Lets face it-sugar is a staple in the kitchen. like onions, potatoes, flour, and eggs, it is something that every good cook needs at home. figured i could explain a bit about it and the different kinds involved. i havent always been a sugar expert, but about a year ago my pastry chef decided the sugar we were using wasnt good enough. honestly i had never thought much about it, i ordered sugar and it showed up in 50# bags. we used it, i bought more, etc. we started looking at different types, and brands rather aggressively. most of your large restaurant purveyors have companies that package products for them under their own label, just like generic brands in your local grocery store. when you start paying attention to things like sugar it doesnt take long to understand. we were seeing brown sugar that was almost greenish in color, white sugar that was not fine enough, or fine enough but, for lack of a better word "grainy". we settled on C and H, and i will never buy white, brown, or powdered in another brand in my life. it is of course a bit more expensive than your run of the mill brands but its worth it. furthermore if you hear the word sugar from my mouth, or any good chef's for that matter we are talking about cane sugar, not beet sugar, forever and always. beet sugar is just not a quality product, and has an almost dirty taste. now in my kitchen i usually lean towards brown (light) sugar for most tasks. some that you would normally use other sugars for but i am huge fan of the depth that it brings to the table. it tends to give off a slightly caramelly flavor to baked sweets, and its increased moisture doesnt hurt. in the small amount of sweet work that i do at home i havent ever come across a recipe that i cant substitute white for brown.
Brown sugar was originally a by-product of making white sugar. now in an attempt to simplify things brown sugar starts off as white sugar and is then made brown with the addition of molasses (another one of my favorites-more on this liquid amazingness at some point) if your ever in a pinch, or just want to give it a shot you can make brown sugar at home by adding 1-2 tsp of molasses to 1 cup of white sugar and then process in your food processor. the terms dark and light just have to do with the amount of molasses cut back into the sugar. dark can be a bit aggressive for me for some things so rather than buying both i stick to light in my kitchen. if you want to experience the caramelly flavor that i spoke of earlier, use brown sugar next time you whip cream at home. let a pinch of salt and some sugar dissolve in some cream for an hour or so, then whip just like you normally would. you will end up with a much more real looking color, and catch people off quard with the delicious flavor profile.
Powdered sugar is just white sugar that has been mixed with cornstarch to prevent caking. again in a food processor mix 80-90 percent sugar with the remaining as cornstarch, and you got it at home. powdered sugar is also cool because it dissolves easier than white or brown. usually you need heat and/or agitation to dissolve sugar, and you dont need that to dissolve powdered.
Professionally i see different labels of sugars that you may run in to in the grocery store. bakers special sugar is more fine than regular white sugar and not a bad bet as it seems to be easier to work with on the sweet side of the kitchen. be hesitant of the EZ pour packaging though as it is easy to pour, but much more expensive. fondant and icing sugars are for serious cake people and the rest of us should let them keep it. caster sugar will dissolve in liquid at room temp and is very fine. demmerara sugar is one step away from being white sugar in the refining process. its excellent in oatmeal, coffee, and tea. evaporated cane sugar is very similar to demmerara and i use it to sub for white sugar as well. i love it cause i can buy it organic in the bulk foods section of a few different stores i frequent, for like 70 cents a pound. i also like it because the lack of refining saves some of natural nutrients so it is a tad healthier for you. maple sugar i read takes almost 40 gallons of pure maple sap to make a pound of. i think it just happens when they take the syrup making a tad further than desired, but its fantastic and expensive. there are plenty more and all are available online if your local shopping choices are as pathetic as mine are.
on top of all of that there are some really cool ways to sweeten things that are becoming more trendy. i use agave nectar often to sweeten soda make and other sweets. its different because it actually is sweeter than sugar. molasses is great for some things as well, i do however stay away from light, dark, and high fructose corn syrup. in the end i just dont like the "refined" flavor of white sugar. even though brown is made from white. i just think there are some better options available. options that are better for you, better tasting, more versatile, and have the depth of flavor to bring your dish to another level.