scaling sugar

We all know that sugar is essential for baking—after all, it’s what makes sweets taste sweet. But thanks to its unique chemical nature, real sugar (the sugar that comes from sugar beets and sugar cane and is often referred to as table sugar or granulated sugar) also performs many other essential functions in cookies, cakes, and other baked goods.

You may not realize it, but there’s a lot of chemistry going on when ingredients in a recipe are put together. When you understand how real sugar interacts with other ingredients in recipes, you’ll be on your way to becoming a better baker. Using less (or more) sugar than a recipe calls for can really impact your results.


When sugar molecules meet water molecules, they form a strong bond. This union of sugar and water affects the texture of baked goods in two important ways:

It keeps baked goods soft and moist. The bond between sugar and water allows sugar to lock in moisture so that items such as cakes, muffins, brownies, and frostings don’t dry out too quickly.

It creates tenderness. Baked goods get their shape and structure from proteins and starches, which firm up during baking and transform soupy batters and soft doughs into lofty muffins and well-formed cookies. But because they build structure, proteins and starches can potentially make baked goods tough, too. The sugar in a batter or dough snatches water away from proteins and starches, which helps control the amount of structure-building they can do. The result? A more tender treat.

It is here that adjusting the sugar in a recipe can have a dramatic effect. For example, when a loaf of banana bread has a nice shape and an appealing texture, the sugar, proteins, and starches are in balance. But if you tip that balance by using more or less sugar than the recipe calls for, the result could be so tender that it lacks the structure to hold its shape, or it could be shapely but too tough.

PRO TIP It’s best to dust moist cakes with confectioners’ sugar right before serving, because over time the sugar will attract even more moisture and become sticky.


Cake and quick bread batters rise during baking and sugar helps make this happen. When you mix up a cake batter and beat sugar into fat, eggs, and other liquid ingredients, the sugar crystals cut into the mixture, creating thousands of tiny air bubbles that lighten the batter. During baking, these bubbles expand and lift the batter, causing it to rise in the pan.

Depth of Color and Flavor

You can thank sugar for the appealing golden-brown color of many baked desserts. This happens in two different ways:

Maillard reaction. In the presence of heat, sugar reacts with the proteins in food resulting in browning and the formation of new aromas and flavors. The more sugar a food contains, the more brown it will become when heated. This happens in many different types of food, but when it comes to baking think of the browning of bread.

Caramelization. As sugar gets hot, it undergoes a cascade of chemical reactions called caramelization. In this process, sugar molecules break down into smaller and smaller parts and begin to turn deeper shades of brown and develop more complex flavors.


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About the Author

Courtney Gaine, Ph.D., R.D., is the President and CEO for the Sugar Association in Washington, D.C. Prior to this appointment in January 2016, Dr. Gaine served as the Vice President of Scientific Affairs at the association. Dr. Gaine previously served as senior science program manager at the North American branch of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI North America), a public, nonprofit scientific foundation that advances the understanding and application of science related to the nutritional quality and safety of the food supply. Prior to ILSI, Dr. Gaine held positions of project director, nutrition and wellness, at the nonprofit organization Convergence and science manager at FoodMinds, a public relations firm. She began her career in academia as an assistant professor at East Carolina University. A native Washingtonian, Dr. Gaine obtained her Ph.D. in nutritional sciences and biochemistry and bachelor’s degree in dietetics from the University of Connecticut, where she was also a co-captain of the UConn women’s basketball team.

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