A Home Baker’s Guide

There are many different types of sugar available for baking, and it can all be a bit confusing and overwhelming. Let’s take a look at the most common types of sugar and their uses in baking. Whether you’re a beginner baker or a seasoned expert, read on for all you need to know about sugars for baking!

Baker's Guide to Sugars bakeorbreak.com
types of sugar
Assorted types of sugar

If you were to send an extra-terrestrial to the grocery store and tell them to bring back sugar, it might not be enough instruction. When you think of sugar you most likely imagine white granulated sugar, but there are a several types of sugar available in most grocery stores. These sugars vary in texture, flavor, and color. Depending on what you’re making, choosing the right sugar can be mission-critical. 

A question I get asked frequently is, “Can I use less sugar in this recipe?”.

A common misconception about sugar is that its only role in baking is to add sweetness to a recipe. Sugar actually does a whole lot more in baking than most people know. In fact, reducing or substituting the sugar can create unexpected adverse results in your baking!

Let’s dive into the function of sugar in baking!

Quick disclaimer: this post is intended to give insight into the science of sugar’s role in baking. It is not intended to serve as a guide for people who must reduce sugar intake due to medical diagnoses or for weight loss. Here at Handle the Heat, we use sugar, dairy, eggs, and wheat in the majority of our recipes and fully believe dessert is an important part of enjoying life!

Colored Sugar
Colored Sugar

Sugar, in one form or another is the most used sweetener in a bakery.  It is used not only for sweetening, but as a tenderizer, moisturizer and for contributing brown color and a caramelized or baked flavor.  

Sugars can be dry powders consisting of fructose, sucrose, glucose, maltose and lactose.

Liquid syrups include, honey, invert sugar, corn syrup, molasses, sorghum, maple syrup, and golden syrup.

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While used for sweetening, sugar also provides many functions including their hygroscopic properties which simply means their ability to attract and hold water.

Though it’s tempting to cut sugar from baking recipes, it plays an essential role. Find out everything you need to know about sugar, including what it is, the different types of sugar used in baking, what it does, and tips and tricks for reducing the sugar in baking, if need be.

Different types of sugar used in baking (in granular and syrup forms) in mini prep bowls to show differences in texture, colour, and thickness of syrups.

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Beyond providing sweetness and body to recipes, sugar has several other functionalities in baking goods. Learn more about the function of sugar in baking through a variety of applications.

  • In baking, sugar is used in crystalized and liquid forms. Crystalized sugar is available in a wide range of particle sizes. These sizes range from granulated powdered, baker’s special or superfine, extra fine, and sanding sugars. The particle size to use will depend on the baking application.

  • Ever heard the sound of bread crackling? Sugar is a part of creating that sound in bread as it acts as a tenderizer during mixing. It absorbs water and slows the development of gluten strands, giving bread a tender crumb texture and good volume.

  • Cookies and cakes are always a delicious treat for any occasion. Both of course involve using sugar and the creaming method which aids in creating the volume and texture desired.

  • Eggs have many functions in baked goods. Eggs provide structure, leavening, tenderizing, color, and flavor. The coagulation of egg protein aids in building the structure of cakes, cookies, muffins, and quick breads.

  • In its most basic form, candies are made of two ingredients: sugar and water. Different candies are produced by manipulating the proportion of the ingredients in the formula, and the crystallization of sugar during the process. The concentration of sugar in cooked syrup is key to create different types of candy. The more water a syrup has, the softer the candy produced will be.

  • Fruits contain essential vitamins, minerals, fiber and sugar. Aside from sugar giving fruits its flavor, it also contributes to the firmness, color, and mouthfeel.

  • In frozen desserts, sugar functions to balance flavors and mouth-feel. Since low temperatures tend to numb the taste buds, sugar acts to enhance flavors, thereby eliminating the need for additional flavor ingredients.

sugar cubes

If you’re starting a baking project and getting your ingredients together, you probably don’t even need to look at the recipe before reaching for the sugar. Pretty much every dessert uses at least one type of sugar and often combines multiple varieties. It’s so essential to our conception of baking that some desserts, like sugar cookies, are seemingly designed as pure sugar delivery vehicles, and we love them for it.

As The Washington Post points out, this ingredient’s importance in baking seems self-evident. The whole point of many baked goods is to deliver something sweet, and sugar makes things sweet. What more could you ask of it? But just thinking of it and its sweetness only undersells this fundamental ingredient of your baked goods that actually changes their entire nature. Dropping the sugar content of your cake to make it a little healthier will not just make it less sweet. Sugar is actually more important than you think in almost every aspect of baking.

Sugar boosts baked goods’ flavor and changes their structure

sliced cake with strawberries

Like salt, sugar combines with the flavor of other ingredients and makes them more pronounced (via The Washington Post). It also tends to balance out other taste sensations like bitterness, making each bite more well-rounded beyond just being sweeter. It’s the same reason people tell you to add a pinch of sugar to your tomato sauce or why milk chocolate has such a strong flavor compared to dark. According to Serious Eats, this is because sugar — white sugar especially — is basically pure sucrose, a neutral form of sweetness that does not overpower other flavors.

Sugar’s chemical nature means it retains water, which keeps your baked goods moist and ensures they stay longer as they sit on the counter (via Kitchn). That reaction also inhibits the formation of gluten, which you might not want in bread, but is positive in cakes and pastries where you want more tenderness. If all that wasn’t enough, this ingredient helps with browning, too, through the Maillard reaction, adding not just a beautiful crispy finish to croissants and cookies but a nice little boost of caramelized flavor. So while you may be tempted to cut down on the sugar in your baking next time, just remember the cascading effects it can have on the finished product beyond the sweetness.

Substitutions with sugar

Use the weight not the volume

Because the size of the particles and crystals varies so greatly from fondant sugar to coarse sugar, replacing one sugar for another is tricky. You will need to consider weight, not volume, to make substitutions without having an impact on flavour.

Consult the baking ingredients conversion chart to see for yourself: 1 cup of powdered sugar weighs 125 grams, whereas 1 cup of granulated sugar weighs 200 grams. That’s a big difference. It becomes even greater as you scale up a recipe or work on larger batch sizes. If you want to substitute one type of sugar for another, use the weight as your guide. Replace them gram for gram.

Consider the texture

You need to understand the role and impact of each type of sugar in order to replace one with another. You also need to have a clear goal in mind in order to make smart substitution decisions.

