18 Types Of Sugar, Explained

Sugar — in all its forms — is far more than an indulgent carb; it's an indispensable culinary workhorse. It works tirelessly, creating caramelization, aiding yeast growth, setting your jams and jellies, and adding depth to both sweet and savory dishes, not to mention balancing all surrounding flavors. But remember, all sugars are not created equal. From the raw, rustic charm of Demerara and the eye-pleasing drops of pearl sugar to the robust depth of molasses-rich muscovado, each variety serves its own distinct purpose in the world of cooking. Some, like granulated sugar, are chameleons that can be used almost universally.

Kitchen mastery begins with understanding your ingredients, and sugar is a sweet place to start. You wouldn't use Demerara in pancake batter, would you? Is date sugar an ideal substitute for your cookies? And what's the difference between all these kinds of brown sugar, anyway? Dive into the sweet, complex world of sugar and find out.

White sugar

Often referred to as table or granulated sugar, white sugar is a staple ingredient in most households. Produced from sugar cane or sugar beets, it undergoes a series of washes, filters, and crystallisations to shed its molasses-tinged exterior, emerging as the pristine, white crystals we're all familiar with.

White sugar is both versatile and subtle. Its neutral sweetness is perfect for general cooking and baking. For example, it improves the viscosity and mouthfeel of sauces and beverages and is an excellent leavening agent and yeast activator. Looking to add a sweet, caramelized crust to your cakes? A sugar coat is all you need. It's arguably the best type of sugar for topping crème brûlée because its mid-sized crystals obediently melt under the heat of a blowtorch, making it easy to identify the proper caramelization stage. In short, white sugar is an everyday culinary tool, ready to enhance your dishes one crystal at a time.

Light and dark brown sugar

Brown sugar offers a flavorful caramel-like complexity that surpasses its sucrose cousin. It's essentially white sugar with a bit of an edge, thanks to a reunion with its old pal, molasses. The depth of its flavor and color hinges on the molasses content — more makes it darker, less keeps it light — which is the main difference between light and dark brown sugar. You can use them interchangeably and even make your own if molasses is at hand.

While the lighter variant shines in baking, condiments, and candy, the dark type is a star in hearty dishes like mincemeat. But don't pigeonhole brown sugar to the sweet realm. Unexpected ways to use brown sugar include giving a sweet twist to pickles and stir-fries, lending a glossy glaze to roasted veggies, balancing dressings, and turning cookies chewier, courtesy of its higher moisture content.


Originating from Guyana (named after a region there, no less), Demerara is the product of the first crystallization of light cane juice, resulting in these glorious, large crystals ranging from golden-yellow to reddish in hue. Texture-wise, it's a unique mix of crunchy and slightly sticky — imagine if brown sugar and sanding sugar had a love child. The flavor is rich and toffee-like, similar to other kinds of brown sugar.

Now, where does this sweet marvel shine? First, it's absolutely divine when stirred into hot cereals. It also makes an excellent finishing touch on banana bread batter (and other loaf cakes and muffins, for that matter) — those large crystals stay intact, gifting you a satisfying crunch with every bite. Finally, it's a great addition to beverages: Use it to elevate your Old Fashioned or to create the sweet foam vital for a perfectly made café Cubano.


If you thought Demerara was the only cool kid on the block, it's time to get acquainted with its equally interesting sibling, turbinado. Compared to brown sugar, turbinado sugar is only lightly refined, boasting just a whisper of molasses, unlike its darker cousins. It's a bit like Demerara, but with a twist — it's not as sticky, and its grains are smaller, thanks to a partial molasses strip-off during centrifugation. The subtle flavor is not too sweet, offering caramel notes to whatever it embraces.

Turbinado's caramelization skills are off the charts. It's Ina Garten's secret ingredient for the perfect pound cake crust. And it's not just for desserts. Sprinkle it over buttered toast or naturally sweet roasted veggies. Fancy some candied nuts or baked fruit? Turbinado's your sugar. And if you're a fan of sweet drinks, this sugar dissolves like a dream, beating Demerara at its own game.


