Finding a brown sugar substitute can seem like a daunting task. A combination of granulated sugar and molasses, this distinct-tasting sweetener adds sweetness, moisture and richness to hard-to-beat desserts. Even in savory applications like glazes and barbecue sauces, brown sugar brings a distinct depth of flavor. While everyone should own some brown sugar, there are substitutes that come remarkably close to the real thing. Some of these alternatives require an extra step or two to work optimally, while others can be swapped out one at a time.
Several factors can impact the result, including the form of the brown sugar substitute (granular versus liquid, etc.) and the application of the recipe. Things can get tricky when it comes to baking, as the different chemical compositions of substitutes can impact things like texture, density, and rise. Due to its molasses content, brown sugar is slightly acidic, which means it reacts with baking soda, promoting lightness in baked goods. But by considering these factors and allowing for some trial and error, you can avoid that dreaded emergency run to the grocery store.
White sugar and molasses
A combination of refined sugar and molasses is by far the best brown sugar substitute since these are the two components that make up the ingredient. Molasses is responsible for brown sugar’s deeper flavor and color, as well as its higher moisture content (which can cause that irritating clumping). This is also what distinguishes light brown sugar, which contains 3% to 4% molasses, from dark brown sugar, which contains 6% to 10% molasses. Light and dark brown sugar can be used interchangeably in a pinch, but if you’re making homemade brown sugar, it’s easy to adjust depending on what the recipe calls for. Mix 1 cup granulated white sugar with 1 tbsp. molasses for a light brown sugar substitute, or 2 tbsp. for a dark brown sugar substitute.
White sugar and liquid sweetener
No molasses around? You can still create a suitable substitute for brown sugar if you have one of these common ingredients in your pantry: maple syrup, agave nectar, honey, brown rice syrup, or date syrup. Combine liquid sweetener with white sugar using the same ratio as you would with molasses; 1–2 tbsp. for every 1 cup of white sugar. Of these, date syrup is your best bet thanks to its caramel-like, almost nutty flavor reminiscent of molasses. None of these sweeteners will provide the same depth of flavor or color, but all are solid options.
If you don’t have any of these sweeteners, but do have pomegranate molasses, you can try mixing it with white sugar in the same amount. This will impart a tartness to the dish, and possibly a rosy tint depending on the amount used, but depending on what other flavors you use this could be a strength rather than a weakness.
The liquid sweeteners listed above can also serve as solo substitutes for brown sugar, as they all impart sweetness along with a depth of flavor, but they are not easy substitutes. You will definitely experience texture changes due to the added moisture, especially when it comes to cooking, but experimenting with adjusting the recipe can help make up for the difference. Start by using less sweetener than the recipe calls for; for example, if a recipe calls for 1 cup of brown sugar, use ⅔ to ¾ cup of liquid sweetener. Not only does this address the added moisture, but it also addresses the increased sweetness of these substitutes compared to brown sugar.
If you still don’t get the desired result, try reducing the other liquid components and/or reducing the cooking time by a few minutes. Sticking to recipes that don’t involve cooking or are already runny, like frostings, sauces, or drinks (hello, bubble tea at home) is even better.
Piloncillo (aka panela)
Popular in Latin American cuisine, these sweeteners are made from sugarcane juice reduced to syrup, which is then poured into cone- or disc-shaped molds and allowed to harden. It comes in both light and dark varieties, but the difference in color comes down to the type of cane being processed rather than the addition of more or less of a particular element. Its flavor is also more robust than typical brown sugar, with a pleasant earthiness. To use either, you must grate the sugar block on a box grater or shave it with a serrated knife. You can also break the block into pieces and blend it in your food processor. After breaking it down, measure the piloncillo in a measure equal to the brown sugar.
Coconut sugar (sometimes called palm sugar, although this term can refer to sugar derived from a few different plants) is made from the sap of the coconut palm, with a brown tint that resembles brown sugar. Its flavor has nothing to do with coconut – in fact, it tastes quite similar to brown sugar but with a slightly salty and smoky undertone. Just because these two ingredients look and taste so similar doesn’t mean they’ll behave the same. Brown sugar has more moisture thanks to its higher molasses content, and coconut sugar is comparatively higher in fiber. Using coconut sugar may result in baked goods that are drier or crispier than expected. The effect will vary depending on the recipe – depending on your preference, the added crispiness may even be an improvement. But if you feel a lack of moisture, try to balance that out with a little extra fat in the form of butter or oil.
Not to be confused with date palm sugar, which is similar in composition to coconut sugar, this sugar is made from ground dehydrated dates. Although it’s also a bit drier than brown sugar, this option has a rich caramel flavor and can be used 1:1 as a brown sugar substitute in any recipe. Try it in a batch of oatmeal cookies with fresh dates replaced by the usual raisins.
Unrefined sugars are great for sprinkling on shortbread or pre-baked chocolate chip cookies for extra texture, but they can also be used in place of brown sugar. Some of the more common and readily available varieties include demerara sugar, turbinado sugar, and muscovado sugar. All three types of sugar have a light brown color similar to standard brown sugar, and all three contain molasses. They can usually be swapped at a one-to-one ratio, but just like some other brown sugar alternatives, you may need to make adjustments to account for the difference in texture.