Granulated sugar will give cookies a more crispy edge. Brown sugar will lead to a softer or more chewy texture. Brown sugar may reduce the spread of cookies ever so slightly. Superfine sugar will increase the spread because it dissolves into a syrup faster.

Pearl and coarse sugars like turbinado don’t dissolve readily and resist melting even at high temperatures. It would be a terrible idea to replace granulated sugar with a coarse sugar. This would make your baked goods very gritty and add a crunchy texture from undissolved sugar.

Consider the flavour difference

You also need to consider taste when swapping one sugar for another: granulated sugar is a white sugar that has no flavour except for sweetness. Muscovado sugar adds a lot of earthiness to a recipe through it’s molasses and mineral content. You may want to replace a portion of white sugar with muscovado or brown sugar, instead of all of it.

Replacing granulated sugar with maple syrup or honey in baking

  1. maple syrup and honey are both liquid. You may have to reduce the quantity of other liquids in your recipe when replacing sugar with either of these. Or if there aren’t any liquids in the recipe, increase the flour: add an extra 1 tablespoon of flour for every 60 mL (¼ cup) of maple syrup or molasses added)
  2. maple syrup is mostly sucrose, just like granulated sugar, so it’s as sweet. This means you can substitute one for the other, cup for cup.
  3. honey is sweeter than regular granulated sugar so you may need to make adjustments from the extra sweetness honey brings.

Replacing granulated sugar

  • 200 grams (1 cup) of caster sugar (also known as super fine sugar or special fine sugar)
  • 200 grams (1 cup) of brown sugar (light or dark doesn’t make a difference but these will impart some caramel colour to baked goods, as well as some extra flavour)
  • 190 mL (¾ cup) of honey
  • 250 mL (1 cup) of maple syrup

Remember that you may have to adjust liquid quantities in your recipes if baking with sugar syrups.

Brushing scones with cream and sprinkling with turbinado sugar before baking.

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What happens if you decrease the amount of sugar called for in cookies?

In sugar cookie baking, sugar works with the other ingredients to contribute sweetness, moisture, chewiness, and spread.

We recently experimented with my Soft & Chewy Sugar Cookies recipe to see the effects of decreasing the amount of sugar called for by fifty percent.

When you decrease the sugar in a cookie recipe, you won’t just get a result that’s less sweet. You’ll get cookies that are harder, drier, crumblier, and spread far less. It was also interesting to note that decreasing the sugar also yielded 1 less cookie dough ball.

Just take a look at these baking experiment results:

What sugar is

When we talk about sugar in baking, usually we are referring to sucrose. Other sugars you may hear about and use in baking include glucose, fructose, maltose, and lactose, among many others.

All sugars are carbohydrates, also called saccharides, and they can be simple or complex. Simple carbohydrates include monosaccharides and disaccharides or simple chains of sugars bound together.

Here’s a rundown of the simple sugars you will often hear about and/or use in baking:

  • Glucose, a monosaccharide with the formula C6H12O6
  • Fructose, a monosaccharide with the formula C6H12O6
  • Sucrose, a disaccharide of glucose and fructose bound together—this is what we commonly refer to as “sugar” when we bake, usually in the form of granulated white sugar
  • Maltose, a disaccharide of two glucose molecules bound together—this is the sugar in corn syrup, along with glucose
  • Lactose, a disaccharide of glucose and galactose bound together—this is the sugar in milk and dairy products that many people have trouble digesting because they lack the lactase enzyme.

Sucrose, maltose, and lactose are all examples of small oligosaccharides (made up of two sugars). Oligosaccharides can have anywhere from 2 to 10 sugars bound together in a simple chain.

Complex carbohydrates are longer chains of sugars that have a more branched or intricate structure. Complex carbohydrates fall under the polysaccharide category and are much larger than oligosaccharides. Starches are a great example of complex carbohydrates because they are longer, more complex chains of glucose molecules bound together.

Types of sugar that you use in baking from coarse sugar to superfine sugar.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the most common types of sugar for baking?

Granulated (white) sugar, brown sugar, and confectioners’ (powdered) sugar are the most common sugars used by home bakers.

Can I adjust the amount of sugar in a recipe?

You can make adjustments, but keep in mind that besides the flavor, you’re also affecting the texture, moisture level, and appearance.

What does sugar do in baking?

Sugar provides sweetness for flavor, but it also affects the texture, moisture level, browning, stability, and appearance of baked goods.

Is sugar a wet ingredient or a dry ingredient?

Sugar is dry, but it is usually treated as a wet ingredient in baking. Mixing it with other wet ingredients allows it to absorb some of that liquid so that the flour that’s added later doesn’t absorb too much liquid and create tough, dry baked goods.

What are the functions of sugar in baking?

Simply put, sugar provides a lot more than a sweet flavor in baking.

It actually contributes a moist and tender texture to many baked goods. When creamed with butter and sugar, it can also assist in leavening recipes like cakes for a light and fluffy texture. Sugar is also involved in the processes of caramelization and Maillard browning which impact both flavor and texture.

Sugar can also reduce iciness and hardness in frozen desserts and even prevent microbial growth (in some cases sugar acts as a sort of preservative!).

This is why altering the sugar in a recipe can have unexpected consequences!

Types of sugar

Granulated sugar

granulated sugar
Granulated sugar

If you only have one type of sugar in your home, it’s probably white granulated sugar. Granulated sugar can be made from sugar beets or sugar cane. During processing, the natural molasses is refined out of the sugar, leaving a clean sweet flavor. White sugar is often used for baking and sweetening beverages. It adds sweetness without introducing new flavors. 

Brown sugar

Light brown sugar
Light brown sugar

Brown sugar is essentially white sugar with the addition of cane molasses. Compared to white sugar, brown sugar is moister and has a richer flavor. The moisture makes brown sugar prone to caking, drying out, and forming clumps—to avoid this, it’s best to store it in an airtight container. Brown sugar is an excellent addition to rich baked goods with deep flavor, like banana bread. 

What’s the difference between light brown sugar and dark brown sugar?

The terms “light” and “dark” refer to the molasses content of brown sugar. Dark brown sugar has more molasses and will have an even more intense flavor. 

