Lesson 20: All About Sugar & Gluten Free Baking

Lesson 20: All About Sugar & Gluten Free Baking

Sugar is as important to baking as butter. Learn all about sugar and how to use it in gluten free baking to improve recipes. Learn the roles sugar play in baked goods and how it affects recipes. From granulated sugar to brown to organic, they all have their uses and react differently in their own unique ways. Learn what sugar is, in simple to understand terms.

What is sugar?

Sugar is a type of sucrose (glucose and fructose) which is derived from either sugarcane or sugar beets. Sucrose is usually further processed and refined using carbon or bone char, which removes all color. While the sugar crystals are actually clear, when they are all together, they look white.

Purposes of Sugar

Moisture: Besides being sweet, sugars provide moisture in things like cakes, cookies, and bread.

Structure: Sugar adds structure (make stable instead of allowing something to collapse) to things like whipped eggs (meringue). As you learned in the butter lesson, sugar, when combined with butter and beaten creates air pockets that provide structure to baked goods like cakes, pancakes, and more. An angel food cake wouldn’t be the same without this procedure. The most structure sugar can provide is when you heat it to high temperatures to make candy like bark, brittle and spun sugar.

Tenderizer: As sugar absorbs moisture in a batter or dough, it creates a tender texture. The sandy texture of sugar that does not break down all of the way is the reason why shortbread is sandy and breaks apart so easily.

Preservative: You can also use sugar as a preservative as it keeps baked goods fresher longer.

Prevents Hydration: In cookies, due to the sugar content and lack of liquid, flours and starches do not have a chance to hydrate. You see, the sugar that is well distributed throughout the dough blocks the absorption process. Instead of baking, the dough begins to spread (if not chilled).

Browning: Gluten free baked goods don’t always brown like their gluten counterparts. While tapioca flour browns well, sugar is your helper when you’re not using a lot of tapioca flour. Baked goods get their golden color mainly from sugar (leavening agents like baking soda also aids in browning). The more sugar bread dough contains, the crispier and browner the crust. Fried batters become brown and crisp, too, when you add sugar. If you look at this Onion Ring Recipe from Gluten Free Chef Rob, you’ll see that he uses egg yolk to aid in browning. However, that wasn’t enough. So, he added tons of reddish-brown seasonings to create a deeper brown color. However, adding a little sugar will probably allow you to reduce some of those overly spiced spices. As you probably now understand, browning is a natural characteristic of heated sugar. Coating a burger with a mixture of sugar and water will add a nice char to the final burger, once the water evaporates, which adds flavor. When making homemade bread crumbs or simply shopping for a commercial brand, either use bread that contains sugar or look for a brand that contains sugar if you wish a browning component.

Crunch: Finally, plain sugar adds crunch and makes a sparkling garnish. Use large granules as a garnish on cookies, cupcakes, and even sweet bread like this Bread for the Dead or on sugar donuts or cinnamon-sugar donuts. Even when you heat sugar, once it cools, it creates a crunchy texture.

Caramelizing Granulated Sugar

You may reach for brown sugar when you wish to add a caramelized flavor to desserts, but when heated, granulated sugar can also add caramel flavor. The sugar can even crystalize like glass. You see this on top of Crème Brulee.

Temperature of Sugar

Whether you are making homemade jelly, dessert sauce, or candy, the temperature of the sugar mixture will determine how firm or thick the end product will be. The longer the mixture of sugar and liquid boils, the water evaporates and creates a thicker mixture. If you boil the mixture until it reaches between 295 and 309 °F, it will crack when it cools. See the recipe for English Toffee (aka Chocolate Almond Brittle) as an example. This mixture becomes even thicker upon cooling. See the following table (from Candy Making on Wikipedia):

Stage Temperature Sugar concentration
thread (e.g., syrup) 110 to 112 °C (230 to 234 °F) 80%
soft ball (e.g., fudge) 112 to 116 °C (234 to 241 °F) 85%
firm ball (e.g., soft caramel candy) 118 to 120 °C (244 to 248 °F) 87%
hard ball (e.g., nougat) 121 to 130 °C (250 to 266 °F) 90%
soft crack (e.g., salt water taffy) 132 to 143 °C (270 to 289 °F) 95%
hard crack (e.g., toffee) 146 to 154 °C (295 to 309 °F) 99%
clear liquid 160 °C (320 °F) 100%
brown liquid (e.g., liquid caramel) 170 °C (338 °F) 100%
burnt sugar 177 °C (351 °F) 100%

Did you know?

Did you know that sugar does not melt but it decomposes/breaks down? Scientists coined this new discovery as “apparent melting”. Experts at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign explain [reference no longer published] that if sugar could melt it would do so repeatedly at a consistent temperature and retain its original chemical identity after it melts, which it does not.

