Brown Sugar Substitutes

When you’re in the middle of baking and realize you’re out of brown sugar, you don’t have to halt your culinary endeavors. There are several reliable substitutes that can save your recipe without sacrificing flavor.

Each alternative has its unique properties and might add a subtle twist to your dish.

A jar of brown sugar substitutes sits on a kitchen counter, next to a measuring spoon and a bag of white sugar

Understanding the role brown sugar plays in cooking is key to selecting the perfect substitute. Brown sugar, which is white sugar with added molasses, contributes to moisture and density due to its ability to retain water. It also imparts a warm, caramel-like flavor, distinguishing it from white sugar.

When replacing it, you’ll want to mimic these qualities as closely as possible.

Common substitutions include white sugar with molasses—a combination that essentially recreates brown sugar—and options like maple syrup, honey, and coconut sugar, each bringing their own flavor notes and varying levels of sweetness.

Some adjustments to your recipe might be necessary when using these alternatives, particularly with liquid sweeteners, to maintain the desired texture and structure of your baked goods.

Understanding Brown Sugar

When you bake or cook, the ingredients you choose are crucial for the outcome of your dish. With brown sugar, you get more than just sweetness; it imparts moisture, flavor, and affects the texture and color of your creations.

What Is Brown Sugar?

Brown sugar is a distinct type of sugar characterized by its soft and moist texture. It’s made by combining refined white sugar with molasses, which is a byproduct of the sugar-making process.

Depending on the amount of molasses added, you’ll encounter two main types of brown sugar:

  • Light Brown Sugar: This variety contains about 3.5% molasses. It’s preferred for its delicate flavor.
  • Dark Brown Sugar: Darker and richer, this type has about 6.5% molasses and provides a deeper molasses flavor.

Roles in Recipes

In your recipes, brown sugar does more than sweeten. It serves several purposes:

  • Moisture: Molasses in brown sugar adds moisture, giving a soft texture to baked goods like cookies and cakes.
  • Sweetness: While brown sugar sweetens, it does so with a flavor profile that’s different from white sugar due to the presence of molasses.
  • Flavor: The molasses in brown sugar contributes a unique, caramel-like taste.
  • Color: Brown sugar can impart a light brown hue to recipes, which is especially desirable in baked goods.
  • Texture: The fine crystals of brown sugar blend easily into batters and doughs, promoting a consistent texture.

Types of Brown Sugar

Brown sugar is a key ingredient in baking and cooking that offers moisture and a distinct caramel flavor. Depending on your recipe, you’ll select either light or dark brown sugar based on the desired taste and color.

Light Brown Sugar

You’ll find that light brown sugar contains about 3.5% molasses by weight, giving it a delicate, mild caramel taste. It’s perfect for baking cookies and cakes where you desire a light, tender texture.

The subtle molasses content of light brown sugar does not overwhelm other flavors in your recipe.

  • Moisture Content: Adds moisture to baked goods for a soft texture.
  • Taste: Mildly sweet with a hint of caramel.
  • Usage: Ideal for light-colored baked goods and glazes.

Dark Brown Sugar

In contrast, dark brown sugar has closer to 6.5% molasses, making the flavor and color more pronounced. Your pies, rich cookies, and savory sauces will benefit from its robust taste and additional moisture.

  • Moisture Content: Higher than light brown sugar, contributing to a more moist outcome in recipes.
  • Taste: Richer and stronger with a deep caramel flavor.
  • Usage: Best for bold baked goods, BBQ sauces, and marinades that require a more dominant flavor.

Brown Sugar Substitutes Overview

When you’re out of brown sugar, various substitutes can step in without compromising your recipe’s sweetness. The key is to understand which alternatives match the unique properties of brown sugar: moisture, color, and flavor.

Criteria for Substitution

Moisture: Brown sugar, with its molasses content, provides a distinct moisture level that affects the texture of your dishes. A suitable substitute will need to mimic this to maintain the desired consistency.

  • White Sugar and Molasses: You can create a DIY brown sugar substitute by mixing granulated white sugar with molasses. Use 1 cup of white sugar and mix in 1-2 tablespoons of molasses for light brown sugar or up to 1/4 cup for dark brown sugar.
  • Other Liquid Sweeteners: Liquid sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, or agave can retain moisture but will have a more significant impact on the flavor. For every cup of brown sugar, use 3/4 cup of the liquid substitution.

Flavor and Color: The rich caramel taste and deep color of brown sugar are thanks to the molasses. Substitutes should offer a similar profile.