Turbinado sugar

Turbinado sugar
Turbinado sugar

Turbinado is a coarse sugar with large crystals. It’s partially refined and retains some natural molasses, which gives it a light brown color. If you’ve ever used a package of Sugar in the Raw at a coffee shop, that’s turbinado sugar. Turbinado can be used to sweeten drinks, or as a crunchy topping on baked goods. Turbinado can also be used as a substitute for white or brown sugar in baking.

Demerara sugar

Similar to turbinado, demerara is a coarse, partially refined sugar. It retains some natural molasses, which gives it a light brown color and rich flavor. Compared to Turbinado, demerara crystals are slightly smaller, but demerara works in many of the same recipes. This coarse, crunchy sugar is an excellent topping for baked goods.

Powdered sugar

powdered sugar
Powdered sugar

Powdered sugar, also known as confectioners’ sugar, is chemically the same as granulated sugar, but the crystals have been pulverized into a fine, fluffy powder. This fine texture makes it a good choice for creating smooth, silky frosting or for dusting over cakes and doughnuts. Roll cookie dough in powdered sugar to create a crinkle cookie with its own icing baked right on. 

Superfine sugar

Superfine sugar, or caster sugar, is chemically the same as granulated sugar, but the grains are much smaller. If a recipe calls for superfine sugar, you can replicate the effect by whipping granulated sugar in a blender. The crystal size is important for baking, small particles of superfine sugar dissolve quickly in recipes.

Muscovado sugar

Muscovado sugar

Muscovado sugar is a very lightly refined sugar. It may look like brown sugar, but its brown color is natural. Instead of molasses being added back in, muscovado retains its natural molasses.

Now that you’re stocked up on sugar, it’s time to get cooking. Try our recipe for chewy ginger cookies.

Sugar is a Wet Ingredient

Well, it’s really a dry ingredient. But for the purposes of baking, sugar is a wet ingredient. The thing that makes the differentiation here is that sugar is hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs water from its surrounding environment. Mixing it with other wet ingredients lets it absorb some of that liquid. Then, the flour doesn’t grab hold of too much of the liquid and go crazy making gluten, which can lead to tough, dry baked goods.

granulated sugar, light brown sugar, dark brown sugar, and confectioners' sugar in small wooden bowls

Brown Sugars

Brown Sugar, Dark and Light – Brown sugar is the less refined version of granulated sugar in which some of the molasses has been retained.  Less molasses is retained in light brown sugar than in dark brown sugar. It can also be granulated sugar to which molasses has been added back.  Brown sugar is more difficult to measure correctly by volume.  If measuring this way, always pack the cup.  The most accurate way to measure is by weight.  One cup of either brown sugar weighs 200 grams.  Either brown sugar is also low enough pH for it to be deemed slightly acidic and will activate baking soda when the two are combined.  

Demerara Sugar is raw sugar than has been nominally refined.  It has large grains, is amber colored and has a subtle molasses flavor.  It is often used for topping muffins and scones.

Turbinado Sugar is also minimally refined raw sugar made after the molasses has been spun off from the sugar,.  As a result, the crystals are large and golden.  Turbinado sugar is finer than Demerara sugar and often used in tea and coffee.

Muscavado Sugar is also known as Barbados sugar is a robust, least refined raw cane sugar in which all of the molasses is retained.  It comes in a dark and light version with a rich, intense flavor.   Muscavado sugar has a wet, sandy texture and has a stronger taste than regular brown sugar due to the increased molasses. Light muscovado sugar is about one sixth molasses, and dark about one third molasses.  It retains the most complex sweetness including the butterscotch flavors in candies and puddings.   

What Sugar Does in Baking

Sugar is a key ingredient in baking for several reasons, not just for adding sweetness. First, sugar helps to tenderize baked goods by slowing down gluten production. This process also makes baked goods more moist and gives them a softer texture.

How often have you mixed sugar with softened butter? Lots, right? That process is called creaming and serves to incorporate air into the mixture, creating little air pockets that expand while baking. That means your baked goods rise nicely.

Sugar also plays an important role in the browning of baked goods. When sugar is heated, it caramelizes and creates the desirable brown color on the surface of many baked goods. You may have heard this referred to as the Maillard reaction.

In addition, sugar serves as a stabilizer in beaten egg foams. When you’re beating egg whites for a meringue or a foam cake, the addition of sugar helps the eggs hold air bubbles so that the end result is a stiffer, more stable foam.

Now that we know what sugar does in baking, let’s take a look at the different types of sugar available to home bakers.

Types of sugar to bake with

We can divide the sugars we bake with in two big categories: crystallized sugars and the sugars that are in the forms of syrups.

Crystalline sugars

Most sugars crystallize when they are refined and purified. Some sugars are pure sucrose, while others may contain molasses, starches, or other ingredients. The colour differs depending on how pure they are, as does the size of the crystal (which also varies depending on the process).

White sugar

  • Pearl sugar resembles rocks of white sugar. It’s so coarse and big that it doesn’t melt readily when heated, nor does it dissolve as easily as other sugars. Pearl sugar is used to sprinkle on baked goods before baking, especially chouquettes (made of pâte à choux) and brioche buns (like this chocolate cranberry bread)
  • Coarse sugar is finer than pearl sugar, but the crystals are still quite large. 700 to 1400 µM
  • Sanding sugar is used as a finishing sugar, like sprinkles.
  • Granulated sugar 450 to 650 µM
  • Superfine sugar is especially useful for making meringues and pavlova because the finer crystals dissolve more readily in the egg whites, leading to a better texture of meringue with more lift. Superfine may also be labelled as ultrafine sugar. 150 to 450 µM,
  • Caster’s sugar (same as superfine sugar)
  • Powdered sugar (also called icing sugar or confectioner’s sugar) is sold in two forms, 6X and 10X, where 6X is more coarse than 10X. Both are much finer and more powdery than caster, superfine, and granulated sugar. Powdered sugar is mixed with up to 3 % cornstarch or tapioca starch before packaging. The starch absorbs moisture and reduces clumping. 10 to 40 µM
  • Fondant sugar is an even finer form of powdered sugar and has the finest grain on the list of sugars. Fondant sugar doesn’t usually have a starch added to avoid the starchy mouthfeel powdered sugar may give. It’s often used for glazes and therefore may have maltodextrin to improve shine in donut glazes or 3–10 % invert sugar added to help glaze adhere without running off (like on donuts).