Meet muscovado, another minimally processed sweetener that's big on flavor. Its personality is akin to the wet sand of the islands it came from — moist, fine, and packed with bold molasses and caramel notes that make its brown sugar cousins seem shy in comparison. Light muscovado resembles dark brown sugar with a stronger molasses kick. Dark muscovado boasts an even more robust molasses flavor (since none of it is removed during production) with a hint of bitter edge.

Muscovado works wonders in rich, dark-flavored confectioneries. It's also a secret weapon in BBQ sauces, marinades, glazes, and any recipe that craves a rich molasses punch. But to see it truly shine, wait till you pair it with chocolate (muscovado chocolate ganache, anyone?). Just keep it in an airtight container to prevent it from pulling a petrification act. But if it does, don't worry; there are plenty of tricks to soften brown sugar, from apples to marshmallows.


While its name may sound odd, Sucanat actually stands for "sucre de canne naturel" or "natural sugar cane." This unrefined cane sugar is a product of traditional dehydration methods that carefully turn sugarcane juice into granules, making it a vegan-friendly delight since no bone char enters the production stage.

Molasses-rich Sucanat boasts a bold, smoky caramel character that's hard to miss. But it's not just the flavor that's intriguing. The texture, akin to instant coffee, is a testament to its minimal processing — think irregular-sized, tan brown granules. To unlock its full potential, grind it in a spice grinder before adding it to your carrot cake or spice cookies. This ensures a well-blended mix and dodges the aesthetic faux pas of dotting on your freshly baked goods. Don't stop there, though, as it also works wonders in marinades, hot cereals, tea, and coffee.

Pearl sugar

If you ever want to make your cinnamon buns feel like they came from a European bakery, pearl sugar is your answer. Also known as nib or hail sugar, it's sourced from sugar beets and comes in off-white, pretzel salt-sized irregular granules. Two major varieties exist: Belgian and Swedish. Belgian pearls, superior in size and density, are the secret ingredient in those iconic Belgian waffles. The smaller Swedish pearls, on the other hand, are the perfect finish for pastries like cardamom buns.

What's unique about pearl sugar is its ability to withstand heat and remain crunchier and more resilient to caramelization than cane sugar. Yet, if stirred into the batter, it will create little bursts of caramelized flavor throughout. If pearl sugar eludes you, don't fret. Decorative sugars like sanding, sparkling, or any other coarse-grained sugars will do the trick. Or channel your inner pastry chef and whip up your own!

Sanding sugar

The glitzy world of sanding sugar comprises crystals larger than your everyday granulated sugar but smaller than the chunky coarse sugar. It's heat-resistant, maintaining its shape and delivering a delightful crunch post-baking, akin to Demerara. In terms of color, sanding sugar is like a chameleon, available in a myriad of hues — including completely colorless.

Also known as sparkling sugar, it catches the light masterfully, making your baked goods twinkle like a starry night. It's the go-to choice for decorating anything from cookies and scones to pies and fairy bread. Indeed, this fairy dust of the baking world adds extra sweetness, texture, and an irresistible sparkle to anything it touches. Even Martha Stewart's special sugar tip involves using sanding sugar for an extra crunch on meringue pies. Budding mixologists out there can elevate their presentation by applying it to the rim of glasses or adding it to drinks.

Caster sugar

With the finest crystal size among white granulated sugars, caster sugar is the dessert equivalent of a Swiss Army knife. It is also known as superfine, ultra-fine, extra-fine, bar, berry, fruit, or castor sugar — a whirlwind of aliases for one seriously versatile ingredient.

