Sugar is one of the most commonly used ingredients in baking and cooking. From sweetening your morning coffee to baking delicious treats, sugar adds flavor, texture, and sweetness to foods.
The two most popular types of sugar are powdered sugar and granulated sugar. Though they come from the same source, there are some key differences between them.
What is Powdered Sugar?
Also known as confectioners' sugar or icing sugar, powdered sugar is white table sugar that has been ground into a very fine powder. It dissolves quickly and has a smooth, silky texture perfect for icings, glazes, and dusting baked goods.
Powdered sugar is made by grinding granulated sugar with a small amount of cornstarch. The cornstarch, usually 3% of the total weight, is added to prevent clumping and improve flow. It is ground to a super fine texture, with commercial varieties passing through a 100 mesh screen.
Some key characteristics of powdered sugar:
- Very fine, smooth powdery texture
- Dissolves instantly in liquids
- Contains 3% cornstarch as an anti-caking agent
- Used in frostings, icings, glazes, and for dusting
- Also called confectioners' or icing sugar
Powdered sugar is essential for achieving smooth, lump-free icings and glossy glazes on cakes, cookies, and pastries. The fine grind allows it to blend easily into butter or liquids. It's also perfect for dusting desserts with a pretty, snow-like topping.
What is Granulated Sugar?
Granulated sugar, also known as table sugar or white sugar, is the most common sugar used in home kitchens. It has a coarser texture than powdered sugar with larger individual grains.
Granulated sugar is pure sucrose that has been extracted and refined from sugar cane or sugar beets. The natural molasses is removed, leaving behind pure white sugar crystals. These crystals are then dried and granulated to produce the final product.
Some properties of granulated sugar:
- Coarse texture with visible grains
- Does not dissolve instantly in cold liquids
- No additives like cornstarch
- Most versatile sugar used for baking, sweetening drinks, etc.
- Also called white or table sugar
The moderately coarse texture of granulated sugar makes it ideal for creaming with butter to incorporate air into baked goods. It also dissolves well when heated. This versatility makes it the go-to sugar for everything from cakes and cookies to sweetening coffee.
Key Takeaway: Powdered sugar is finely ground white sugar with cornstarch added. Granulated sugar has a coarser texture and dissolves slower.
How Powdered and Granulated Sugar are Made
Understanding how powdered and granulated sugars are made gives insight into their differing properties.
Granulated sugar starts as juice extracted from sugar cane or sugar beets. This juice is purified, evaporated, and crystallized to form raw sugar. The raw sugar then goes through an affination process where it is dissolved, clarified, filtered, and re-crystallized to produce pure white sugar. The sugar crystals are then dried and granulated to produce the final product.
Powdered sugar starts off as granulated sugar. The granulated sugar is milled together with a small amount of cornstarch, typically 3% of the total weight. It is milled multiple times through fine screens to grind the sugar into a smooth powder. The more times it is milled, the finer the consistency.
So powdered sugar takes an extra step, being milled from granulated sugar into a powder. The added cornstarch is key to keeping it flowing smoothly instead of clumping together.
Since powdered and granulated sugar both start from the same source, their nutritional values are very similar:
|Powdered Sugar||Granulated Sugar|
|Calories||485 per 100g||387 per 100g|
Granulated sugar is slightly less calorie dense because powdered sugar contains 3% cornstarch. Other than that, there is minimal nutritional difference between the two.
Keep in mind that both provide empty calories and minimal nutritional value. They should be used in moderation as part of an overall healthy diet.
When comparing costs, powdered sugar is generally more expensive than granulated sugar. A big part of this is the additional processing required to mill the granulated sugar into a finer powder.
Some average costs for common package sizes:
|1 lb granulated sugar||$0.64|
|1 lb powdered sugar||$1.19|
|4 lb granulated sugar||$2.28|
|4 lb powdered sugar||$3.99|
Of course, costs vary between brands and locations. But across the board, powdered sugar runs about 1.5 to 2 times more expensive than granulated sugar per pound. Buying in bulk usually provides some cost savings for both.
