Many people who tackle French recipes get stumped by the sugars, which don’t necessarily correspond to the sugars available elsewhere. All supermarkets in France carry white granulated sugar and there’s often unrefined sugars, such as cassonade, which grocers stock and are widely-available. In America and elsewhere, bakers often have to do a bit of hunting around to find the corresponding sugar.
French brown sugars are quite varied and don’t always neatly fit into substitutions. In general, if you have a recipe that calls for brown sugar, you can use moist cassonade, vergeoise, or any unrefined amber-colored sugar that’s not granulated. For the sake of these descriptions, moist brown sugar is sugar that clumps together easily if you pinch it. Crystallized sugar is granulated, or free-flowing, and pours easily.
For caramelization, you need to use refined white sugar; impurities in unrefined sugars will cause crystallization. There’s some controversy in the pastry community that sugar refined from beets, which the majority of the sugar in France is, will give you difficulty if you try to caramelize it. But I haven’t experienced any problems.
I’ve listed a few places outside of France where these sugars, and others, are available at the end of the post. Depending on where you live, your best bet is to search online or find a store that specializes in baking ingredients for professionals or dedicated home bakers. There are also links to various sugar companies and websites where you can learn more about these sugars.
Sucre cristallisé or sucre cristal
This is plain white sugar, whose crystals are a bit larger than what’s considered granulated sugar in the United States. You can use this sugar for almost all baking and cooking applications.
Sucre semoule and Sucre en poudre
This is sugar whose crystals are very fine. In America, this would be similar to what is called superfine or baker’s sugar. In other countries it’s called castor or caster sugar. Its fine texture means it melts quickly and will give a finer crumb to many cakes, meringues and cookies.
You can make your own by pulsing granulated sugar in a food processor or blender a few times until it’s in smaller crystals.