Major Types of Sugar and Their Characteristics

Granulated Sugar (aka table sugar): The most common sugar used in baking is granulated sugar. Use granulated sugar in cookies to cakes and ice cream to pastry cream. Also called table sugar, it dissolves in about 5 minutes when whipped with butter using a mixer.

Organic Sugar (formerly known as evaporated cane juice): Unlike granulated sugar, this tan-colored sugar is not highly processed to remove its natural color. Its crystals are large; therefore, they are hard to break down. The only thing that helps sugar break down is water. Water is found in butter, milk, juice, and all other liquids. However, water is not found in oil. So, you cannot break down any type of sugar by mixing it with oil. So, when you are substituting organic sugar for granulated sugar and you need to cream the two together as you would butter and granulated sugar, be sure to add any liquid in the recipe in with the sugar and butter. Even a decent portion of vanilla extract will help. This also applies to large, hard crystal sugar like turbinado, which you will learn about in the “Brown Sugar Substitutes” section.

Sanding Sugar (aka Coarse Sugar or Decorating Sugar): Sanding sugar is large crystals of sugar used for decorating cakes, cupcakes, and cookies. Even at high temperatures, the crystals do not melt during the baking process. You may also find sanding sugar available in colors.

Light Brown Sugar: Light brown sugar is granulated sugar combined with a small amount of molasses. The mixture of the two creates chewy cookies and caramel-flavored desserts.

Dark Brown Sugar: When you combine even more molasses with granulated sugar you get dark brown sugar. This softer mixture creates softer and chewier cookies with a deeper, richer molasses/caramelized flavoring other desserts.

Brown Sugar Substitutes: Read this article.

Confectioners’/Powdered Sugar: Powdered sugar can be combined with soft butter to make American Buttercream or dusted on top of desserts for garnish and sweetness. Always dust using a small fine-mesh strainer from well above what you wish to dust. Then, tap the side of the strainer allowing it to gently dust the dessert. Powdered sugar melts when heated or is in a humid environment.

Pearl Sugar (aka Nib Sugar and Hail Sugar): Pearl sugar is derived from granulated sugar and is coarse, white in color, and hard. Unlike granulated sugar, this hard sugar does not melt at traditional baking temperatures. Therefore, it makes a wonderful garnish that can be applied to desserts prior to baking. To get an idea of what pearl sugar looks like, view the recipe for Gluten Free Chouquettes.

Amounts of Sugar and Their Effects:

Too much sugar: may result in the following:

  • Cakes that are too tender
  • Cakes with lack of structure causing them to fall/collapse
  • Cake batters that never set, just jiggle due to the broken down sugar
  • Flat cookies when the sugar melts into a liquid – (too much butter can also cause this)
  • Cookies that are too crunchy
  • A pie crust that is gummy (too much of a chewy ingredient can also cause this like tapioca or sweet rice flour)

Not enough sugar: may result in the following:

  • Dry, cracked pie crust (caused also from not enough fat/butter)
  • A cake that is dry or not tender
  • Not enough browning in baked goods (things like baking soda, baking powder, egg yolks, and tapioca flour also aid in browning)
  • Runny whipped egg whites without any shine (overbeating can also cause this)

Brown Sugar Hack

If your brown sugar ever gets too hard to break apart easily, just microwave it in 10-second intervals in the microwave just until it softens.


Learning about sugar can help you improve your gluten free recipes. When a baked good turns out gummy, adding additional sugar can help make it tender. When a fried batter just won’t brown, add a little sugar to it (or egg yolk) depending upon what you’re making. Want to add a little crunch, add more sugar to those cookies or pie crust. By learning the fundamentals of baking, you can turn the battle of gluten free baking into smooth sailing.


The next lesson is all about baking cookies. So, please be sure you understand all about sugar because sugar is the key to good cookies.


Choose a recipe using sugar that will challenge you. Use a sugar you’ve never used before or fix a recipe that you think the above troubleshooting tips will help improve it. See some suggestions below. Minimally, take note of the above information as you bake and cook with sugar.

Sugar Cookies (Make one batch as instructed and then make another batch with more sugar for crunchier cookies or less for chewier cookies.)

Simple Syrup (Use it to baste crusty cake edges and watch how the edges soften. Baste it on a burger and watch it brown more than others.)

How to Make Spun Sugar Decorations (Notice how the sugar stiffens more the higher at a higher temperature.)

English Toffee (aka Chocolate Almond Brittle) (Take a little of the toffee out early and allow it to cool and notice the texture and lack of crunch compared to the finished brittle.)

Marshmallow Fluff or Egg-Free Marshmallow Fluff (Notice the sheen and stiffness the sugar mixture creates with the beaten egg.)

You can access all lessons via the links on the Syllabus page.