On this list, anything more coarse than powdered sugar will have a grittier texture. That texture may reveal itself in your baked goods. Think of shortbread made with icing sugar versus granulated sugar: using granulated sugar leads to a more gritty texture.

The coarsest sugars are not usually incorporated into baked goods. Instead, they are used as a garnish or finishing element. They are sprinkled on just before baking on the surface of doughs, usually. So pearl sugar, turbinado sugar, and sanding sugars are a garnish, as a rule.

Superfine sugar has a much finer texture than granulated sugar (also called special fine sugar).
Superfine sugar has a finer texture than granulated sugar (also called caster sugar).

Note that jam sugar would fall under this category of white sugars, but jam sugar is made of superfine sugar plus pectin. You use this type of sugar to ensure jams made with low-pectin fruit will achieve the perfect set. Of course, if you boil jams for long enough and to a high enough temperature, you will hit the jam setting point regardless of the pectin content of the fruit. For this reason, I feel like using jam sugar isn’t critical or necessary.

Containers of light and dark brown sugar to show the difference in colour.
Containers of light and dark brown sugar to show the difference in colour.

Brown sugar

There’s a very common misconception about brown sugar: many bakers think it is less refined than white sugar because of its golden-brown hues. That’s false. Most brown sugars are white sugar mixed with a little molasses, to add back some of the colour and flavour lost during processing. This is an easier way for manufacturers to create a consistent product from one batch to another. The exception is muscovado, as you can see on this list of brown sugars:

  • Yellow, golden or light brown sugar are lighter and more golden in colour, as the names suggest, and have a milder flavour.
  • Dark brown sugar has more molasses added to it and therefore a more pronounced flavour. It works really well in these chocolate chip cookies with pecans, lending them a more complex flavour than white sugar alone can
  • Muscovado sugar is less refined than dark brown sugars. For this reason, you may notice it has a more noticeable flavour, perhaps a little more earthy.
  • Coconut sugar is made from the sap of flower buds of coconut palm trees. It is very dark in colour and has a very pronounced flavour that can be overpowering. Like maple syrup, the sap is boiled down to concentrate it. The concentrated syrup is then crystallized.
Three bowls of brown sugar to show the difference between light brown sugar (lightest in colour), dark brown sugar (medium in colour), and muscovado sugar (the darkest in colour).
Light brown sugar compared to dark brown sugar and muscovado sugar, which is the darkest of the three.

You can replace any of the brown sugars in this category for another in the same category, gram for gram, and cup for cup. But remember that some of these are much more flavourful than others, so make sure the substitution you are making is appropriate for the result you want in terms of colour and flavour.

Three bowls of sugars to show the difference between turbinado sugar (also called demerara sugar) with golden medium crystals, cane sugar (golden fine crystals), and granulated sugar (fine white crystals).
Coarse turbinado sugar compared to golden cane sugar and regular granulated sugar which is the whitest of the three.

Raw sugar

Marketers will claim raw sugar is less refined. It is still refined up to a point in order for it to crystallize and taste good. These sugars generally haven’t been decolourized:

  • Turbinado sugar: a coarse golden crystalline sugar with large crystals
  • Demerara Sugar: popular in the UK and similar to turbinado
  • Golden cane sugar (also called evaporated cane juice or natural cane sugar): similar to granulated sugar but slightly less refined.

Turbinado and demerara sugars fall under the category of finishing sugars. You use them to garnish baked goods, like the top crust of a pie before baking, or the outer edge of a log of slice-and-bake cookie dough.

This type of granular, coarse sugar doesn’t melt as easily as regular granulated sugar and therefore imparts more texture if you use it in doughs or cakes. For this reason, it isn’t recommended in most recipes, except as a textural and visual garnish.

You can use golden cane sugar instead of granulated sugar, replacing one for the other, gram for gram.

Syrups and liquid sugars

Liquid sugars have water in them, which is why they aren’t crystalline. Over time, many of these may and will crystallize, creating a gritty texture. Crystallization is most common in honey and maple syrup, though you may observe it in glucose too, which becomes more solid with time.

  • Honey—bees produce honey, which beekeepers harvest. The bees eat flower nectar, digesting the sucrose in it, “inverting it” with their saliva to the building blocks, glucose and fructose. Honey is more acidic than other sugars, with a pH around 3.5, minimum.
  • Maple syrup is sucrose syrup that comes from the sap of the maple tree during late winter and early spring months. Maple producers collect the fluid, watery sap of maple trees and boil it down to form a syrup. Producers grade maple syrup and label it according to how concentrated the product is and the colour ranges from very light to amber and even dark (almost black).
  • Corn syrup (light or dark), also called glucose corn syrup is mostly glucose and maltose. It’s made from the hydrolysis of starches (complex carbohydrates of glucose molecules). The flavour of light and dark corn syrup is different and therefore used in different circumstances.
    • Light corn syrup is flavoured with vanillin
    • Dark syrup has a very small amount of molasses.
  • Glucose syrup is a colourless syrup that is very viscous and therefore hard to handle. Professional pastry chefs will wet a spoon with water to help remove glucose from a big tub, without having it pull and form strings that stick everywhere. Glucose is clear and colourless but will darken with time. The colour doesn’t affect it. Glucose syrup will also become thicker and even dry out or crystallize if stored for a long time. Glucose syrup comes from starch: starch molecules are long chains of glucose molecules bound together and hydrolyzing starch breaks down the chain into the monosaccharide building block that is glucose.
  • Molasses is a produced in the early stages of sugar cane refinement. It is a dark (practically black), thick, sweet, slightly bitter syrup, mostly made of sucrose. It’s made by concentrating sugarcane juice
  • Treacle is a syrup made during the sugar cane refinement process.
    • Black treacle is another type of molasses.
    • Golden syrup is also called light treacle and it is a cane syrup, but much lighter in colour than black treacle and molasses (as the name suggests). Golden syrup has a milder, very light taste. It’s also known as pancake syrup.

Fun fact: invert sugars are sweeter than the sugars they come from. For example honey (an invert sugar syrup made of glucose and fructose) is sweeter than sucrose. If you think about it a little, it makes sense because the bees turn one sucrose molecule into two sugars, so logically you would expect the product with two monosaccharides to be sweeter than the nectar with a single disaccharide.

