Essential Ingredient: Sugar

Learn how different sugars enhance desserts, entrées, breads, and accompaniments.

Sugar is indispensable to cooking. It often performs more than one role in a given recipe. Consider the function of sugar in a meringue cookie: It stabilizes beaten egg whites so they maintain their volume during baking, creates the cookie's characteristic crunch, and then causes the cookie to dissolve deliciously on the tongue.

Sugar plays multiple roles in baking. At the simplest level, it imparts sweetness. Beyond that, it helps create a light, tender crumb: When creamed with butter for a cake batter, sugar's hard crystal surfaces create pockets that trap air and expand during cooking, yielding a fluffy, tender final product.

It also attracts and holds moisture, so cakes, cookies, and quick breads stay fresher longer. Sugar inhibits the development of gluten (tough, elastic proteins) to keep cakes and quick breads tender, as opposed to chewier biscuits or yeast breads that typically don't include much (if any) sugar. It helps with browning, creating golden crusts on coffeecakes and cookies, and crystallizing on brownies, pound cakes, and cookies to form crunchy, crackled tops.

Sugar can be heated to go through a series of chemical reactions in a process called caramelization, and what starts as one-note sweet, white granulated sugar becomes nutty, amber-hued caramel-the basis of many dessert sauces or the syrupy topping for flan or créme caramel. When combined with liquid ingredients, sugar lowers the freezing point-so ice cream and sorbet stay velvety smooth and creamy and don't form solid ice.

Sugar can also be key in dishes other than desserts because it balances bitter and sour tastes. For example, coffee is too bitter sans sugar for many people. Because of its balancing effects, sugar is often added to tart salad dressings and tomato-based sauces (such as barbecue sauce) to soften the acidity. It's sprinkled over vegetables as they sauté, or meat as it's browned, to add rich color and deepen the flavor.

Sugar not only enhances but also plays a critical role in many of our tastiest, most successful recipes.

Quick Tip: Measuring Sugar

• For the greatest accuracy when measuring granulated, superfine, powdered, or turbinado sugar, we recommend treating it as you do flour: Lightly spoon the sugar into a dry measuring cup, and level off the excess with the flat side of a knife.

• Brown sugar's moist texture requires that it be measured differently from other sugars. Because it can trap air, you need to firmly pack it into measuring cups or spoons when doling it out; the sugar should hold the shape of the cup or spoon when it's turned out.

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