The Real Reason Sugar Is Crucial In Baking

If you're starting a baking project and getting your ingredients together, you probably don't even need to look at the recipe before reaching for the sugar. Pretty much every dessert uses at least one type of sugar and often combines multiple varieties. It's so essential to our conception of baking that some desserts, like sugar cookies, are seemingly designed as pure sugar delivery vehicles, and we love them for it.

As The Washington Post points out, this ingredient's importance in baking seems self-evident. The whole point of many baked goods is to deliver something sweet, and sugar makes things sweet. What more could you ask of it? But just thinking of it and its sweetness only undersells this fundamental ingredient of your baked goods that actually changes their entire nature. Dropping the sugar content of your cake to make it a little healthier will not just make it less sweet. Sugar is actually more important than you think in almost every aspect of baking.

Sugar boosts baked goods' flavor and changes their structure

Like salt, sugar combines with the flavor of other ingredients and makes them more pronounced (via The Washington Post). It also tends to balance out other taste sensations like bitterness, making each bite more well-rounded beyond just being sweeter. It's the same reason people tell you to add a pinch of sugar to your tomato sauce or why milk chocolate has such a strong flavor compared to dark. According to Serious Eats, this is because sugar — white sugar especially — is basically pure sucrose, a neutral form of sweetness that does not overpower other flavors.

Sugar's chemical nature means it retains water, which keeps your baked goods moist and ensures they stay longer as they sit on the counter (via Kitchn). That reaction also inhibits the formation of gluten, which you might not want in bread, but is positive in cakes and pastries where you want more tenderness. If all that wasn't enough, this ingredient helps with browning, too, through the Maillard reaction, adding not just a beautiful crispy finish to croissants and cookies but a nice little boost of caramelized flavor. So while you may be tempted to cut down on the sugar in your baking next time, just remember the cascading effects it can have on the finished product beyond the sweetness.