Chocolate cranberry brioche buns proofed, brushed with egg and sprinkled with coarse sugar, and ready to be baked.
Sprinkling pearl sugar over chocolate and cranberry bread before baking to add a crunchy sweet texture to the surface of the buns.

What Happens When You Change the Amount of Sugar in a Recipe

Sugar is a key ingredient in baking and its effects can be seen in many aspects of the finished product. The amount of sugar used in a recipe will affect the taste, texture, color, and shelf life of baked goods.

So as you might guess, altering the amount of sugar in a recipe can have many effects beyond just the sweetness level.

If you want to make a sweeter baked good, you can simply add more sugar to the recipe. This will also make the baked good more moist and tender. However, too much sugar can make a baked good overly sweet and can cause it to brown too quickly.

If you want to make a less sweet baked good, you can reduce the amount of sugar in the recipe. This will also result in a drier, tougher baked good. Too little sugar can also make a baked good dense and gummy.

Sugar Retains Moisture

Retaining moisture can be good or bad, depending upon what is being baked.  While desirable in cakes, muffins, quick breads, scones, etc., it can ruin meringue.

The hygroscopic nature of sugar increases the softness and moistness in baked goods.  It can also postpone drying out.  Syrups such as invert syrup, honey, and high fructose corn syrup add more moistness and prevent drying out longer than dry sugars.

Baking with Sugar

There’s a reason sugar is one of the main ingredients in baking – it does a lot! Let’s take a look at what sugar does in baking and how to use it to get the best results. We’ll also discuss different types of sugar and their uses. So, if you’re curious about sugar and its effects on baked goods, keep reading!

Before we get started, please know that this information is geared toward traditional bakers like me. While there are many specialty sugars as well as sugar alternatives for special diets, I have very little first-hand knowledge of or experience with them. Let’s look at the most common types of sugar and their uses in baking.


If stored properly, the shelf-life of sugar is forever, meaning it won’t spoil or go bad.

For syrups with water, storage varies:

  • maple syrup must be stored in the refrigerator to slow the growth of mold and yeast cells
  • glucose syrup shouldn’t be refrigerated because it may crystallize. You may notice corn syrup or glucose will start to turn golden with age, but this has no impact on its properties. If this happens, you may not want to use it in a recipe where it could impart an undesired colour though.
  • honey doesn’t have to be refrigerated because of its acidity combined with a high concentration of sugar, it’s not going to mold. You may notice it crystallize over time, but the sugar can be redissolved with gentle heating.
Two bowls of honey for comparison: crystallized honey which is more opaque and with visible sugar crystals suspended, and liquid honey which is fluid, thick, and golden in colour.
Honey that started to crystallize is opaque, thicker, and lighter in colour compared to liquid honey that is clear and darker in colour.

How to Measure Sugar

When measuring sugar, it’s important to use the right type of measuring cups. Despite the fact that we consider sugar to be a wet ingredient for mixing purposes, it’s measured as a dry ingredient.

I prefer to measure sugar by weight and wholeheartedly recommend that method, but you can also measure with a measuring cup if you don’t have a scale. Be sure to use dry measuring cups to measure granulated sugar, brown sugar, and confectioners’ sugar.

The measurements of sugar are a bit more forgiving than that of other ingredients like flour. For granulated sugar and confectioners’ sugar, you can spoon it into a measuring cup and level the top. Brown sugar, however, usually needs to be firmly packed into the measuring cup. You can use the back of a spoon to pack as you measure.

dark and light muscovado sugars, demerara sugar, and turbinado sugar in wooden bowls
Dark and light muscovado sugars, demerara sugar, and turbinado sugar

White Sugars

Granulated sugar is a highly-refined, multi-purpose sugar made from sugar cane, sugar beets, or a combination of the two. It has had all of the naturally present molasses refined out of it.  Considered a pure sugar, it has been crystallized and centrifuged then sent through a granulator where the crystals are dried, separated, and screened.  It is the sugar most commonly used in baking.  

Baker’s Sugar – is granulated sugar that is more finely ground, also referred to as superfine sugar, ultra-fine sugar or caster sugar.  It is used professionally because it dissolves more easily in recipes and is particularly good for meringues and creaming butter and sugar together.  

Caster Sugar – see Baker’s sugar as it is the same thing.  The name caster sugar is used in Great Britain and it present or former colonies. 

Confectioners sugar is also referred to as powdered sugar . 10X powdered sugar is the most finely powdered.  It is used for dusting desserts,  frostings, icings, and candy because it provides a smooth consistency. Because it dissolves so easily, it is often used in beverages.  Confectioners sugar or powdered sugar contains about 3% cornstarch to prevent it from clumping.  

Swedish Pearl Sugar consists of thick, white, opaque, white sugar that retains its shape under the heat of the oven.  It is used for decoration as well as texture and taste particularly in Scandinavian baking. 

Belgiun Pearl Sugar is the same as Swedish Pearl Sugar but is larger.  It is used extensively with Liege Waffles.

Sanding Sugar is used for decoration reflecting light so as to sparkle.  It comes in colors as well as clear with large crystal that hold up well to the heat of the oven.  

Coarse Sugar has larger crystals than sanding sugar but is used for decoration also.

Sugar Cubes consist of granulated sugar that has been compressed into small squares.  In the past it was used to sweeten tea.  Often, flowers or other designs were painted on them.

Donut Sugar or Snow Sugar is a specially developed powdered sugar that will not dissolve or melt on baked items. It can be used for decorating donuts, breakfast pastries, fruit tarts, cakes and cookies. This is especially necessary when finishing something that is moist because this sugar will stay white and powdered.  It can also finish a frozen product and now melt when thawed. Other names by which it is known are White Snow Sugar, Non-Melting White Donut Sugar, Non-Melting Powdered sugar and Snow White Non-Melting Topping Sugar.

What happens if you increase the amount of sugar called for in cookies?

Sugar is so essential to many baking recipes! I almost never advise reducing the sugar in a recipe unless you’re willing to alter the taste, texture, and appearance. If you find your baking is just too sweet, it may be that you need to add more salt or use the right kind of salt or balance with ingredients that lend bitterness or acidity.

Have you ever experimented with reducing the sugar in baking? What was the end result?

If you’re interested in learning more about the science of cookie baking, grab a copy of my top selling cookbook The Ultimate Cookie Handbook. In addition to containing 50 of my best cookie recipes, the entire first section of the book is dedicated to the VISUAL science of baking!! It’s a culinary school education and cookie bible all in one. Order your cookbook HERE!

