Sugar has become an ingredient so widely used in everyday cooking and eating that many people take it for granted. But sugar was once so costly that only the wealthy could afford this sweet luxury. Cheri Sicard shares more about sugar.

The luxury of sugar
While sugar had been cultivated in Persia and Arabia in the 4th century B.C., it never made it to the western world until the 8 th century. This early sugar bore little resemblance to the fine snowy white grains we commonly stir into our coffee cups. Instead it ranged from off-white to light brown in color and came in the form of large solid blocks that had to be chiseled to yield the sweet substance that was then ground finer with a mortar and pestle.

Using sugar is much more convenient, and it's also quite inexpensive, so there's no need to horde supplies. It's nice to know, however, that if you find a good sale on sugar, it can be stored for an indefinite period. Just keep it in a tightly sealed container in a cool, dry place.

Sugar basics
Sugar comes in so many different forms it might seem confusing. Here is a breakdown of the most common types of sugars and their uses:

White or Granulated Sugar is a highly refined cane or beet sugar. The most common and widely used form of sugar, it is also available in cube form.

Castor or Caster Sugar is white sugar with a superfine grain, which allows it to dissolve almost instantly. Caster sugar can be substituted for white sugar in a direct one to one ratio. Because it dissolves so quickly, Caster sugar is great for sweetening cold liquids and works especially well in meringues.

Coarse Sugars, or Sugar Crystals, have grains about four times the size of granulated sugar. Coarse sugars are often available in a rainbow of decorative colors in supermarkets and cake decorating supply shops.

Brown Sugar is made from a mixture of white sugar and molasses and is generally available in light or dark varieties. The darker the sugar, the more intense the molasses flavor. You can substitute brown sugar for white in equal measure, the only difference is that the brown sugar should be firmly packed in the measuring cup. Brown sugar has a tendency to harden with age or when it exposed to air for too long, so try to store in tightly sealed plastic. If your brown sugar has hardened, you can soften it by storing it in a plastic bag with a raw wedge of apple for two to three days -- it will be as good as new.

Raw Sugar, while light brown in color, should not be confused with or substituted for brown sugar. Raw sugar is what's left after sugarcane has been processed and refined. Some people believe that raw sugar has superior nutritive qualities, although most of the raw sugar marketed in the US has been purified to such a degree, it pretty much negates this theory. Popular types of raw sugar include Demerara Sugar from Guyana and Barbados Sugar, a moist, fine textured sugar. Turbinado Sugar is raw sugar that has been steam cleaned to remove contaminates, leaving a light molasses-flavored, tan-colored sugar.

Confectioner's Sugar, or Powdered Sugar, started out life as granulated sugar before it was crushed to a superfine powder which is mixed with a small amount of corn starch to prevent clumping. Confectioner's sugar is most often used to make icings and candies. It's also useful to add a quick decorative touch with a light dusting of the snowy white powder on cakes and other desserts. Confectioner's sugar is known as "Icing Sugar" in the UK and "Sucre Glace" in France.

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