  • Maple Syrup: While it’s liquid, maple syrup can bring a similar flavor complexity and color to dishes like oatmeal, sauces, and glazes.
  • Coconut Sugar: With a caramel-like flavor, coconut sugar can be a good dry substitute, particularly in baking.
  • Raw Sugars (e.g., Muscovado): These have more molasses than regular brown sugar and can provide a robust flavor and dark color, especially in cookies.

Impact on Recipes

The substitute you choose has implications for the outcome of your recipe. Since brown sugar contributes to both the flavor and texture of your dishes, consider the role it plays:

  • Baking: Expect changes in the spread and texture of cookies or cakes. For instance, using granulated sugar may result in a crisper cookie.
  • Oatmeal: The brown sugar substitute will alter the sweetness intensity and consistency of your oatmeal.
  • Sauces and Glazes: The balance of sweetness and thickness might shift, which could affect the final product’s coating ability and shine.

Remember, proportions are crucial. Certain substitutes might require different quantities to achieve the sweet spot, not just for taste but also for your recipe’s structural integrity.

Natural Sweeteners as Substitutes

Natural sweeteners can provide distinct flavors and varying levels of sweetness to your recipes. They also contribute moisture, which is an important consideration if you’re replacing brown sugar to maintain the desired texture in baked goods.


Honey is a natural sweetener that offers rich, floral notes to your dishes. Replace brown sugar with honey in a 1:1 ratio, but reduce the amount of liquid elsewhere in the recipe by about 1/4 cup for every cup of honey used.

Maple Syrup

Maple syrup is another natural sweetener, with a unique flavor profile that can enhance the taste of your foods. For baking, substitute 3/4 cup of maple syrup for every 1 cup of brown sugar, and similarly to honey, decrease the amount of liquid in the recipe by about 3 tablespoons.

Agave Nectar

Agave nectar is sweeter than brown sugar, so you’ll want to use less of it. Try using 2/3 cup of agave nectar per 1 cup of brown sugar and reduce your recipe’s liquids by 1/4 to adjust for the extra moisture agave adds.

Coconut Sugar

Coconut sugar is a granulated sweetener that mimics the taste and texture of brown sugar fairly closely. You can substitute coconut sugar in a 1:1 ratio with brown sugar, though the sweetness level is slightly less intense.

Date Sugar

Date sugar is made from dried, ground dates and retains much of the fruit’s nutritional content. Substitute date sugar for brown sugar in equal measures, but be aware that it does not melt or dissolve as well as brown sugar does.

Maple Sugar

Finally, maple sugar, which is dehydrated maple syrup, offers a concentrated sweetness with the caramel notes of maple. Use maple sugar in a 1:1 ratio when replacing brown sugar; however, it may cause baked goods to dry out a bit more, so you might need to add extra moisture.

Granulated Sweeteners as Substitutes

In the quest for suitable substitutes for brown sugar, granulated sweeteners are invaluable. They offer a range of flavors, colors, and textures that can closely mimic or complement the rich taste of traditional brown sugar.

White Sugar with Molasses

To replicate the sweetness and moisture of brown sugar, mix white granulated sugar with molasses.

For light brown sugar, blend 1 cup of white sugar with 1 tablespoon of molasses. For a darker variety, add 2 tablespoons of molasses.

This combination creates the familiar taste and color of brown sugar, contributing to the desired texture in baked goods.

  • Taste: Rich molasses flavor similar to brown sugar.
  • Texture: Adjustable moisture depending on molasses quantity.
  • Color: Darkens with more molasses.

Turbinado Sugar

Turbinado sugar, known as ‘sugar in the raw,’ is a minimally refined sugar with a light brown color. It retains some of the natural molasses during processing. It’s a suitable brown sugar substitute providing a mild caramel flavor.

  • Taste: Less intense than brown sugar but with similar notes.
  • Texture: Larger, rougher crystals than refined sugars.
  • Color: Light amber.

Demerara Sugar

Demerara sugar is a type of raw sugar with a larger grain than turbinado and a pale amber color. It has a crunchy texture and a subtle molasses flavor.

  • Taste: Mild, less intense than brown sugar.
  • Texture: Crunchy crystals suitable for finishing.
  • Color: Pale to golden amber.

Muscovado Sugar

Muscovado sugar is an unrefined sugar with a strong molasses content. It comes in dark and light varieties, with the dark version having a stronger flavor. Your recipes will benefit from muscovado’s moist, sticky texture and deep molasses taste.

  • Taste: Rich, with a high molasses flavor similar to traditional brown sugar.
  • Texture: Moist and sticky, offering a chewy texture in baked goods.
  • Color: Deep brown, contributing a rich hue to recipes.

Liquid Sweetener Substitutes

A bottle of liquid sweetener pours into a bowl, replacing brown sugar

When you’re out of brown sugar, certain liquid sweeteners can be excellent substitutes in various recipes.

