One year, my son’s teacher thought it would be nice for his class to build gingerbread houses for Christmas — with gingerbread baked at home. From scratch. He sent home a recipe, and another mom and I began commiserating because we didn’t have a lot of the ingredients. At least I had brown sugar, as I told her, because I sometimes used it in baking for extra flavor. She said, “Oh, I thought the only thing different was the color.”
No, there’s more to it than color, as you’ll find out if you put brown sugar in your coffee (actually, that might taste good, but it won’t be what you’re used to). Brown sugar is less refined than white sugar, or not refined at all, and still has the color and taste of molasses. Since the sweetness and texture aren’t much different, you can try substituting brown for white in recipes, but be ready for a different taste. For example, using brown instead of white in a recipe for yellow cake will turn it into caramel cake. That’s another point about brown sugar — it tends to take over. Unless you want a dominant caramel flavor, keep it in the background by using it with strong flavors like cinnamon and chocolate (and gingerbread spices). It’s also great in homemade barbecue sauce.
But there are times you just want sweetness without any strong taste, and white sugar is perfect for that. You’ll also need it for light-colored food, like white or yellow cake.
Speaking of cake, granulated sugar, whether white or brown, is fine for the cake itself, but if you’re making your own icing you’ll usually need what’s called icing sugar — or confectioner’s sugar, or powdered sugar. Because of its finer texture, it mixes more smoothly with liquids and fats. Classic buttercream icing is just butter and powdered sugar with a touch of flavoring and maybe some liquid. You can take a shortcut by making a simple glaze of powdered sugar and milk, water, or even lemon juice. If you’re really running out of time, you can just sprinkle powdered sugar on your cake or cookies. There are icings you can make with granulated sugar, but it’s not a good idea to just substitute it for powdered sugar in a recipe. The texture does make a difference.
If you don’t have icing sugar, you can try grinding up granulated sugar in your blender or food processor until it’s powdery. (I say “try” because people have had mixed results with this.) If you’re not using the sugar right away, you can put in some cornstarch to keep it from clumping.
So, sugars are not interchangeable, and using one different from what the recipe calls for will give you a different dish. On the other hand, having different kinds of sugar around opens up lots of possibilities in your cooking.
(We ended up baking our gingerbread with the other family, and it was pretty good — what I got to taste of it.)