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How sweet it is: How to tell sugars apart

Demerara is in foreground, with turbinado on the left and cater on the right. In the background are cubes of brown and granulated sugar.
Demerara is in foreground, with turbinado on the left and cater on the right. In the background are cubes of brown and granulated sugar.

Q: What is the difference between turbinado and demerara sugars? I’ve had recipes call for demerara and hunted for it, only to find it in tiny boxes next to turbinado that looked to be the same thing at half the price. I went with the turbinado and my baking turned out fine. Also, many of my British recipes call for “caster” sugar. Isn’t that our normal sugar?

A: I think you’re right about them being interchangeable. And yes, caster sugar is granulated sugar. I’ve been told that the “grind” might be slightly different, but I’ve always subbed granulated for caster and it’s been fine.

Baking expert and cookbook author Dorie Greenspan

What to know about sugar

WHITE REFINED sugar is typically sold as granulated sugar, which has been dried to prevent clumping and comes in various crystal sizes for home and industrial use.

TURBINADO is a popular name for what also is often called “sugar in the raw.” Turbinado sugar is from pure cane sugar extract. The term turbinado comes from the technique used in the making of this sugar. The sugar is spun in a cylinder or turbine. This sugar has a golden color, paler than brown sugar, and with a subtle molasses flavor.

In a recipe, you can substitute brown sugar. It is also often sprinkled on sweet breads and desserts. It will keep indefinitely in an air-tight container.

DEMERARA sugar is a type of unrefined sugar with a large grain and a pale to golden yellow color. Many grocers stock demerara sugar along with other specialty sugars, often in small packages for consumers who simply want to experiment with it. It is also ubiquitous in coffee houses, often in single serving packets along with other sweeteners.

It is suitable for a number of cooking and baking projects, and tends to be very popular as a sweetener for tea and coffee. The sugar is named after a once-colonized area in the now-independent country of Guyana, which first began producing and selling the sugar in large volume.

It has a rich, creamy, molasses-like flavor which enhances baked goods. The large grains also remain crunchy through cooking, which makes demerara sugar a great choice for sprinkled topping on scones and similar dishes which might otherwise have a uniform texture.

Home bakers often consider turbinado and demerara as similar enough to use interchangeably.

CASTER sugar, sold as “castor” in Great Britain or “superfine” sugar in the United States, is a type of sugar granule that has been ground very small so as to dissolve easily in beverages and baking and are therefore preferred for flavoring drinks and making fluffy meringues or mousses. It is called “caster” because the grains are small enough to fit through a castor, a form of sieve.

When caster sugar is not available, granulated sugar can be substituted.

But, a caveat: thekitchn.com says if a recipe calls for superfine sugar, there’s generally a reason, most commonly that it’s going to dissolve faster and incorporate itself into sauces, creams, and bases much more quickly and smoothly since it’s finer than regular granulated sugar. This is why some bartenders swear by it in making simple syrups and cold beverages. If you go ahead with regular sugar, you will often end up with a grainy dessert. It will be the proper sweetness, but the texture will be off.

You can make your own superfine/caster sugar at home: Run 1 cup plus 2 teaspoons of white sugar in the food processor for 30 seconds. This gives you one cup of superfine sugar.

SANDING SUGAR (also called pearl sugar or decorating sugar) is a coarse grain sugar, the opposite of caster. It is used to add sparkle and flavor atop baked goods and candies. Its large reflective crystals will not dissolve when subjected to heat.

MUSCOVADO is a type of partially refined to unrefined dark-brown sugar with a strong molasses content and flavor.

Thanks for contributions from food.com/about/turbinado-sugar, wisegeek.org/what-is-demerara-sugar and ochef.com

Here are two recipes using distinctive sugars.

Quick and Easy BBQ Rub

1 cup turbinado sugar, ground

1/4 cup kosher salt

6 tablespoons Spanish paprika

4 tablespoons chili powder

2 tablespoons granulated garlic

1 tablespoon onion powder

2 teaspoons ground cumin

2 teaspoons ground mustard

1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon black pepper, coarse ground

Combine and use on ribs, steak and chicken. Store in sealed container in a cool place.

Guy Fieri and Food Network

This moist dessert bread recipe comes from Chef Nigel Slater, who recommends you use unwaxed or organic lemons.

Demerara Lemon Cake

TOPPING:

1 lemon

2 tablespoons demerara sugar

4 tablespoons water

CAKE:

7/8 cup soft unsalted butter

1 cup demerara sugar (or 1/2 superfine and 1/2 light-brown)

1 cup all-purpose flour

3 ounces ground almonds

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 lemon, zested

4 large eggs

SYRUP:

2 tablespoons demerara sugar

1 lemon, juice of ( reserved from lemon above)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line a loaf pan with a piece of wax or parchment paper.

Make the topping by slicing the lemon thinly and put it in a small saucepan with the sugar and water.

Bring to a boil and then watch closely for about 5 minutes, or until the water has nearly evaporated and the slices are sticky. Set to one side.

Cream together the butter and sugar.

Separately, mix together the flour, almonds, baking powder and lemon zest.

Beat the eggs with a fork and add them to the butter and sugar mixture, a little at a time.

Gently fold in the flour mixture with a big spoon.

Scoop the batter into the pan, then lay the lemon slices on top, overlapping them down the center of the cake.

Bake 45 minutes, when the cake should be risen and golden. If a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, it’s done.

Remove the cake from the oven and set aside.

Stir the demerara into the juice from the lemon. Spoon the mixture over the top of the cake. Leave to cool.

Serve with a thick dollop of yoghurt, cream fraiche or double cream and possibly some fruit such as raspberries or strawberries.

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