Substituting Powdered for Granulated Sugar
In a pinch, you can substitute powdered sugar for granulated sugar in recipes. However, some adjustments are needed to account for the difference in textures.
When replacing granulated sugar with powdered sugar:
- Use approximately 1 3/4 cup powdered sugar for every 1 cup granulated sugar
- Reduce any liquids in the recipe slightly
- Expect a slightly different texture in baked goods
The finer grind results in powdered sugar packing more densely into a measuring cup. So you need more volume to achieve the same sweetness.
Reducing the liquid accounts for the moisture from the cornstarch in powdered sugar. This prevents batters turning out overly thin.
While your baked good will still be sweet, the texture may be a bit more dense or crumbly when using powdered sugar. The lack of graininess prevents creaming with butter as effectively.
Overall, it is better to use granulated sugar when specified in recipes. But in a pinch, powdered sugar can work as a substitute with the adjustments mentioned above.
Substituting Granulated for Powdered Sugar
It is trickier to properly substitute granulated sugar in place of powdered sugar in recipes.
When replacing powdered sugar with granulated sugar:
- Use approximately 2/3 cup granulated for every 1 cup powdered sugar
- Grind the granulated sugar to a finer powder in a blender or food processor if possible
- Expect a grittier, grainier texture
Since granulated sugar is less dense, you need less volume to achieve equivalent sweetness. Grinding it finer helps improve solubility in liquids as well.
However, the sugar will still not fully dissolve as smoothly as powdered sugar. This can result in a grainy texture in things like frosting, glazes, and candy. For best results, stick with powdered sugar when it is specified in a recipe.
Best Uses for Powdered Sugar
Thanks to its ultra fine texture, powdered sugar excels when you need something to dissolve and blend smoothly. Here are its best uses:
Icings and Frostings - Powdered sugar creates silky smooth icings and frostings without grittiness. It blends beautifully into butter, cream cheese, or milk.
Glazes - The fine powder dissolves instantly when mixed with milk or juice to make flawless glazes for cakes, cookies, and pastries.
Dusting Desserts - A light dusting of powdered sugar over cakes, waffles, or cupcakes provides the perfect pretty finishing touch.
Whipped Cream - Mixing powdered sugar into heavy cream makes stabilized whipped cream that holds its shape well for piping and decorating.
Powdered Sugar Glaze
- 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
- 1/4 cup milk or water
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Whisk together all ingredients until smooth. Drizzle over cakes, donuts, or other baked goods. Let set 5 minutes before serving.
Best Uses for Granulated Sugar
While powdered sugar may be ideal for frostings, granulated sugar has its own set of strengths:
Creaming Butter - The coarse texture creates tiny air pockets when creamed with butter or shortening. This leads to lighter, fluffier baked goods.
Sweetening Drinks - Granulated sugar easily stirs into coffee, tea, and other beverages to provide sweetness.
General Baking - Most baked goods and desserts rely on granulated sugar for predictable results in texture and flavor.
Caramelizing - When heated, the sugar crystals melt and caramelize beautifully. This makes caramel sauce or crispy baked goods.
Coating Fruits or Nuts - Tossing crunchy items in granulated sugar provides a sweet, textured coating.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are confectioners' sugar and powdered sugar the same thing?
Yes, confectioners' sugar and powdered sugar are names for the same product - white sugar ground to a smooth powder.
Is powdered sugar just granulated sugar ground finer?
Essentially yes, but powdered sugar also has a small amount of cornstarch added to prevent caking or clumping.
What happens if you use granulated instead of powdered sugar in frosting?
The frosting will turn out grittier and grainier in texture rather than light and fluffy.
Can granulated sugar be used to dust desserts instead of powdered?
It can, but it won't provide as smooth and attractive a coating. The grains are more visible.
What can you use as a substitute for powdered sugar in a glaze?
For a smooth glaze without powdered sugar, try using maple syrup, honey, or simple syrup instead.
While powdered and granulated sugar come from the same base ingredients, their differing textures give them unique roles in the kitchen. Granulated sugar is the workhorse for creaming, baking, and sweetening while powdered sugar excels when smoothness and solubility are needed.