Brown sugar is an amazing ingredient. It acts much like sugar in most recipes, while offering a distinct rich flavor that you don’t get with the white version. As a result, you’ll see it in baking, sauces, marinades, and plenty of other situations.
The richness of brown sugar makes it much better than white sugar for many recipes. You end up with much more flavorful baking, richer sauces, and more complexity. Of course, this is only possible if you have brown sugar on hand.
What happens if you run out? Or, what if you’re following a low carb diet and can’t use actual brown sugar?
Despite its uniqueness, there are a surprising number of substitutes for brown sugar, including raw sugar, coconut sugar, some liquid sweeteners, and muscovado sugar. These substitutes all have their own distinct flavors and properties. As such, they may lead to some changes in the finished product.
Alternatively, you could make your own brown sugar, using a combination of white sugar and molasses. Doing so gives you a near identical texture and flavor. You might even prefer to make brown sugar like this, rather than buying it at the store.
White Sugar And Molasses
So then, let’s begin with the best possible substitution – white sugar and molasses. This works because brown sugar is just a combination of those two ingredients anyway.
The relationship here is fascinating. Molasses itself is a byproduct of sugar refinement (removing it creates the fine white sugar we’re all familiar with). Brown sugar generally goes through this refinement process, then molasses is added back at the end.
When doing so at home, you simply need a cup of white sugar and a tablespoon of molasses for every cup of brown sugar in your recipe. If the recipe calls for dark brown sugar instead of light, simply go with two tablespoons of molasses.
Either way, the combo takes a decent amount of mixing to come together. Use a bowl and fork, then keep mixing and mashing the sugar with your fork until you get the texture of brown sugar. Don’t worry if it seems to dry at first. Just keep going and you’ll get there.
Then there’s raw sugar. This hasn’t been through as much processing as white sugar, so it still contains some traces of molasses. This molasses gives raw sugar a darker color and some molasses flavor notes.
Of course, there are some stark differences too. Raw sugar has a milder flavor than brown sugar. It also has coarser grains and isn’t as moist.
If you don’t have molasses on hand, then white sugar on its own can work as a brown sugar replacement. It shouldn’t be your first choice, though, as white sugar doesn’t hold onto moisture in the way that brown sugar does. White sugar also has a different flavor profile, lacking the richness found with brown sugar.
These differences in flavor and moisture mean that baked goods made with white sugar have a different flavor and texture than those that use brown sugar. Other unexpected changes may happen too. For example, cookies with white sugar spread more than those with brown sugar.
If you’re going to take this approach, simply use white sugar as a 1:1 replacement for your brown sugar. You’ll still get the sweetness you’re looking for and most recipes will turn out fine.
Liquid sweeteners are another direction to consider. These add sweetness, flavor, and moisture to your recipe. Of course, they’re higher in moisture than brown sugar, so you might need to adjust the liquid in your recipe to compensate.
In particular, every cup of brown sugar in your recipe can be replaced by 2/3 cup of liquid sweetener. You’ll then need to reduce the liquid in the rest of your recipe by roughly 1/4 cup to compensate.
The main sweeteners to consider here are honey, maple syrup, and agave syrup. These all have their own distinct effects. For example, honey has a fairly subtle flavor and is also very sweet, while maple syrup tends to be less sweet and offers a stronger flavor.
You could also use molasses itself as a direct replacement for brown sugar. However, you’d get a closer substitute by mixing the molasses with white sugar instead.
White Sugar With A Liquid Sweetener
White sugar is a bit too dry, while liquid sweeteners are too moist. Why not combine the two?
The approach is the same as with molasses. That means you’re using a tablespoon of the sweetener for every cup of white sugar, then mixing thoroughly. This approach gets you close to the texture of brown sugar, which is perfect for many recipes.
Of course, there’s no molasses here, so the flavor profile won’t be the same.
Coconut sugar is an easy replacement for brown sugar, as the sugar looks similar and even has a familiar caramel-like flavor. Of course, there are some coconut flavor notes present too, so you will notice flavor differences.
The biggest issue is that coconut sugar doesn’t contain as much moisture as brown sugar. Thankfully, this won’t matter in all recipes. Those that use small amounts of brown sugar anyway should be particularly resilient to any moisture differences.
If you notice a difference in moisture when making batter for a recipe, you can always add extra fat to compensate. But, only do this if the recipe already uses fats. You’ll mess with the texture of your baking if you add extra fat to the wrong recipe.
Dates are a popular source of sweetness for people trying to avoid refined sugar. Date sugar is simply an extension of the idea, where dates have been dehydrated and then finely ground.
You can use date sugar as a 1:1 replacement for brown sugar, but you’ll see some differences. Notably, data sugar has a butterscotch-like flavor, compared to the caramel notes found in brown sugar. This could change the taste of some dishes.
