Brown sugar is a common ingredient in both cooking and baking and can be important for the flavor of your dish as well.
Brown sugar can also be a tricky ingredient. It’s easy to run out and forget you don’t have any if you don’t use it very often, like most people, and it can also harden to the point where it’s difficult or even impossible to use.
When that happens, you might find yourself reaching for a substitute. Fortunately, there are plenty of options to choose from.
First though, before we talk about the best brown sugar substitutes, let’s talk about the differences between brown sugar and white sugar.
How Is Brown Sugar Different From Regular Sugar?
The difference between brown sugar and white sugar is pretty simple. White sugar has the molasses removed in the refining process, giving it its white color and sweeter, simpler taste. Brown sugar goes through the same process, but has molasses added back in, which gives it the darker color and stickier texture.
Typically brown sugar has more molasses added than the same amount of sugar would have had before the molasses is removed.
How Brown Sugar Is Used In Cooking and Baking
Brown sugar is used primarily as a sweetener, just like white sugar, but with the added benefit of having additional flavor. It’s not quite as sweet tasting as white sugar, thanks to the molasses mixed in, which can be a benefit in dishes like ginger snap cookies or brownies, where the brown sugar helps to harmonize the sweetness with the more bitter flavors of ginger and chocolate.
It’s often added to Asian cooking, and is a common ingredient anywhere sweetness is important, but maybe wouldn’t harmonize as well with the other flavors of the dish on its own.
Occasionally brown sugar is also used to add some color and a different texture than white sugar.
Some people preferentially use brown sugar, since there is some added nutrition from the molasses. It’s minimal though, so for most diets, using brown sugar instead of white sugar won’t make a huge difference.
The Best Brown Sugar Substitutes For Your Home Kitchen:
Choosing the right substitute depends on what you’re making and what you want this ingredient to bring to the table. There are a lot of options, so think about what your end-goal is and how each option can help you get there.
We’ve also included some non-sugar diabetic or keto-friendly brown sugar replacements toward the end, in case you’re replacing brown sugar for medical or weight loss reasons.
The easiest substitute is to just use some white sugar instead of brown sugar in your baking and cooking. The taste difference between white sugar and brown sugar is minimal, so this option works just about any time you’re looking to add sweetness over other flavors.
White sugar does generally dissolve more easily than brown sugar, but you can still use it 1:1 with brown sugar. It shouldn’t significantly change the taste or texture of anything but cookies.
With cookies, if you’ve substituted white sugar for brown sugar in the recipe, make sure to chill the dough a little longer before baking. Otherwise, the cookie may spread out too much during baking, and turn thinner and crisper than you intended.
Molasses is another good option when you want the brown sugar flavor, but don’t need as much sweetness. Molasses still adds some sweet flavor, but the sour and slightly bitter flavor of the molasses tends to be stronger.
This brown sugar substitute is a good option in malted beverages and baking and can add a lot of character to cooking.
You will want to add much less molasses than brown sugar and may need to add more sugar or another sweetener to help balance out your flavors.
Maple syrup is another good substitute for brown sugar, and can add a similar flavor in addition to sweetness. The nice thing about maple syrup is that real maple syrup (not the kind that is sugar syrup with added maple flavoring) has a slightly lower glycemic index than sugar. So, it has less impact on your blood sugar.
You might need to add slightly more maple sugar than brown sugar to get the same sweetness, but a lot of people like the effect of maple syrup even in a 1:1 replacement.
Maple syrup is a great addition to a lot of breakfasts, including our 20 breakfast casserole recipes!
Coconut sugar is a great option if you’re looking for a 1:1 substitute that has both a similar color and taste and texture to brown sugar. Like a lot of alternative sugar options, it does have slightly larger crystals than the brown sugar you’d get from the store, but it doesn’t normally have an impact on cooking or baking results.
The other advantage of this substitute is that it doesn’t have a particularly strong non-sugar flavor, unlike some other substitutes. It tastes pretty much just like standard sugar, or turbinado sugar.