Keep in mind, you’ll likely need to adjust the quantity of other liquids in your recipe to maintain the desired consistency.

Agave Syrup

Agave syrup, also known as agave nectar, is a sweetener commercially produced from several species of agave plants.

It is sweeter than granulated sugar, so you’ll use less of it—about two-thirds of a cup for every cup of brown sugar.

This means for every 200 grams of brown sugar, 160 mL of agave nectar would suffice. Reduce your recipe’s additional liquid ingredients to compensate for the higher moisture content agave brings.

  • Sweetness: More potent than brown sugar
  • Consistency: Thinner than brown sugar
  • Adjustment: 160 mL agave syrup = 200 g brown sugar

Molasses as a Sole Sweetener

Molasses is a thick, dark syrup that is a byproduct of sugar production; it’s actually what gives brown sugar its characteristic flavor and moisture.

To use molasses as a sole sweetener in place of brown sugar, opt for ¾ cup of molasses for every cup of brown sugar.

This substitution will impart a much stronger flavor that’s rich and slightly bittersweet.

  • Flavor: Richer and bittersweet, intensely molasses-like
  • Consistency: Thicker and stickier than brown sugar
  • Note: May alter the color and flavor profile of the final product

Substitutes for Specific Recipes

When modifying recipes to substitute brown sugar, consider how the substitute will affect both moisture and flavor.

Each specific recipe has its unique requirements; choose substitutes that maintain desired texture and taste.

For Baking Cookies

In your cookie recipes, the substitute you choose can significantly impact texture. For a close match:

  • Light Brown Sugar Substitute: Use 1 cup granulated white sugar plus 1 tablespoon molasses.
  • Dark Brown Sugar Substitute: Use 1 cup granulated white sugar plus 2 tablespoons molasses.

This combination helps retain the cookies’ moisture and contributes to the chewy texture.

For Oatmeal

For oatmeal where the sugar more subtly impacts the flavor:

  • Substitute: Maple syrup or honey.
  • Use equal amounts to replace brown sugar and adjust to taste. These alternatives offer a similar sweetness with a touch of unique flavor.

For Barbecue Sauces

Barbecue sauces rely on brown sugar for a balance of sweetness and rich color. When substituting:

  • Substitute: Honey, maple syrup, or dark corn syrup.
  • Use a 1:1 ratio and keep in mind these may alter the flavor profile slightly.

For Glazes

Glazes require a delicate blend of sweetness and consistency. In glaze recipes:

  • Light Brown Sugar Substitute: White sugar combined with a small amount of molasses or honey.
  • Maintain the glaze’s sheen by ensuring a smooth mix with these substitutes.

Creating Homemade Brown Sugar

When you’re out of brown sugar, creating your own substitute at home is straightforward and efficient. All you need are two readily available ingredients: white granulated sugar and molasses.


  • 1 cup white granulated sugar
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons molasses


  1. Measure 1 cup of white granulated sugar into a mixing bowl.
  2. Add 1 tablespoon of molasses for light brown sugar. For dark brown sugar, use 2 tablespoons.
  3. Use a fork to combine the molasses and sugar together until completely mixed. For larger quantities or a smoother texture, a hand mixer or food processor may be employed.
  4. Once evenly mixed, the texture should be consistent with that of commercial brown sugar.


  • Storage: Store your homemade brown sugar in an airtight container to prevent it from hardening.
  • Adjusting Color and Flavor: Add more molasses if a darker color and richer flavor are desired.

Ratio Table:

White SugarLight Brown SugarDark Brown Sugar
1 cup1 tbsp molasses2 tbsp molasses

Substitutes Originating from Asia

A pile of brown sugar substitutes from Asia, such as palm sugar or jaggery, arranged on a wooden cutting board

When seeking alternatives to brown sugar that stem from Asia, you’ll find palm sugar to be one of the most prominent substitutes.

This unrefined sugar is derived from the sap of various types of palm trees found predominantly in Southeast Asian countries.

Palm Sugar

Palm sugar, which includes varieties such as coconut sugar, is produced through a natural process where the sap from palm trees—most commonly the coconut palm—is extracted, boiled, and then solidified.

As an unrefined sugar, it retains more of the nutrients found in the palm sap, such as minerals and antioxidants.

  • Nutritional Profile: Typically richer in minerals than refined sugars.
  • Flavor: Often described as having a caramel-like taste, palm sugar adds a similar depth of flavor to dishes as brown sugar does.
  • Usage: You can use palm sugar in a 1:1 ratio when substituting for brown sugar in recipes, keeping in mind that textures and flavors can vary slightly due to its distinct characteristics.