Muscovado sugar is an interesting choice. It actually contains more molasses than brown sugar, which explains its dark brown color and rich flavor.
This option is especially good in recipes that call for dark brown sugar rather than light brown sugar. You can use it instead of light brown sugar too, just expect a bigger difference in the flavor profile.
Because of the moisture content, you may need to sift muscovado sugar into your recipe, rather than adding it directly. Doing so isn’t needed if you’re making a sauce, as the sugar will dissolve in the liquid.
Muscovado sugar will work in most recipes that call for brown sugar. It’s also becoming more common in the United States, so you may be able to pick some up locally.
Other Minimally Refined Sugars
There are also other minimally refined sugars that can be used in your baking just like brown sugar.
Turbinado is one example. This has large light brown granules and a slight caramel-like flavor. Because of the large grains, you may need to grind or dissolve turbinado before using it in recipes. Demerara sugar functions in the same way.
Palm sugar is another minimally refined option. This can come from multiple palm tree varieties, with different flavors and intensities depending on the type you choose.
You’ll often find palm sugar sold in solidified form, where you need to shave it into smaller pieces before you can use it. The sugar is sometimes sold as a thick syrup as well. This version can also be used in place of brown sugar, although you may need to adjust the liquid in your recipe.
Jaggery is a popular choice in South Asian cooking and is often found in blocks like palm sugar. You’ll need to create a powdered version before you’re able to use jaggery in your recipes. Once you have, stick with a 1:1 substitution.
Low Carb Brown Sugar
There are also a few low carb brown sugar products to consider. One example is Brown Swerve, which was designed to measure, taste, and bake just like brown sugar. This should allow you to use it as a 1:1 replacement in all your favorite recipes.
Brown Swerve isn’t limited to baking either. The marketing suggests you can use this for caramel sauces, honey baked ham, and more. Plus, plenty of low carb cooks use it regularly, suggesting the product lives up to its claims.
Truvia offers a similar brown sugar blend. The blend relies on erythritol and stevia for much of its sweetness, while including small amounts of sugar and molasses for flavor.
Such products are fantastic if you hope to decrease your sugar intake. However, they’re less helpful as an emergency brown sugar substitute. After all, if you don’t have brown sugar on hand, you probably don’t have one of these either.
Low Carb Sugar Substitutes
While we’re on the topic, it’s worth mentioning the various low carb sugar substitutes, like stevia, erythritol, and xylitol (along with various low carb sugar blends). These can be used just like white sugar as a substitute for brown sugar, with similar results.
Notably, these substitutes tend to have less moisture and flavor than brown sugar, so they will change the flavor of your baking or sauce.
Another Dry White Sweetener With Molasses
While sugar is the most obvious sweetener to combine with molasses, it’s hardly your only option. Other types of white granulated sweeteners can combine with molasses to give you a similar result.
We’re largely talking about the low carb options, like erythritol, but you could actually do this with other types of granulated sweetener. For example, the combination of coconut sugar and molasses works surprisingly well. This even has a similar texture to brown sugar and is less refined. You could also combine raw sugar with molasses.
Interestingly, you can make a keto friendly version of brown sugar by using a low carb granulated sugar substitute (like an allulose and erythritol combo) plus a little molasses.
Molasses itself isn’t low in carbs, as it contains a decent amount of sugar-based carbs. But… you’re using a tiny amount of molasses for flavoring, so the resulting sweetener does end up being keto friendly.
Applesauce is a very situational substitute for brown sugar, one that provides sweetness and plenty of moisture. Of course, the flavor is different too, as applesauce is fruity and doesn’t have the same richness found in brown sugar.
You may also need to adjust the moisture in your recipe to compensate. Think about what you’re making as well. For example, the extra moisture in applesauce will be a poor fit for crisp cookies and similar recipes. Applesauce won’t work well in sauces or marinades either.
Which Brown Sugar Substitutes Are Right For You?
A mixture of molasses and white sugar is the single best alternative to brown sugar, as the flavor and texture are almost identical. Plus, you can adjust the amount of molasses replace light brown sugar or dark brown sugar.
Some of the low carb brown sugar substitutes work well too, as they’ve been designed to mimic brown sugar. These are especially good if you’re worried about your sugar intake.
White sugar is the most practical substitute for most situations, as you probably already have some on hand. You can also turn to other types of sugar or sugar alternatives that you use regularly, like stevia or coconut sugar.
Products designed to replace brown sugar are your most powerful options here. This includes Brown Swerve and Truvia’s brown sugar blend. You can also simply use a low carb sugar substitute or mix one of these with a little molasses.
Honestly, none of the products on this list are that healthy. Most are alternative types of sugar. While these are less refined than brown sugar and may contain more nutrients, they still have similar negative impacts as regular sugar.
Low carb options are better, yet they’re often highly processed. There’s also much to be learned about the long-term effects of such products.