Maple sugar is a good option when you want a little additional flavor, since, like maple syrup, it will give your food a slight maple flavor. The more of this sugar you use the stronger the maple flavor becomes.
You can replace brown sugar 1:1 with maple sugar, and you can also use maple sugar as a replacement for any white sugar in your recipe if you want more flavor.
Maple and apple go great together, so maple syrup and maple sugar are both fantastic in this weight watchers friendly apple crumble!
Make Your Own Brown Sugar
Since brown sugar is essentially just white sugar mixed with molasses you can actually make it at home as needed. Just put the required amount of sugar in a blender or a food processor and add a small amount of molasses. Pulse until it’s fully mixed. If the color or flavor isn’t strong enough, add a little more molasses and repeat.
If you add too much molasses, you can add more sugar and adjust. Brown sugar made this way can be stored the same as store-bought, and is shelf-stable.
Muscovado sugar is a good brown sugar alternative for people who really like molasses. It’s actually darker and has a higher molasses content than standard brown sugar. If you have a little of this sugar on hand, it’s perfect for substituting brown sugar.
Turbinado sugar, which is also called raw sugar, is a good option if you don’t like the stronger molasses flavor in brown sugar. It’s partially processed, so some molasses has been removed, but it’s got more molasses than white sugar.
Turbinado sugar grains tend to be larger than white sugar, so you may need to stir longer to get them fully dissolved and incorporated.
Date sugar is made by pulverizing dried dates into a fine powder. It’s a good natural sweetener, and a little healthier as well.
However, date sugar doesn’t fully melt or dissolve into your cooking. It’s not a suitable replacement for making caramel or any other goods that require melting the sugar, and it can make some baked goods feel slightly gritty.
If you want to avoid grittiness, date syrup is another good brown sugar substitute. Either option works wonderfully in our Carrot Loaf with cream cheese icing!
Palm sugar is a good substitute as long as you don’t mind a little extra work. This sugar is typically sold in a thick paste, cones, or occasionally discs that need to be shaved or chopped to break them down before adding.
The pastes are ideal for baking, while the cones and discs are a good option for more authentic tasting Asian foods.
If you happen to have good honey on hand, liquid or crystalized, it’s a great brown sugar substitute. This option works particularly well in fruity and floral flavored baking, since the natural flavors in most (but not all) honey will complement those flavors.
Local wildflower honey is typically the easiest to get your hands on, and will almost always work with fruit and floral flavors.
If you want a vegan substitute for brown sugar, agave is a good option, unlike honey. Treat agave basically the same as honey for the best results.
Piloncillo, sometimes called panela, is a good option for both Central American cooking and Asian cooking. It’s made from sugar cane juice, just like sugar, reduced to a syrupy texture and then poured into molds and allowed to harden.
This sugar has a stronger flavor than brown sugar, and comes in both dark and pale versions. Both are going to have more molasses than white sugar, but you can choose between the two depending on the flavor you want.
However, like palm sugar, this sugar needs to be grated before it can be used.
Monk Fruit Sweetener
For a sugar-free brown sugar alternative, monk fruit sweeteners work well. Follow the directions on your package for substituting monk fruit since the exact ratios do vary slightly between brands.
Truvia Sweet Complete Brown
Another sugar free alternative, Truvia Sweet Complete Brown is made with stevia, but specifically formulated to more closely mimic the flavor and texture of brown sugar.
Sukrin Gold Brown Sugar Alternative
Lastly, Sukrin is a fermented product made from cornstarch and natural cultures, with a little added stevia and malt, which gives you an almost carb-free sugar replacement specifically formulated to look, taste, and feel like brown sugar.
Lastly, this option really only works in baking and sauces, but applesauce is a great healthy sweetener option. It can also be used to replace the oil in baking recipes, but typically works best either replacing the sugar or the oil, not replacing both at the same time. However, a little applesauce can be used to reduce both the sugar and oil required for a recipe, giving you a lighter and healthier option on both counts.