Sunday, August 29, 2010

sugar and texture

In case you're wondering why the best baked goods contain sugar and not maple syrup, honey, or agave as an alternative sweetener (and don't get me wrong--I've had many a delicious goodie made with other sweeteners...they just aren't as delicious), here's a little anecdote.

At work this morning I was neatly clipping along, baking up a storm, when I got to the lemon blueberry scones. We prep our dry and wet ingredients the afternoon before so that we can just dump them into a bowl in the morning when our brains are a little fuzzy and incapable of many normal functions. I normally take note of what the prepped ingredients look like--you can tell if someone put in sugar and leavening--but this morning I didn't have the wherewithal to do so.

As the scones baked, I could tell something was amiss. First, they weren't browning as they should have been. Second, they didn't puff up. Third, they were taking way too long to get done (something like 25 minutes instead of 16). When I tasted one to see what the problem was, I noticed immediately the lack of sugar. But more importantly, the texture was pretty horrible--tough and chewy rather than flaky and tender.

Sugar isn't just about the sweet. It tenderizes. I'm not a food scientist, so I can't tell you exactly why (it probably has something to do with keeping a lot of gluten from forming by coating proteins or something like that--don't quote me, though), but as a baker I can tell you that sugar makes for tender doughs and that beautiful browning that makes scones and cookies so appealing. I suppose you could try to make up for low sugar or an alternative sweetener by using a low-gluten flour (spelt) or perhaps some cornstarch or arrowroot in place of flour, but there's nothing quite like sugar for making a truly tender final product.


TheFoodGeek said...

You have a couple of things going on. First, sugar does prevent gluten formation, because water loves sugar more than water loves gluten. The water that you add to ensure moisture, instead of forming tough gluten, starts off joining with the water. Whatever is left goes to gluten formation.

If you use maple syrup, honey, or agave nectar, you have the moisture mixed in with the sugar already, so whatever other water you add will probably mix with the glutenin and gliadin pretty quickly.

Also, if you're making a cake or similar using the creaming method, you need the granules of the sugar to puncture holes into the butter, which will turn into bigger holes when you bake. If you use something that's essentially a liquid to start with, then you won't get the punctures, so it'll affect how it rises.

meg said...

Thanks so much for that. I tried to look up the specifics in Shirley Corriher's Bakewise, but that book is so information-dense (both a blessing and a curse), that I had to do some reasoning on my own. Glad you knew what was up, though.