There’s a lot to know about brown sugar – refined vs unrefined, light vs dark, packed vs unpacked. Get the full scoop on this favorite sweetener, including bonus tips on measuring, substitutions, softening, storage, and more!
White sugar is sweet and light, but some recipes just need the distinctive flavor of brown sugar. It’s richer, almost caramel-like. Plus it is soft and moist, giving your final bake the perfect chewy texture.
Not to mention, brown sugar is delicious! Use it as a sweetener on oatmeal, a topping for muffins, a smooth glaze vegetables, or just for a quick pinch of sugary goodness.
What Is Brown Sugar?
Brown sugar is simply white sugar with molasses added into it, giving it both flavor and color. There are essentially two types:
- Refined: There’s a good chance this is the kind of sugar you have in mind. Any grocery store sells it labeled simply as light or dark “brown sugar.” Soft and moist, it comes from blending molasses with refined white sugar.
- Unrefined (aka factory, natural, raw): Made by adding molasses to white sugar that already has some in it (leftover from its refining process). This type is often coarse and not as soft or moist as the refined version. Also, be aware that although this is the least refined type of sugar, it has still been through a refining process.
To keep things simple, from now on when I refer to brown sugar, you can assume I mean refined. After all, that’s the kind that is most often used in baking delicious cookies!
So what is the difference between brown sugar vs white sugar?
As I already explained, brown sugar is simply white sugar with molasses added in. The molasses adds moisture, making it naturally soft and moist. Baked goods made with brown sugar come out soft, chewy, and are often darker in color than those made with white sugar.
Dark vs. Light Brown Sugar
Whether or not you use dark or light brown sugar may affect the color and flavor of your final bake as well. The difference between dark and light comes down to how much molasses is in each one. Here’s what you need to know:
Dark brown sugar has about 6 – 8% molasses. It is darker in color, of course, and has a richer flavor than light.
Light, or golden, brown sugar has 2 – 3.5% molasses. It has a beautiful light golden color and subtle molasses flavor that is delightful in baking.
If a recipe doesn’t specify light or dark, then either kind will probably work. However, try to choose the flavor that will best match your recipe. Dark has a richer, caramel flavor that can overwhelm other flavors. Light brown sugar’s flavor is more mellow.
Brown Sugar Substitute
When used purely as a sweetener – on top of oatmeal, for instance – either kind of sugar can be used interchangeably. Brown or white, they both contain the same amount of sweetness.
When used in baking, however, substituting brown sugar with white sugar can lead to some unexpected results. Remember, brown sugar has molasses in it, which is acidic and lowers pH levels. Often in recipes, the acid reacts with baking soda to produce leavening.
If you’re really in a pinch, you can try using white sugar, but know that it won’t react with the baking soda to cause rise in your bake. Your cookies may end up flat and spread out.
You’re more likely to be successful using white sugar if your recipe uses baking powder, not baking soda. This is because baking powder has the necessary acid already built in. In such recipes, brown sugar is likely acting as a sweetener, and white sugar could do the job. Of course, you’ll lose some flavor and moisture, so your final bake could still be affected.
Go here to learn more about how baking soda and baking powder work.
When you substitute ingredients in baking, you’re conducting an at-home science experiment. It’s fascinating, but you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get!
Or why not try making your own? It’s quick, easy, and it acts just like the “real” thing in baking.
How to Make Brown Sugar at Home
All it takes is white sugar mixed and molasses to make your own! Use the following ratio to come up with the perfect blend:
- Light: 1 cup white granulated sugar + 1 Tablespoon molasses
- Dark: 1 cup white granulated sugar + 2 Tablespoons molasses
It’s that easy! If you want to make more, simply adjust your measurements accordingly. To mix together, combine sugar and molasses in a food processor and pulse a few times, until blended.
Alternatively, you can mix them together in a bowl using a fork, but they may not incorporate quite as well. Also, you can put both ingredients into a sealed Ziploc bag and massage molasses until combined.
Packed Brown Sugar
“Packed” refers to how the sugar is measured. Most ingredients are lightly scooped or sifted, but brown sugar is packed – or firmly pressed – into its measuring cup. To do this, first fill the measuring cup, then press it into the cup using a spoon. Pressing it will leave a space at the top, so spoon more sugar on top, and pack it down the same way. Continue until full, then level the top. When flipped over, the sugar should retain the shape of the measuring cup.
How to Store
Brown sugar can last indefinitely if stored in a sealed, airtight container. For instance, if you store it in its original bag, try double bagging it in a second Ziploc bag, preferably a heavy-duty freezer bag. Or if you transfer it to another container, choose one that is airtight, with a good seal on its lid.
Even when stored properly, it may harden over time as moisture evaporates off of the sugar crystals. When it does, it will form into a large block or clumps of sugar.
How to Soften
Don’t throw away the hard sugar! It hasn’t gone bad – in fact, it’s still perfectly useable. Here are some tried-and-true ways to soften your brown sugar for baking:
- Bread – Place a slice of bread into a sealed, airtight container with the hardened sugar. The sugar will absorb the moisture. After a few days, remove the bread and fluff sugar with a fork to break up any unwanted clumps. It will be as good as new!
- Paper towel – Place a moist paper towel over a bowl of brown sugar, and leave it overnight. It will be soft by the morning. Or if you’re in a hurry, place sugar in a microwave-safe bowl and cover with a damp paper towel. Microwave on high for 20 seconds, then break any clumps with a fork. Repeat as needed until softened. Handle with care, since the bowl and sugar will be hot. Use immediately, because the heating process will cause the sugar to reharden more quickly.
- Brown Sugar Saver – Invest a few dollars in a sugar saver – yes, that’s a real thing! It’s like a small piece of terra cotta that you wet and slip into your airtight container. As long as you remember to wet it every few months, your sugar will always be nice and soft.
Yes, it should always be measured by packing it into its measuring cup. To do this, fill the cup then press firmly with the back of a spoon. Scoop more sugar on top and press down again, repeating until the cup is full and level. Packing the sugar ensures the volume remains consistent from recipe to recipe.
Since brown sugar is simply white granulated sugar with molasses added in, it has the same nutrition value as white sugar + the molasses. It is not healthier for you than white sugar.
Brown sugar doesn’t go bad, but it can become hardened as its moisture content evaporates. To soften, place a slice of bread in its sealed container for a few days. The sugar will absorb the bread’s moisture and be soft and usable again. Alternatively, you can cover a bowl of hardened sugar with a moist paper towel and let it sit overnight. The sugar will be soft the next day.
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More Baking Tips
For more great baking tips, take a look at these resources. Your cookies will thank you!