Is sugar really “dry”?

Reader Chelsea writes:

I’ve got what I hope is an interesting one for you. Yesterday I was baking a quick chocolate cake to serve as dessert. As I whisked up the batter, I could tell something was wrong: it was very, very thick, more like cookie dough than cake batter, and not the deep dark cocoa color I knew it should be. I gave it a taste and it was terrible: salty and bitter! I realized I’d forgotten to add the sugar.

This is the part I found strange: when I added the sugar, the batter deepened to the cocoa color it should be, and loosened into a pourable batter – quite different from the thick, shortbread dough consistency I’d been fighting with before. My question is, therefore, why would sugar cause this change? It’s a “dry ingredient” – not dissolved or creamed with butter. Why would it have loosened up the batter and darkened the color?

Hey Chelsea! Would you believe that in much of the baking world sugar isn’t actually considered a “dry” ingredient? It’s true, and for reasons you just discovered. As soon as sugar is introduced to a wet mixture like a batter the granules (crystals) bind up the water, dissolve into it and start to flow as syrup. The practical effect is very much like adding more liquid to your batter. Pretty cool, isn’t it? I count sugar as a dry ingredient in Joe Pastry posts because, well, calling it a wet ingredient is just too weird (even though that’s more or less what it is). Thanks for an excellent question, Chelsea!

2 thoughts on “Is sugar really “dry”?”

  1. Thanks, Joe. What funny little crystals they are! I’m trying to remember if I was still able to discern the crunch of the sugar granules after I completed my batter, as you sometimes can in brownie batter – maybe there the minimal wet ingredients mean they only partially dissolve? Does sugar dissolve this way faster than, say, salt?

    1. I think that’s right, Chelsea. Sometimes batters, if for instance they’re very high in butter and low in eggs, won’t have enough moisture to cause all the sugar to convert to syrup. And yes, sugar is fascinating stuff isn’t it?

      Thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

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