Considerations for Brown Sugar Alternatives

When you decide to replace brown sugar in a recipe, you need to consider how the substitute will affect texture, moisture, and taste.

The color and sweetness of your dish may also be impacted, as well as any health benefits or concerns that come with alternative sweeteners.

Effects on Texture and Moisture

Substitutes can significantly alter the texture and moisture content of your baked goods.

Brown sugar, due to its molasses content, adds a moist and dense texture. If you’re using granulated white sugar and molasses as a substitute, aim for a ratio of 1 cup of sugar to 1 tablespoon of molasses for light brown sugar, or 2 tablespoons for dark brown sugar to closely mimic the original properties.

For liquid sweeteners like honey or maple syrup, you might need to slightly reduce other liquids in your recipe to maintain balance.

Adjusting Recipes

When modifying your recipe, consider the following adjustments:

  • Granulated Sugar and Molasses: No additional changes necessary if using the suggested ratios.
  • Liquid Sweeteners (Honey, Maple Syrup):
    • Reduce other liquids by about 3-4 tablespoons per cup of sweetener
    • Bake at a slightly lower temperature to prevent excess browning

Health Considerations

The health impact of substituting brown sugar is dependent on what you use.

Sweeteners like honey or maple syrup contain trace nutrients but are still high in sugar. If you’re looking for a sugar-free option, sweeteners like stevia or erythritol might be suitable, but they may lack the necessary properties to replicate brown sugar’s moisture and texture.

It’s crucial to choose a substitute that aligns with your dietary needs while being aware that each alternative brings its own flavor profile and sweetness levels.

Pantry Staples for Brown Sugar Substitution

Replacing brown sugar is straightforward when you know the right pantry staples to use. Be confident that with these substitutions, your recipes will still taste great.

Stocking Alternatives

In the absence of brown sugar, white sugar is the most accessible alternative. However, because white sugar lacks the moisture content of brown sugar, you might notice a textural change in baked goods—they may become crisper.

To counter this effect, add a touch of a moist ingredient like applesauce or granola to the recipe.

Natural sugars, such as honey or agave syrup, are also practical substitutes. When using these liquid sweeteners, reduce the amount slightly to maintain the desired consistency of your dish.

DIY Mixes

To make DIY brown sugar, blend 1 cup of white sugar with 2 tablespoons of molasses. This mimics the flavor and moistness of store-bought brown sugar. It’s quick to make and uses ingredients that are often on hand in your pantry:

  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 2 tablespoons molasses

Stir vigorously until the molasses is completely incorporated into the sugar. You’ve created homemade brown sugar!

Frequently Asked Questions

In this section, you’ll find concise answers to some common queries regarding how to substitute brown sugar in your recipes, catering to various dietary needs and preferences.

What can I use as a brown sugar substitute in cookie recipes?

For your cookie recipes, you can substitute brown sugar with white granulated sugar combined with molasses. Use 1 cup of white sugar and 2 teaspoons of molasses for light brown sugar, or 1 tablespoon for dark brown sugar. Add them to your recipe at the same time without mixing beforehand.

How can I replace brown sugar in baking without using molasses?

To replace brown sugar without molasses, use white granulated sugar in the same amount. However, keep in mind that this may affect the moisture and taste of your baked goods, as molasses in brown sugar contributes to its unique properties.

Which sugar substitute is healthiest for replacing brown sugar?

Coconut sugar is often touted as a healthier alternative due to its lower glycemic index and trace nutrients. It can replace brown sugar in a 1:1 ratio but bear in mind that it can still affect blood sugar levels.

Are there any sugar-free alternatives that taste like brown sugar?

Yes, there are sugar-free options like erythritol or stevia blends specifically designed to mimic the taste and texture of brown sugar, perfect for those cutting down on sugar intake. They typically measure cup-for-cup like brown sugar but check the packaging for specific substitution ratios.

Can white sugar be used as a direct replacement for brown sugar?

White sugar can directly replace brown sugar in recipes; however, this will likely result in differences in flavor, color, and texture since white sugar lacks the depth that molasses adds to brown sugar.

What is the best brown sugar alternative for diabetic diets?

For diabetic diets, consider sugar substitutes like allulose or erythritol that have a lower impact on blood sugar.

They both have a taste similar to brown sugar and can often be used in equal measurements. However, it’s essential to check the substitute’s guidelines for precise ratios.

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Cassie brings decades of experience to the Kitchen Community. She is a noted chef and avid gardener. Her new book "Healthy Eating Through the Garden" will be released shortly. When not writing or speaking about food and gardens Cassie can be found puttering around farmer's markets and greenhouses looking for the next great idea.
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