Provides Brown Color

While brown sugars and syrups naturally provide a darker color to baked goods, most sweeteners contribute brown color through the process of caramelization and Maillard browning.  Cooked sugar has a caramelized taste.  The flavors of Maillard browning are diverse including roasted coffee and cocoa beans, roasted nuts, maple syrup and molasses.  

Browning occurs when sugars are heated to a high temperature.  Maillard browning is similar but proteins, in addition to the sugars, take part in browning faster and at a lower temperature.  Because of the increased protein in bread flour, products made with it will brown faster than those made with all-purpose, pastry or cake flour.

Further reading

If you are interested in diving deep into sugar and the science of baking, please read How Baking Works by Paula Figoni, a book that I have included in my list of best baking science books and references.

What is sugar?

In most baking recipes, you’ll find sugar either in the form of granulated (white) sugar, brown sugar, or powdered (confectioners’ sugar).

These are considered refined sugar products and are typically made by processing sugar beets or sugar cane into pure sucrose (the chemical name for sugar). There are other chemical forms of sugar, such as fructose (fruit sugar) and lactose (milk sugar).

Sugar is simply a carbohydrate.

Quick tip: learn to make your own brown sugar here!

Liquid Sugars

Sweeteners such as corn syrup, invert syrups, honey, and molasses prevent moisture loss and also help prevent sugar crystallization.  These sweeteners make soft, moist baked goods.

Honey comes in many flavors depending upon where the bees are.  It is used as a sweetener in baking and to finish desserts such as baklava.  

Molasses, Dark & Light is a thick, dark syrup made by boiling and reducing sugar cane which produces sugar crystals and molasses.  There are usually three cycles with each cycle yielding a darker and more bitter syrup.  It also comes in mild, the first extraction and dark which is the second.  Black strap molasses is the third and the most intense and bitter.  

Sorghum syrup was introduced into the south in the early 17th century from Africa with the slave traffic.  It has a thinner consistency than molasses and was often used as a drizzle on cakes, biscuits and bread.

Maple Syrup has multiple which vary in flavor and thickness.  It is used for both sweet and savory applications including as a flavoring for pies and cookies. 

Corn Syrup is made from the starch of corn and contains varying amounts of sugars.  It is used in foods to soften texture, add volume, and prevent crystallization of sugar.  It come in a clear variety that is enhanced with salt and vanilla and the dark corn syrup that contains molasses. 

Golden syrup is a translucent, golden-amber colored, sweet syrup, which was created in London in the 1880s. It is made from white sugar which has been inverted, meaning that the sucrose has been broken down into two simpler sugars, fructose and glucose.   Beautifully golden, hence it’s name is has a light caramel flavor.  It is used where honey or corn syrup is used and as a syrup over pancakes, waffles, ice cream, etc.  (I can eat this by the spoonful all by itself.)

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Additional Functions

Sugar assists in leavening because there is air between the irregularly shaped crystals.  When dry sugar is added to batters and doughs, air is added.  Air is a leavening agent.  

Stabalizes Eggs.   Beating egg whites, yolks or whole eggs with sugar makes them less likely to collapse.  Think angel food, sponge, genoise and anytime butter and sugar or sugar and eggs are beaten until light.  The light color is the air that is beaten in.  That air expands in the heat of the oven and causes the product to rise.

In the case of meringue cookies or pavlova where egg whites are beaten with sugar to stiff peaks, they are dried out in the oven rather than baked at low temperatures to keep them from expanding and cracking.  

Sugar provides food for yeast helping it grow faster.  Often times, even in breads,itis added to help the yeast along without simply adding more yeast.  

Reduce the iciness and harshness in frozen desserts by lowering the freezing point and holding onto the water preventing ice crystals.

Prevents Microbial Growth at high levels by lowering the water activity which is why the yeast in rich, sweet doughs rise more slowly than lean doughs.

Adds sheen to icings.  Syrups, in particular add a glossy sheen to icings and ganache which is why corn syrup is often an ingredient.

Promotes Crisp Crust on Some Baked Goods.  When moisture evaporates during baking, a crisp crust will form. Sugar promotes this crispiness as it recrystallizes during cooling.  This is particularly noticeable in cookie, brownies and pound cake recipes high in sugar and low in moisture. 

Spread in Cookies.  The more dissolved sugar in the cookies, the more the cookies will spread.  The finer it is, , the more they will spread.  Although powdered sugar is a finer grind, the cornstarch helps prevents the spread of cookies. 

Sugars for Sugar - The Sweetest Part of Baking
Starting at 12:00 position Muscavado, Demerara, Sanding, Light Brown Sugar, Swedish Pearl Sugar, Dark Brown Sugar, Turbinado, Granulated sugar.

Frequently asked questions

Are demerara and brown sugar the same?

Demerara and brown sugar are not the same thing. Demerara sugar is raw sugar, and may have a rather coarse, crystalline texture, whereas brown sugar is white sugar with molasses added to it to create a coloured sugar with some flavour. Because demerara has a more coarse texture, it is better suited for garnishing the top crust of pies or the outer edge of a roll of slice-and-bake cookies

Are brown sugar and muscovado the same thing?

Brown sugar and muscovado sugar are quite similar, though made through different processes. Brown sugar is white sugar that is mixed with molasses to impart a colour and flavour to the product. On the other hand, muscovado is a less refined sugar and therefore has slightly more nutrients and a more earthy, less bland flavour. You can easily replace one with the other in most baking recipes. Note that muscovado is darker than light brown sugar and even dark brown sugar, so therefore may impart more colour to baked goods.

Can I use blackstrap molasses instead of baking molasses or fancy molasses?

Blackstrap molasses doesn’t have the same flavour as fancy molasses (also called baking molasses). Baking molasses is milder and more appropriate for sweet recipes, whereas blackstrap molasses has a more earthy, savoury quality. These two types of molasses cannot be interchanged without making other adjustments to a recipe.

