is the way. If you fancy yourself a mixologist, keep some handy for exceptional cocktails. Definitely try various blends for different flavor experiences, and for sure, try making your own.

Sugar Substitutions

7 lined up teaspoons full of different types of sugar

Haven’t got the sugar your recipe calls for? Here are some workarounds using other sugars you might have in the pantry.

Any Brown Sugar for White Sugar

Any recipe that calls for granulated white sugar can use brown sugar (Dark, Golden, or Demerara) instead. There will be differences, though, including (possibly) notes of butterscotch or caramel, darker color, and extra moisture. For baking, this works in reverse, too, though you will note the absence of caramel flavor, dark color, and moisture using white instead of brown.

Dark Brown Sugar for Demerara or Muscovado

These dark sugars have similar flavor profiles thanks to the extra molasses either retained or mixed back in. Expect subtle differences as you go up or down in molasses content, with Muscovado at the top of the scale and Dark Brown at the bottom. They’re all moist, too, so you won’t notice much difference in your final product.

White Granulated Sugar for Powdered Sugar

Don’t have powdered sugar for that finishing touch? Put one cup of white granulated sugar and one tablespoon of cornstarch in a blender or food processor and chop it up until it’s fine and fluffy. It’s a good substitute texturally, and the flavor is identical.

Want to do the opposite? You can replace granulated sugar with powdered sugar, but not 1:1. Instead, use 1.75 cups of powdered for every 1 cup of granulated required.

Turbinado for Brown Sugar

It’s not the best for baking, but you can use the coarser Turbinado in place of any brown sugar, especially Demerara and Dark Brown, in a pinch. Turbinado lacks that lovely moisture, though, so you’ll want to add in something like applesauce or syrup to get the same texture in your finished product.

Turbinado for Granulated Brown Sugar

Want a free-flowing brown sugar that dissolves in just about any liquid? Grind down the large crystals of Turbinado in a food processor or blender (or even a pepper mill or coffee grinder) to make, essentially, your own Granulated Brown.

Make Your Own Brown Sugar

As discussed earlier, brown sugars are white sugars with molasses, a natural by-product of sugar refining, adding back in. It stands to reason, then, that you can make your own brown sugar by mixing molasses with granulated white sugar. The more molasses you add, the more moist and rich the sugar becomes.

Add 1 tablespoon of molasses to a cup of white sugar to approximate Light or Golden Sugar, or 2 tablespoons for Dark Brown.

Final Thoughts

We hope this helps you make sense of the surprisingly wide range of sugars available. Experimenting with different varieties is a fun and easy way to shake up your barbecue and kitchen routines and discover exciting new flavors.

Thanks for sweetening your day with us. Check us out for more mystery-solving articles, in-depth reviews, mouth-watering recipes and other hyphenated goodies. Then, go use your knowledge to make the world a tastier place.

Hi, I’m Jim! I’ve been grilling for nearly 20 years over charcoal, wood, and gas. Now I’m happy to share my experience and discoveries with you.

When I’m not writing about barbecue, I’m usually writing about food anyway, at a food marketing agency. Aside from my family and the perfect steak, my passions include travel and all things Disney.

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