But when and how was this fine, white sugar first created?
The Earliest Origins of Powdered Sugar
References to sweet powders used in cooking date back thousands of years. The earliest forms of powdered sugar were likely made by grinding lump sugars, like the sugar loaves first produced in Venice in the 15th century. These were hard cones of refined sugar that had to be chipped off and ground down before use.
Historians note that confectioners and apothecaries in the 17th and 18th centuries sifted granular sugars to produce fine powders for use in food and medicines. So the basic concept of a super-fine sugar dates quite far back.
How Sugar Loaf Milling Advanced Powdered Sugar
In the 1700s, the production of sugar loaves became more advanced, allowing sugar bakers to create different grades of fineness. Theloaf crystals were ground and sifted to separate the sugar into coarse, granulated, and fine powdered textures.
The powdered sugars made during this time were quite delicate, as they did not yet contain cornstarch. Bakers had to mill the sugar loaf crystals multiple times to achieve an ultra-smooth powder for dusting confections.
Cornstarch Changed Powdered Sugar Forever
The invention that truly launched modern powdered sugar was the addition of cornstarch in the 1800s. Adding just 3% cornstarch absorbs moisture and keeps the sugar from clumping together.
This was a game-changer. With cornstarch, powdered sugar could be smoothly blended into frostings and icings without any bothersome lumps.
Key Takeaway: Cornstarch prevents powdered sugar from clumping and allows it to dissolve evenly, creating smooth, silky icings and frostings.
Powdered Sugar Becomes Democratic in the 1800s
In the early 19th century, Napoleon initiated the farming of sugar beets in France after Britain imposed a blockade on cane sugar from the West Indies. This made sugar production local and for the first time, powdered sugar became widely accessible to the average consumer.
Soon after, innovations in milling technology allowed powdered sugar to be produced on a massive scale. Magnificent creations with powdered sugar icing adorned cakes and pastries in pastry shop windows for all to enjoy.
Common Names for Powdered Sugar
Though commonly called powdered sugar today, this sweet staple actually goes by a few different names around the world:
- Confectioners' sugar - The most widely used term in the U.S., as it's favored by professional bakers and confectioners.
- Icing sugar - More commonly used in Britain, Canada, and Australia. Refers to its use for making sugary icings and frostings.
- 10X sugar - Indicates the fineness of the powdered sugar, where 10X is the finest. Other sizes like 6X and 4X are slightly more coarse.
Key Takeaway: Powdered sugar is known as confectioners' sugar, icing sugar, and 10X sugar, among other names. But it's the same fine, powdery sugar in all cases.
How Powdered Sugar Is Made Today
Contemporary powdered sugar manufacturing uses high-tech mills and sifters to pulverize granular white sugar into a smooth powder. Here's an overview of the modern production process:
- Milling - Granulated white sugar is milled to break down the crystals into tiny particles. Hammer mills and other machines are used for efficient grinding.
- Sifting - The milled sugar passes through a series of sieves and screens to remove large particles and ensure uniform fineness. Different mesh sizes produce various grades of fineness.
- Mixing with cornstarch - After milling and sifting, the powdered sugar is blended with 3% cornstarch to prevent caking. Tricalcium phosphate may also be added to help it flow easily.
- Packaging - Finally, the finished powdered sugar is packaged into bags, canisters, or other retail containers.
Key Takeaway: Today's powdered sugar is made by finely grinding granular sugar and blending in a small amount of cornstarch to prevent caking.
Common Powdered Sugar Uses
The ultra-fine texture and bright whiteness of powdered sugar make it uniquely useful for:
- Dusting desserts - Powdered sugar can be dusted over doughnuts, cookies, cakes, and pastries using a sifter or sieve. It adds light sweetness and decoration.
- Frostings and icings - Mixing powdered sugar with milk, cream, or egg whites produces silky smooth frostings and icings.
- Glazes - Combined with a liquid like milk or juice, powdered sugar can be drizzled over pastries and desserts to form a sweet glaze.
- Whipped cream - Whipping heavy cream with powdered sugar creates sweet whipped cream without graininess.
- Fudge and candies - Powdered sugar gives fudge and chocolates like truffles a smooth, creamy texture.
Is Powdered Sugar Unhealthy?
Since powdered sugar is nearly 100% sucrose, it provides empty calories without nutrients. Consuming large amounts can contribute to obesity, diabetes, and other health issues. Moderation is key.
However, powdered sugar has upsides over other sugars due to its:
- Fine texture that dissolves easily
- Ability to sweeten without altering texture
- Lower effect on blood sugar compared to other sugars
Key Takeaway: While not healthy in large amounts, powdered sugar has advantages over granulated sugar in some recipes. Moderating intake is important.
Common Questions about Powdered Sugar
Is powdered sugar just ground up regular sugar?
Yes, powdered sugar starts as regular granulated sugar that is milled into a fine powder. A small amount of cornstarch is also added to prevent caking.
Does powdered sugar melt faster than granulated sugar?
Yes, powdered sugar melts and incorporates much faster than granular sugar due to its high surface area and lack of crystal structure. This allows it to sweeten liquids and batters smoothly.
Can you use powdered sugar instead of granulated sugar in recipes?
Sometimes, but results may differ. Powdered sugar can't be creamed with butter like granular sugar. And substituting it will create more tender, crumbly baked goods rather than light and airy.
Is powdered sugar cheaper than granulated sugar?
Powdered sugar is often cheaper per ounce than granular sugar. But because it contains 3% cornstarch, the actual sugar content is a bit lower per measure.
Powdered sugar has a long and fascinating history dating back to the Late Middle Ages. The earliest versions were produced by grinding lump sugars like the loaf crystals first made in 15th century Venice. Innovations like adding cornstarch in the 1800s led to the free-flowing powdered sugar used today.
While too much of any sugar can be unhealthy, powdered sugar offers unique benefits in baking and confectionery. Its ultra-fine texture creates smooth finishes unlike regular granulated sugar. As methods have improved over time, powdered sugar has become an affordable pantry staple enjoyed by both professional bakers and home cooks.