Recipes made with different types of sugar

Recipes made with molasses

Recipes made with dark brown sugar

Dark brown sugar contributes to a chewy texture in cookies and a richer flavour. Here are some baking recipes that feature dark brown sugar:

Recipes made with maple syrup

If you are interested in baking more with maple syrup, try these maple recipes:

Recipes made with honey

Honey gives baked goods a distinct flavour. If you’d like to bake more with honey, try these recipes:

Recipes made with icing sugar

Icing sugar is essential in many frostings and glazes, but also used for decor in pastry. Here are some recipes that feature icing sugar:

  • jam-filled shortbread cookies
  • royal icing for decorating cutout cookies
  • alfajores filled with dulce de leche

Recipes made with treacle

Treacle is darker and has a more pronounced flavour than molasses nad honey. Here are some recipes baked with treacle:

Other Types of Sugar

In addition to the basics, there are some other types of sugar you may encounter in your baking adventures.

overhead view of granulated sugar, superfine sugar, and confectioners' sugar in wooden bowls
From top: granulated sugar, superfine sugar, and confectioners’ sugar

Superfine Sugar

Superfine sugar, or caster sugar, is the same as granulated sugar except that the sugar crystals are very small. The small size of the crystals allows this kind of sugar to dissolve more easily. It is used frequently in delicate baked goods, such as mousses and meringues.

You can also make your own superfine sugar from granulated sugar. Learn how to do that here: How to Make Superfine Sugar

overhead view of sanding sugar in a small wooden bowl
Sanding sugar

Sanding Sugar

Next up is sanding sugar, a granulated white sugar also known as coarse sugar or sparkling sugar. The crystals of sanding sugar are larger than other white sugars. It is most often not mixed into a batter or dough, but is used instead as a garnish. This type of sugar can be sprinkled on baked goods just before they go into the oven.

Because of their size, the crystals will generally not melt while in the oven. The large crystals will give baked goods a sparkling appearance because of the way light is reflected off the crystals. Sanding sugar is also available in various colors for decorating baked goods.

This is one of my baking pantry staples, as I love to add a sprinkle of this coarse sugar to baked goods before they go into the oven. It adds a bit of sparkle and an extra bite of sweetness that complements many recipes. In particular, it’s a great addition to muffins and quick breads.

overhead view of granulated sugar and cane sugar in small wooden bowls
From top: granulated sugar and cane sugar

Cane sugar

Cane sugar is minimally processed exclusively from sugarcane. Its grains are a bit larger and darker than granulated sugar. It can generally be used as you would use granulated sugar.

overhead view of turbinado sugar and demerara sugar in small wooden bowls
From top: turbinado sugar and demerara sugar

Turbinado Sugar

Turbinado sugar is a type of raw sugar that has been partially refined. It is brown in color and has a large, coarse grain. Unlike brown sugar, its flavor leans more toward caramel than molasses. It can be used in lots of baking recipes (like these Banana Nut Muffins), and it also can be used like sanding sugar to add a sweet topping to your baked goods.

Demerara Sugar

Demerara sugar is a type of minimally processed brown sugar that has a large, coarse grain. It is dark brown in color and has a light molasses flavor. While it looks similar to turbinado sugar, it is larger and stickier with a stronger flavor. It is most often used in baking as a topping, like sanding sugar.

overhead view of light and dark muscovado sugars in small wooden bowls
From top: light and dark muscovado sugar

Muscovado Sugar

Muscovado sugar, or Barbados sugar, is a type of brown sugar that is made from unrefined sugar cane. It’s available in light and dark varieties, and has quite a strong molasses flavor. Technically, it can be used much like brown sugar, but the flavor is much, much stronger.

overhead view of pearl sugar in a small wooden bowl
Pearl sugar

Pearl Sugar

Used similarly to sanding sugar, pearl sugar is a type of coarse sugar that is used to decorate the tops of cakes, cookies, and other desserts. It is white in color and has a hard texture. Unlike sanding sugar, the pieces are bigger and crunchier. It also doesn’t melt at high temperatures, so it holds its shape through the baking process.

The many roles of sugar in baking

Sugar plays many roles in baking and some of them are hard to replace if you want to make a subsititution or eliminate sugar from your recipes:

  • Adds flavour and sweetness
  • Tenderizes
  • Retains moisture
  • Improves shelf-life
  • Contributes colour
  • Helps aerate
Two chocolate chip cookies side by side, one is made with only granulated sugar so thinner, lighter and more spread out, the other is baked with only brown sugar so thicker, darker, brown colour


Sugar can impart a flavour to baked goods because:

  • the sugar itself is flavourful: for example maple syrup, honey, and coconut sugar have very distinct flavours and these will come through when you bake with them instead of granulated sugar
  • the sugar caramelizes when heated, developing flavourful compounds so even white sugar can contribute a flavour if it’s heated for long enough.

Think of adding sugar, not only to impart sweetness, but also to contribute flavour. Use different types of sugar in your recipes to give a more complex flavour to baked goods.

Sponge cake split into two equal layers.
A hot milk cake is made by whipping eggs and sugar until tripled in volume. The combination of egg proteins and sugar allows you to incorporate a ton of air into this cake batter from the first stages of mixing.


Sugar disrupts gluten formation when they dissolve. Adding sugar to baked goods means that the proteins that make up gluten are less likely to assemble and will not assemble so easily. This means your baked goods will be more tender than without.

Sugar also disrupts protein coagulation and starch gelatinization, increasing the temperature at which these structure-building activities happen. This delay leads to a more tender product.

Of course, if you add too much sugar to a recipe, it may disrupt the structure so much that your cake collapses or can cause a more crumbly texture.

On the other hand, sugar can also lend a crunchy or crispy texture in recipes like cookies. Rolling cookies in sugar can draw out moisture on the surface of the cookie. This dries them out, leading to cracks and a crunchier texture. Examples of this include these sugar cookies with sprinkles, ginger cookies, chocolate sugar cookies, and chocolate crackle cookies.

You may also sprinkle the surface of baked goods with turbinado or a coarse raw sugar before baking. This contributes a lovely sweet crunch texture to the surface of scones and biscuits, to the edges of slice and bake cookies that were rolled in sugar before slicing, and to the top crust of pies.


Sugar is hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs water from its surroundings. More sugar in a cake recipe contributes to a more moist texture and mouthfeel. By trapping water, sugar actually slows the drying out process of baked goods.

The hygroscopic nature of sugar means that it dissolves, turning into a syrup and so it contributes to cookies spreading when baked.


Sugar improves the stability and shelf-life of baked goods. Remember that sugar is hygroscopic, meaning that it absorbs moisture from its surroundings. Sugar slows drying out in baked goods, giving you more time to enjoy them before they become stale and dry.