Caster sugar is a favorite among pros like Gordon Ramsey, who use it as their all-purpose granulated sugar. It's the key to airy meringues, soufflés, and mousses, thanks to its quick-dissolving nature. This feature also makes it the go-to choice for sweetening beverages — no heat required. The multitude of crystalline surfaces introduces air into cake batter, improves the texture of puddings, and adds a delicate sweetness to fruits and iced drinks. And if you can't find it? No problem. Create your own caster sugar substitute by throwing regular granulated sugar into a food processor and blitzing until you reach that coveted fine texture. 

Confectioners' sugar

What is confectioners' sugar, you ask? Known as powdered sugar in the U.S. and icing sugar across the pond in the U.K. and Canada, its minuscule granules are so fine they feel like dust on your tongue. Thanks to a touch of starch (about 3% by weight), regular powdered sugar doesn't clump and absorbs moisture, giving it a subtly floury taste. Non-melting powdered sugar, on the other hand, is a mix of dextrose and fat that repels moisture, avoiding the usual sugar-dissolving act when dusted over moist or hot baked goods.

This extremely fine, easily dissolving powder blends seamlessly into frostings, icings, and fillings. And if you'd like to create a fluffier, more stable whipped cream that will be in top shape for up to 12 hours, powdered sugar should be your top choice. For an unconventional twist, try dusting powdered sugar over fried garlic to mellow its bite and enhance caramelization.

Flavored sugar

If you're done with plain old granulated sugar and are willing to give it a makeover, flavored sugars are the way to go. Not only are they fun to make, but they're a fantastic way to reduce food waste and create thoughtful gifts (especially when packed in repurposed jars).

A trinity of methods are at play here: addition, infusion, and combination. Addition is as straightforward as it sounds: mix your sugar with anything from extracts to freeze-dried fruit powder. Or simply jazz it up with a sprinkle of cinnamon and call it a day. With infusion, you're dealing with the big guns — whole vanilla pods, citrus peels, coffee beans — the works. You fish these out before use, leaving behind a sugar that's subtly imbued with flavor. The combination method is where these two worlds collide. You get to leave smaller bits in the sugar, allowing it to steep in the flavor.

Coconut sugar

Coconut sugar, an unrefined sweetener derived from the sap of the coconut palm, is a relatively recent addition to the global sugar market. Its fine, tan-brown granules are easy to mistake for your standard brown sugar. But don't let its name fool you. Its flavor is earthy, nutty, and reminiscent of caramel thanks to high molasses content — a far cry from the tropical taste you might expect.

It's a fantastic substitute for the more refined and artificial sweeteners, seamlessly slotting into recipes requiring brown sugar, thanks to an identical sweetness level. It shines in a wide range of baked goods, from cookies to muffins. But there's a catch: coconut sugar is capable of ruining your delicate, light-flavored baked goods (think angel cake). The robust flavor can overpower and negatively affect the final look. It's a sweetener with character, more akin to molasses or maple syrup than your neutral white sugar. So, treat it accordingly.

Maple sugar

Granulated maple sugar is the crystallized sibling of maple syrup. With its pure, natural flavor, maple sugar is a versatile — albeit costly — force in the kitchen. It comes from boiling the syrup until it morphs into solid golden bits. You can even make it at home with the help of a candy thermometer and a food processor as a fun, money-saving experiment.

Once you obtain it, maple sugar can grace your baked goods, like maple meringues or shortbread cookies. But that's not all: Sprinkle it over oatmeal or popcorn, whisk it into marinades, stir it into tea, or use it wherever you'd want strong maple flavor.

When it comes to substituting other sugars, maple sugar is double in sweetness but not as calorie-dense. However, tread lightly: substituting it entirely for white sugar could lead to an overwhelming maple flavor (and a lighter wallet, given its high price).

Palm sugar

Hailing from the generous bounties of tropical trees, palm sugar is a rare find. Its creation mirrors the laborious maple syrup production, hence its premium price tag. Available in solid, granulated, or syrup form, palm sugar adopts diverse culinary roles. The cakey version, boiled until solid and molded into blocks, requires grating for use in recipes. The pasty form, sold in tubs, is softer. But whichever form you choose, it can always be melted into syrup to embellish any breakfast staple.

