Sugar Science: What Every Baker Needs to Know.



Brown and white sugar granulated and cubed



As many of us try to find ways to reduce, and in some cases, even eliminate sugar completely from our diets, how does our understanding of sugar science help us achieve this goal? Especially when it comes to those snacks and treats.

As a former scientist turned bespoke cake artist I find sugar science really fascinating. Its unique properties and the different types of sugar all play an important role in how and why we use it for baking. An awareness of sugar science will help you make informed decisions about the sugar alternatives you’re selecting.


One of the frequently asked questions I get is

“Can I use less sugar in the cakes I make?”,

Sugar-free baking is becoming easier, as sugar alternatives become more accessible. But the type of cakes I design and make, often intricately carved designs and highly decorated, need a certain level of structural integrity. A lot of this comes from the sugar in the recipes I use.


Reducing the amount of sugar in your bakes can prove difficult. The difficulty being making bakes that taste amazing whilst retaining the texture that you’ve come to know and love. Being aware of the sugar science and the part it plays in baking, will mean you are in a much better position to adapt your recipes accordingly.


Sugar as a Baking Ingredient.


Sugar doesn’t just add sweetness. It helps retain moisture, adds tenderness, speeds up the bread-making process. It can also act as a preservative and encourages the development of that appealing baked golden brown colour through a series of chemical reactions.


Refined or Unrefined?


Refined sugar has been processed and as a result, has been stripped of any nutritional value which comes from the presence of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. The most common refined sugar is white sugar. Unrefined sugars such as honey and maple syrup whilst still containing the same calories of sugar also contain a small proportion of vitamins and minerals.


Sugar Science and Baking


Sugar science - microscope view of sugar


Sugar Structure

Solid sugar under a microscope is a mass of crystals with sharp edges. The size of these crystals is dependant on the type of sugar you’re looking at.  Granulated sugars are made of large crystals, caster sugar crystals are smaller and icing sugar or powdered sugar crystals are the least crystalline in comparison.  The sharp edges of the crystals help to trap air when sugar is beaten with solid fat. This is important for light and fluffy bakes, like cake sponges. A liquid sweetener, like honey, doesn’t have these crystals and is unable to trap air into cake batters which can lead to stodgy and dense cakes. A recipe where sugar is replaced with a liquid sweetener will need extra raising agents to compensate for this. Or consider an alternative that’s as close to sugar in terms of structure. Like granulated erythritol which is crystalline like sugar.

Hygroscopicity of Sugar

Sugar is hygroscopic which means it absorbs water from its surroundings. Different sugars have different levels of hygroscopicity.  Brown sugar, for example, is more hygroscopic than white sugar so its use in bakes like cookies and biscuits results in a chewier bake as the brown sugar attracts more moisture. Brown sugar in biscuits can be swapped for liquid sweeteners like honey and maple syrup which are unrefined sources of sugar and will help retain the same chewy texture. Reduce the weight amount of honey/maple syrup by 20-25%.  Also, lower the temperature of your oven as honey browns and burns faster than sugar. Add 1/4tsp of baking soda to balance the slight acidity of the honey.

Sugar in Bread Making

In bread making sugar science speeds up the proving process allowing the dough to rise quicker. The yeast uses sugar as a source of food to ultimately produce carbon dioxide gas. The gas that’s produced expands the dough causing it to rise. In sweet breads, the sugar can be replaced with other sweeteners like honey, agave nectar, or maple syrup. In savoury bread, the sugar can be left out completely but the proving time will need to be increased.


So when you’re thinking about replacing sugar in your baking recipe you’ll increase your successes if you can replicate the sugar science with any alternative that you select.


Good luck and happy baking!


Check out my other blog posts for more on the science of baking or join my FREE Facebook group for Busy Mums who Bake.

The Baking Science of Butter

3 Science Secrets of Baking

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