For this reason, recipes with reduced sugar often have to compensate with more moisture and/or more fat to improve perceived moistness and mouthfeel, but also to prevent baked goods from drying out too quickly.

A collage of four images to show how to make a dry caramel, starting with granulated sugar in a saucepan (image 1), slowly melting it into a clear syrup (image 2), then caramelizing the syrup until it turns golden or amber (image 3), and then finishing with butter (image 4).
Making a dry caramel in a saucepan with granulated sugar.

Colour and caramelization

There are two ways that sugar contributes colour in baking: caramelization and Maillard browning. With caramelization, you have to heat sugar above 150 °C (300 °F) to colour and caramelize it. On the other hand, Maillard browning occurs much more readily, even at room temperature, especially in the presence of proteins and at high pH.

Tip: if you want to improve browning in baked goods that don’t take long to bake, like cookies, try adding a little baking soda! You’ll notice with my chocolate chip cookie recipe, I add 2.5 mL (½ teaspoon) of baking soda for 195 grams (1-½ cups) of flour. This not only has an impact on the spread but also the browning of the cookie.

Two chocolate chip cookies: one is more spread out and paler in colour and the other is darker and more compact.


Recall that with the creaming mixing method often used for cakes and cookies, the first step involves beating together the softened butter and sugar until light and fluffy. This takes several minutes. This is a mechanical way for bakers to incorporate air in baked goods and is one of the reasons that this step is considered a method of leavening that people often skip over.

Actually if you don’t spend enough time on this step, your baked goods may end up dense.

The same goes with meringue and egg-white based desserts. Dissolved sugar stabilizes whipped egg whites so that they can hold their shape and hold air.

Freshly churned pumpkin ice cream in a freezer drum.

Liquid Sugars

There are also a variety of liquid sugars available to home bakers. While there are lots of liquid sugar and sugar substitutes designed to be added to coffees and other drinks, let’s look at those that are used more frequently in baking.

overhead view of honey, corn syrup, and maple syrup in small glass bowls
From top: honey, light corn syrup, and maple syrup


Honey is a sweetener made by bees from the nectar of flowers. It is golden in color and has a floral flavor. There are many different types of honey available, but the simple honeys available at grocery stores will suit most baking purposes. Honey’s subtle flavor makes it a nice addition to recipes like my Currant Oat Scones and Honey Oat Rolls.


Molasses is a thick, dark syrup that is made from sugarcane or sugar beets. It has a strong flavor and is often used in recipes for gingerbread, cookies, and cakes. See my Gingerbread Cupcakes and Soft Ginger Molasses Cookies.

Corn Syrup

Corn syrup is a sweetener made from corn starch. Depending on whether it is light or dark corn syrup, it is clear or amber in color. Not to be confused with high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup is often used in recipes for candy, cookies, and cakes. It can also be added as a stabilizer to things like ganache. Most of us are likely familiar with corn syrup from baking pecan pie, but it also works well to hold together Peanut Butter Corn Flake Bars and to make a more manageable dough for Almond Spice Cookies.

Agave Nectar

Agave nectar is a sweetener made from the agave plant. It is clear or amber in color and has a mild, honey-like flavor.

Maple syrup

Maple syrup is a sweetener made from the sap of maple trees. It is amber in color and has a distinct flavor. The bold flavor makes it less common for baking, but you can let that flavor shine in recipes like Maple Nut Muffins and Maple Ginger Cookies.

The Most Common Types of Sugar

There are several types of sugar that are commonly used in baking. While they all start from the same point, differences in processing and refining create variations that make each type of sugar unique. The three most common types are granulated sugar, brown sugar, and confectioners’ sugar.

Granulated Sugar

Granulated sugar, also called white sugar or table sugar, is the most common sugar used in home baking. If a recipe simply lists “sugar” as an ingredient, granulated sugar is likely the intended sugar to be used.

Granulated sugar is made from sugar cane or sugar beets and is refined to create a white, crystalline powder. This refining process also produces molasses. Granulated sugar has been further processed to remove the molasses. It is sometimes bleached as well to make it whiter.

This type of sugar dissolves well and is often used not only in baked goods but also in frostings and fillings.

light and dark brown sugars in wooden bowls
Light and dark brown sugar

Brown Sugar

Brown sugar is a refined sugar with molasses coating the crystals. The molasses gives brown sugar its characteristic brown color and slightly sticky texture. Most modern processes for making brown sugar involve adding molasses to refined white sugar.

Confectioners’ Sugar

Confectioners’ sugar is also known as powdered sugar or icing sugar. This kind of sugar is made by grinding and sifting granulated sugar until it’s a fine powder. It also contains cornstarch to prevent the sugar from clumping. Unlike superfine sugar, which is also a finely ground sugar, confectioners’ sugar is not granulated.

This type of sugar is classified and named according to the number of times the sugar is ground. The most commonly used type by home bakers is 10X.

Confectioners’ sugar dissolves easily and is often used to make frostings, icings, and fillings. It can also be dusted on top of baked goods for decoration.

granulated sugar and brown sugar in metal measuring cups

Other roles of sugar

Sugar plays a role even in recipes that aren’t baked:

  • In ice cream, sugar traps water, reducing ice crystal formation, leading to a smoother mouthfeel and a softer texture
  • In homemade preserves, sugar
    • is essential to achieving the perfect set when making homemade jams. In fact, if you reduce the sugar in a jam recipe, you may never get the jam to set.
    • traps water thereby increasing shelf-life and preventing the growth of microorganism. Again, this is because sugar is hygroscopic and so traps water. Water is essential for microorganisms to grow, so high quantities of sugar will delay the growth of mold and bacteria.
Rubbing lemon zest into granulated sugar with fingertips in a bowl to make lemon sugar.


After the sugar is dissolved, it prevents gluten formation, protein coagulation and starch gelatinization.  Sugars delay the formation of structure and as a result they tenderize.  

The more sugar that is added, the more delayed structure formation, the more tender the baked good.  

Too little sugar in baked goods causes the structure to form too early before it can expand from the heat/steam in the oven.  The product will be compact with a peaked and cracked top with little color.

Too much sugar will result in too little structure formation and it either won’t rise or will rise but collapse as it cools.  It can cause the product to expand over the edge of a cupcake liner or pan, then collapse in the center.  

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