The Best Substitutes For Brown Sugar

Yes, you can use white sugar, molasses, honey, and maple syrup as a substitute for brown sugar so you don't have to run to the store.

<p>Quanthem / Getty Images</p>

Quanthem / Getty Images

Scenario: You’ve already started on your famous chocolate chip cookie, glazed ham, or barbecue sauce recipe only to find that your bag of brown sugar has hardened into a solid sugar rock — or perhaps you’ve run out altogether. Don’t fret! You likely have one or two suitable substitutes already on hand, though your recipe might require a few tweaks. Here’s how to sweeten up this conundrum.

What is brown sugar?

First, you should understand what brown sugar is. Brown sugar is white granulated sugar with molasses added back in. It imparts moisture (visible in its molasses-slow flow), softness and caramelly depth of flavor to desserts. It lends rich sweetness to sauces and savory dishes. In fact it’s brown sugar’s higher moisture content that gives it that annoying tendency to clump.

Related: 4 Ways to Soften Brown Sugar

Brown sugar is mildly acidic due to the presence of molasses therein — which is why you’ll often find that recipes with brown sugar rely on baking soda for leavening. 

Unsurprisingly, the molasses content is what distinguishes light brown sugar (3 to 4% molasses) from dark (6 to 10%). You can substitute light brown sugar for dark, and vice versa; the biggest difference will be in the color and flavor.

Swap in molasses (or liquid sweetener) plus white sugar

The most logical — and indeed effective — place to start when replacing brown sugar is with its component parts: white sugar and molasses. Homemade brown sugar not only comes together in minutes, but it can be made as needed, meaning you don’t have to worry about the rest of the bag hardening into a rock. Pastry chef Emily Spurlin’s go-to ratio is one tablespoon molasses to one cup white or cane sugar. Other formulas adjust the amount of molasses down slightly, to two teaspoons per one cup of white sugar. Experiment based on your flavor preferences. 

If you don’t have molasses, Spurlin says you can sub in equal amounts of maple syrup or earthy, malty buckwheat honey. Both are slightly acidic, meaning they’ll react similarly to brown sugar in baking recipes. Another liquid sweetener substitute that’s a convincing alternative to molasses is date syrup, which is thick and dark, with a complex, molasses-like sweetness and similarly low pH.

It’s possible to sub in any of the aforementioned liquid sweeteners solo if you’re out of white sugar, though probably not in baked goods since the higher moisture content (and loss of bulk) would change the texture of the final product. Stick with sauces, glazes and beverages, and start with less sweetener than the recipe calls for — generally two-thirds to three-quarters. Don’t forget to adjust with salt as well, “which is my favorite ingredient in desserts,” says pastry chef Mindy Segal, owner of Mindy’s Bakery in Chicago.

Swap in other sugars

Unrefined brown sugars like turbinado, demerara and muscovado sugar all contain molasses and offer great 1:1 substitutes for brown sugar. Spurlin and Segal both like using muscovado sugar; indeed, it’s probably the closest thing to brown sugar, and is available in light and dark forms. “Dark muscovado sugar makes a really rich, robust coffee cake,” Segal says. “It’s almost pumpernickel dark.”

Related: Here’s the Difference Between All Those Varieties of Sugar

Turbinado sugar is manufactured just as brown sugar was way back in the day, by centrifuging partially evaporated sugar cane juice (it still contains some molasses from the refining process). Because demerara and turbinado sugar come in much larger granules than brown sugar, you might want to grind them in a spice grinder before measuring. 

Personal chef Katie Schwartz also likes subbing in coconut sugar 1:1 for brown sugar, particularly when making glazes and caramels. A brownish granulated sugar made from the sap of coconut palm, coconut sugar bears similar flavor notes to brown sugar, with an almost smoky, savory undertone. 

“It’s not as sticky as brown sugar, so sometimes it can be a bit tricky,”  Schwartz says, nodding to brown sugar’s higher moisture content. “It’s also slightly less sweet, so sometimes I’ll add an extra tablespoon for good measure.”

So, can I just use white granulated sugar?

…After all, the main goal is to sweeten, right? The answer isn’t quite that simple. Because brown sugar has more moisture, replacing it 1:1 with white sugar will result in a crispier, flatter end product. As a rule of thumb, if a recipe calls for less than half as much brown sugar as white sugar and no baking soda, replace the brown sugar with white in equal parts. Or better yet, turn off the oven and grab your shoes. You can also replenish the paper towels on that brown sugar run.

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