Pure and sweet, sugar serves many purposes in our food culture, from enhancing taste to providing tenderness.
Have you ever wondered why breads brown when toasted, or why cookies spread and become crisp during baking, or why meringues form stiff peaks when whipped? These and many other questions can be answered with one simple word: sugar.
The cook who first discovered – probably by accident – that a cake could be vastly improved by creaming the sugar with the shortening, probably never knew why this worked – it just did. And, the fact that jams and preserves stayed fresh and unspoiled must have delighted home cooks, but they never knew why.
The functional properties of sugar are essential in home and industrial food preparation. These are some of sugar’s amazing contributions to our food supply.
A part of our global culture for more than 2000 years, sugar recently has gotten a bad rap, in the top list of foods we should veer away from as a source of “empty calories.” But the benefits of sugar are many and through the ages, it has been a key ingredient in not only food, but medicinal products. Sugar has been an unseen part of our everyday lives and yet ubiquitous in the advantages it brings to the table.
A BAKER’S RELIABLE FRIEND
The first mention of sugar, in about 325 B.C., referred to it as a reed that yielded “honey without bees.” It was treasured by royalty and traded much like gold. Sugar fast became and remains the primary sweetening ingredient worldwide.
Changing lifestyles over the past 50 years have brought about a major shift in the way we use sugar. Today’s consumer relies more on the food industry and less on the home kitchen. Regardless whether a product is bought in the grocery store or made at home, there are many reasons why sugar – at only 15 calories per teaspoon – remains the “gold standard” in cooking, baking and processed foods. No other ingredient provides the same fundamental characteristics (functionality) that sugar does when it comes to food preparation. All other commercially available sweeteners or mixtures of sweetening ingredients formulated to replace sugar strive to imitate not only sugar’s natural, wholesome sweet taste but also its myriad functional assets.
Here are the ways we benefit from sugar:
- Sugar provides tenderness. Gluten is the protein-lipid complex that provides the structural backbone of flour doughs. Gluten formation requires both water and mixing. Since sugar preferentially attracts water, less water is available for gluten formation. This means additional mixing is required for gluten development. As a consequence, sugar makes the gluten more elastic, giving the final product a moister, tenderer crumb and good volume.
- Sugar is a reliable food source for Baker’s yeast. During its growth, Baker’s yeast gives off carbon dioxide which is responsible for the leavening action important in the production of porous, palatable bread. Due to its uniformity, sugar evens out carbon dioxide formation. Breads leavened with sugar have more even porosities and tender crumb structures.
- Sugar is an essential ingredient for creaming. Creaming is the mixing process in which air becomes entrapped in the numerous, small cells created in the whipped shortening or butter. During baking, the shortening melts and the entrapped air escapes into the liquid batter. This in turns produces a cake or similar food with a fine, delicate crumb texture and good volume. In a similar manner, sugar stabilizes beaten egg foams. Entrapped air makes egg foam suppler, allowing flour to be added to the recipe without destroying the basic structure of the baked food product.
- Sugar caramelizes when heated above its melting point (about 347 °F) adding characteristic flavors and surface browning. Caramelization improves moisture retention in baked products and prolongs freshness. At oven temperatures, sugar also combines with proteins to produce distinctive flavor changes associated with another browning process. This process is referred to as the Maillard reaction. Maillard reaction products contribute the aromas associated with baked goods. The higher the sugar content, the darker golden brown the surface appears.
- Sugar is critical in cookie recipes for several reasons. Many cookie doughs are first prepared by creaming sugar and shortening. Sugar also provides balanced sweetness and is the source of browning flavors. Since cookies are low in moisture, sugar is most critical for controlling spread during baking. During baking, sugar begins to dissolve in the recipe’s water which increases the fluidity of the cookie dough and thus cookie spreading. In snap cookies, sugar controls the desired surface cracking. Baking drives off water at the surface of the spreading dough. By crystallizing on the surface, sugar accelerates this loss of moisture which creates the characteristic surface pattern of snap cookies.
Sugar is also a flavor enhancement ingredient in a wide range of foods such as baked beans, cooked vegetables, tomato sauces, salad dressings and coleslaw. Sugar helps balance flavors. Sugar also softens the natural acidity, and contributes to the consistency and mouth feel, of many food products.
In jellies and preserves, sugar is essential in the gelling process to obtain desired consistency and firmness. Due to its inherent ability to bind water, sugar helps prevent spoilage after jellies and preserves are opened. An added bonus is sugar helps retain the natural color of the fruit.
For canning, sugar helps the fruit retain its moisture which maintains color and plumpness. It also protects the surface of frozen fruit from browning. Sugar also retards the loss of flavor in frozen fruits, while enhancing aroma and size when thawed.
Sugar has profound effects on lowering the freezing point and raising the boiling point of a solution. These are important considerations in the preparation of frozen desserts and candies. For example, the candy-making process is based on the dissolving and subsequent recrystallization of sugar. The boiling point of a solution, which is determined by how much sugar is present, is central to the manufacture of candy. Just as boiling point control is critical to candy-making, freezing point management is the cornerstone of frozen desserts. Frozen dessert creaminess, firmness and overall flavor are determined by freezing point, which is controlled by the level of sugar present in the dessert mix.
Whether you are buying or baking a cake, or buying or creating a marinade for grilling, or canning or purchasing canned or frozen fruits, there is no substitute for sugar when it comes to balanced flavor, superior color, satisfying aroma or just natural sweet taste.
Melanie Miller is vice president, public relations and marketing, at The Sugar Association, whose mission is to promote the consumption of sugar as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle through the use of sound science and research. Visit www.sugar.org.