Sugar and nautral sweeteners take many forms. Some are solid, while others are liquid. What all sugars have in common is sweetness, but different sugars play different roles in cooking, and the success of a recipe often depends on using the right one at the right time.
Granulated Sugar: Granulated, or white, sugar is the most refined. The juices from sugarcane or sugar beets are processed to remove the molasses and then filtered, crystalized, and dried into fine granules. Granulated sugar adds sweetness and moisture to baked goods and also gives them structure and helps them brown. It makes pastries tender and gives crunch to some cookies. Superfine sugar is an ultrafine granulated sugar that's called for when it's important for the sugar to dissolve quickly.
Powdered Sugar: Also called confectioner's sugar, this variety is 10 times finer than granulated sugar. It's used mostly as a garnish dusted over cakes and cookies and to make icings and frostings since it dissolves quickly. Because of its powdery nature, it tends to attract water, so a small amount of absorbent cornstarch is usually added before packaging to keep it dry.
Dark Brown Sugar: A small amount of molasses is added to granulated sugar to create brown sugar, which has a moist, pliable texture. Dark brown sugar has more molasses, giving it a deeper, richer color and flavor.
Light Brown Sugar: Often just called "brown sugar," light brown sugar contains less molasses than the dark variety, which lends it a delicate flavor. Light and dark brown sugar can be used interchangeably in recipes, but the final product will have a more subtle or more assertive flavor depending on which you use.
Turbinado Sugar: This dry, pourable blond sugar (as opposed to many brown sugars, which are moist) has large, coarse crystals with a more subtle molasses flavor than brown sugar. It gets its name from the part of the sugar-making process in which raw cane is spun in a turbine. It's often sprinkled on top of scones, cookies, and other baked goods to add crunch.
Corn Syrup: Available in light and dark varieties, corn syrup is created by combining cornstarch with an enzyme that converts the starch to sugar. Corn syrup adds moisture and smoothness to baked goods. Dark corn syrup is a mixture of light corn syrup and a darker syrup produced during the refining of sugar; it's often used in pecan pie fillings to provide a deeper flavor. Light corn syup has a more neutral flavor.
Maple Syrup: Boiled-down sap from the sugar maple tree has been used as a sweetener for hundreds of years. It adds moistrue and a unique flavor to cakes, cookies, and frostings. It's available in different grades–the lighter the color, the milder the flavor. Whichever you buy, be sure the label says "pure maple syrup"; syrups labeled "maple flavored" are usually a mix of corn syrup and artificial maple flavoring.
Honey: Honey has an intense sweetness, but the flavor is determined by the source of the flower nectar. In general, the darker the honey, the stronger the flavor. Like corn syrup, honey adds moisture to cakes and cookies. Unlike corn syrup, which has a fairly neutral flavor, honey adds a distinctive flavor. Be sure to taste the honey before you use it. Intensely flavored honey may overwhelm more delicate baked goods.
Molasses: Molasses is a by-product of sugar refining. Boiling the juices extracted from sugarcane and sugar beets transforms them into a syrup from which sugar crystals are extracted; the liquid left behind is molasses. Dark molasses is darker, thicker, stronger in flavor, and less sweet than light molasses, which, as its name implies, is light in both color and flavor.