Granulated sugar, also sometimes known as “refined,” “table,” or “white” sugar, is beet or cane sugar which has been processed, allowed to crystallize, and then dried so that the crystals do not clump together. Many people think of granulated sugar when they hear the word “sugar,” and this variety is readily available in most markets and food shops around the world. It is very commonly used in cooking and baking, and recipes that call for sugar without specifying the type usually mean granulated.
This sort of highly processed sugar is one of the most popular baking ingredients in the world. It is a simple carbohydrate that dissolves well, melts easily, and blends into a wide variety of other ingredients. It is frequently used in any number of baked goods, and is also popular in small amounts to balance savory sauces and soups. It has a subtle flavor that usually complements other tastes rather than competing with them, which makes it a very easy way to add sweetness without disrupting a dish or confection’s main taste profile. People also use it to sweeten drinks, particularly coffee and tea, and many manufacturers sell it in pre-measured single-serving packets or pressed into small sugar cubes for this purpose.
Most “table” or standard granulated sugar has a fine, powdery consistency, but it is sometimes possible to find even more refined varieties. Caster and the so-called “superfine” sugar are variations that are distinguished more by the size of the crystals than anything about the way they have been processed or refined, and are prized in many more delicate desserts and baked foods like souffles that need to be light and airy.
Where It Comes From
Sugar is a naturally-occurring compound that can be found in most plant and animal cells. Most fruits, for instance, have very high sugar concentrations, which is one of the reasons that they taste so sweet. People since ancient times have looked for ways of extracting this sweetness so that it can be used on its own, a process known as “refinement,” and granulated sugar is one of the most popular results.
Refinement typically works best when there are very high concentrations of sugar to begin with. Manufacturers usually choose to work with either sugar beets or cane, two plants that contain large stores of natural sugars. Refining from other fruits, like apples or peaches, can be very time consuming and also tends to leave a lot of waste.
Making granulated sugar is a multi-step process. Refiners begin by isolating the sugar crystals in the beet or cane, usually through diffusion. During diffusion, the sugar source is soaked in water, ground or pulverized to expose its inner cells, then left to evaporate, often over mesh sieves or fine cloth where the crystals can be collected. At this stage, the crystals are usually light brown or tan in color.
Raw sugar isn’t quite the same as granulated sugar, though; in most cases, a lot more processing is required to get from one point to the next. First comes “affination,” where refiners break the crystals down with water and often some sort of phosphorous compound. Affination usually results in a thick sugary syrup that manufacturers have to heat and then quickly cool in order to get the sugar to re-crystallize. They sometimes use chemical agents to help speed things up. The result is usually two-fold: fine white granules and rich, dark syrup. Refiners typically sell one as granulated sugar and the other as molasses.
Storage Tips and Shelf Life
Refinement helps the sugar resist clumping in part because it dries the crystals out so much. People who live in warm climates or whose sugar is exposed to high humidity may still experience clumping, though; this is harmless, but can make precise measuring more difficult and can also impact how evenly sugar dissolves or incorporates into different batters or broths. People can often break up clumps with their fingers or the backside of a spoon, though stubborn lumps may need the help of a food processor or blender. Keeping the crystals in an airtight container in a cool, dry place is one of the best ways to prevent clumps in the first place.
Sugar rarely spoils, and will stay fresh for a year or more. Past this point, the granules don’t really become harmful, but they may begin to lose their taste or begin to take on the flavors of their storage environment. Most food experts recommend using table sugar within a few months of purchase for the best results.
Granulated versions of sugar are widely available in most places, though there are times when people may want to substitute other, less processed alternatives, either as a way of reducing sugar intake or as a means of making a more healthful selection. So-called “raw” sugar is a popular alternative in many markets. Raw sugar is usually collected before affination, which means that its crystals are slightly larger and often appear somewhat tan in color. It tends to taste somewhat sweeter and it usually dissolves more slowly than granulated versions, which means that people can use less.
People looking to avoid sugar entirely may also look to natural substances like honey, agave, and stevia, and there are usually a number of chemical sweeteners available, too. Bakers usually need to be somewhat careful of using substitutions in recipes, however; different substances react differently when blended and heated. Using the chemical sweetener aspartame in baked goods doesn’t usually work out, for instance, and using the honey — which is wet and sticky — can often change the overall texture of the final product that was intended to have been made with sugar. It’s usually a good idea for cooks to spend a little bit of time experimenting before replacing white sugar entirely.
People are often tempted to equate white sugar with brown sugar, but the two are quite different, and substituting one for the other rarely ends well. In many cases, brown sugar is little more than granulated white sugar to which manufacturers have added molasses. The taste is a lot different as a result, and so is the density. A cake made with brown sugar when the recipe called for white, for instance, will often be turn out to be very heavy, and may not rise properly.
Granulated sugar is what is known as a simple carbohydrate, which basically means that it is a “quick energy” source that the body converts to glucose relatively soon after digestion. Most health experts advise people to maintain a balance between simple carbs and more complex high-protein foods that take longer to break down. When the body takes in more sugar than it needs, it often stores the excess in fat cells.
Another possible downside to granulated or refined sugar is its lack of nutrients. Most foods that are highly processed contain very little in the way of vitamins and minerals, and sugar is no exception. It is often very high in calories without providing much nutritive value. Most medical professionals recommend consuming sugar in any form “sparingly,” which means that ideally it should be more of a rare treat than a dietary staple. Excessive sugar intake has been liked to health problems like type-2 diabetes and obesity.