Underrated it might be, but palm sugar certainly sprinkles magic on food. It's a star in Southeast Asian dishes, from pad Thai to Indian curry. With its caramel allure, Thai palm sugar is a delightful chai or salad dressing additive, whereas its molasses-rich Malaysian counterpart shines in hearty baked goods. Flavor-wise, palm sugar brings a unique butterscotch note to the table, interlaced with smoky or maple notes, enriching recipes beyond standard cane sugar sweetness.

Rock sugar

Rock sugar, or rock candy, is a key player in many sweet and savory Asian dishes. This crystalline sweetener can range in color from delicate pale gold to pure white. It's sold either as hard, icy translucent formations or thin rectangular blocks. Its sweetness level and flavor are pretty average, as it's diluted with water during production. But when it comes to brown rock sugar, you'll find an inviting caramel hint, the legacy of its molasses content.

Here are some examples of where rock sugar truly shines. Ever wondered how a Chinese braised pork belly gets that glossy sheen? That's rock sugar. It's masterfully balancing flavors, countering the saltiness of soy sauce or the fiery punch of ginger and chili. Its long dissolving time makes it a star in Japanese plum wine and syrup. If you ever cook with it, make sure to measure it by weight, not by volume.

Jam sugar

Jam (or gelling) sugar is not your everyday sweetener. This stuff is specifically engineered for the passionate preservers among us. And while you surely can make all kinds of fruit preserves with regular sugar, this one will make home canning a breeze — all thanks to added pectin and citric acid. Why the extra stuff? Well, it's critical for getting your jams and jellies to set just right. Think of pectin as the glue that holds your fruit preserves together, especially when working with low-pectin fruits like strawberries or peaches. Conversely, the acid keeps that pectin in check, helping to balance it out and create a firmer set.

Keep an eye out for its different "strengths," which affect how much of the sugar you'll use and the flavor balance of the end product. The more intense the sugar, the less you need, meaning your preserves will taste more like fruit and less like a sugar bomb.

Whole sugar

Imagine granulated sugar but with an earthy, full-bodied twist. That's what you get with whole sugars, a rustic relative of the sweet crystals you're familiar with. Born out of cooked sugarcane juice, these sugars offer a flavor spectrum ranging from gentle caramel to intense molasses.

First, there is the Latin American piloncillo. This cone- or brick-shaped delight is cloaked in a dark brown hue and boasts a distinctive smoky flavor. Known by many names like panela or rapadura, it's your secret weapon for taking churros or warm beverages up a notch. And don't forget to take it to the savory side; a dusting of piloncillo in your meat rubs can do wonders.

Then there's jaggery, a South Asian star. Picture the scent of lightly charred bread — that's the rich, caramelized edge jaggery adds to your cooking. It's the secret weapon in your chunky sauces and porridges or any dish that needs an earthy sweetness.

Date sugar

Date sugar is not quite sugar as we know it but more of a wholesome, plant-based sweetener that stands tall amongst the best sugar substitutes. This unique sugar is the offspring of ground-up, dehydrated dates, evident in its uneven texture and earthy brown color. On the tongue, it dances with a decadent butterscotch swirl. What sets it apart? Aside from being high in fiber, it's got ⅔ the calorie count of white sugar, although it's a bit of a splurge.

Get creative with date sugar! Give your muffins, cookies, or loaf cakes a pre-bake dusting, lend a sweet touch to your granola, or mix it into a fruity galette filling. But tread lightly when substituting other sugars with it. Date sugar is a bit of a sponge, absorbing moisture like cornstarch, and has a tendency to burn if left unattended. Plus, it's stubbornly insoluble (though it's a champ in smoothies).

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