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Sugar as a functional ingredient in sweet biscuits
From medieval wafers to modern-day 3D printed biscuits, sugar has played an essential role in all sweet biscuit recipes for centuries. The many types of sugar available today give industrial manufacturers more than just a huge array of tastes to play with. Their different functional properties—texture, colour, mouthfeel, preservability and more—means bulk biscuit producers can use them to constantly innovate and diversify their product ranges.
What functions do sugars perform in biscuits?
Since the first biscuit came to life in Neolithic times when people began to bake crushed grains on stones, biscuits have been one of humankind’s favourite snacks. Sugar wasn’t involved—at least on a large scale—until the 14th century when cooks made ‘wafers’ out of sweetened batter, heated over a fire and moulded or rolled into flat shapes.
While we all know that sugar adds a delectable, sweet flavour to biscuits, it plays many other fundamental roles too. Without it, biscuits wouldn’t be biscuits at all: their structure, texture and colour rely largely on sugar.
Sweetness and flavour
The flavour that sugar gives a biscuit depends entirely on the type you use: At one end of the scale, sugars are light and have a neutral taste, while at the other end, they’re dark with an intense flavour. Generally, the darker the colour, the stronger the taste. The regular white crystalline sugar that you find in shops and cafes around the UK is ideal for a plainer-tasting biscuit, while the robust, rich flavour of a dark soft brown sugar or molasses will result in a deeper-flavoured product.
Colour and decoration
The unmistakeable biscuity-brown hue that deepens towards the edges of a baked biscuit is down to the sugars combining with the amino acids from the other ingredients (like eggs, flour or butter) under intense heat in the cooking process. Known as the ‘Maillard reaction’, it’s intensified in alkaline conditions, which is why some biscuit recipes include sodium bicarbonate: it increases the alkalinity and intensifies the golden colour.
Texture and mouthfeel
All types of sugar are fundamental in developing the texture of any biscuit: in general, it keeps them soft and moist, but specific sugars give specific properties to specific biscuits. For example, because brown sugar contains molasses, it’s more ‘hygroscopic’ than white sugar, meaning it soaks up more water in a biscuit dough. The molasses that makes brown sugar brown adds moisture to the end product, essentially making it chewier than a light-coloured sugar.
Structure and hardness
In short biscuit doughs with higher fat and sugar content (like Digestives, custard creams or German lebkuchen, for example), high levels of sucrose give a hard, snappable texture, because the sugar that was melted during cooking then sets when it cools. If manufacturers want a softer result, they can add glucose syrup or golden syrup at the end of the baking process to reduce crispiness.
The hygroscopic nature of sugar also makes it a great natural preservative. It binds to water molecules, starving harmful bacteria of the water they need to grow, which in biscuits also makes it a humectant, retaining moisture and stopping them from going stale.
Also called carriers or fillers, bulking agents add volume and weight to biscuits. Biscuit manufacturers also use sugar as a bulking agent in fondants or creams for fillings because its humectant properties keep fillings separate from the surrounding biscuit layers, maintaining its freshness and texture.
Replacing sugars in biscuits with non-nutritive sweeteners
Non-nutritive sweeteners like aspartame, stevia and sucralose have become popular as governments around the world try to reduce calories in food products through sugar taxes and new regulations. Food manufacturers using sugar alternatives come up against a host of challenges when they reformulate their recipes without sugar, because it fulfils many more functions than sweetness.
While it’s easy to find a replacement for sugar’s sweet taste in biscuits, all the other functions above are a lot harder to replicate. Because there’s no single product that does it all, manufacturers have to use separate preservatives, colourings and bulking agents, and other additives to give texture, mouthfeel and structure.
It’s not impossible, and there are many sugar-free biscuit options on supermarket shelves today. However, the taste isn’t usually the same as the original product and they often contain a laundry list of synthetic ingredients that replace sugar’s natural, functional properties.
Quality pure sugars are more than just the sum of their functional properties and sweet tastes. Sugar’s age-old appeal has woven it into our hearts, tastebuds, and all our favourite biscuit recipes. From biscotti to Bourbons, pure sugars are still truly irreplaceable.
Our pure sugars are not only a sweetener enhancing the taste of biscuits and baked goods, but functional ingredients that provide colour, texture and structure too. Contact our Customer Services Team to find out more, or for more sugar news and Ragus updates, keep browsing SUGARTALK and follow Ragus on LinkedIn.