When baking, can you substitute brown sugar for white sugar and vice versa? Sort of, is the quick answer. But there is a difference between what brown sugar and white sugar will do to your cookies, pastries, brownies, and breads.
White Sugar vs Brown Sugar
White sugar is made from either sugar cane or beets and is refined to get rid of impurities, writes Joanne Chang, pastry chef and co-owner of Flour Bakery + Café in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, in her cookbook, “Baking with Less Sugar.”
Baking with Less Sugar, $25 from Amazon
These recipes use natural sweeteners and little-to-no refined white sugar.
Brown sugar is only partially refined, which means it still has some molasses clinging to it. Also, many sugar manufacturers just add molasses to refined white sugar and package it as brown sugar. That’s fine too.
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When Should You Use White vs Brown Sugar?
Brown sugar makes baked goods more moist than white sugar because of the molasses content, says Pichet Ong, pastry chef and author of “The Sweet Spot: Asian Inspired Desserts.” This means you may have to adjust some of the other proportions in the recipe if you sub in brown sugar for white, like slightly decreasing the wet ingredients or upping the dry ones. Brown sugar will also add a hint of rich caramel flavor and affect the color.
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Ong says he decides which to use based on what texture he wants. For something like a zucchini or banana bread, where he’s looking for a moist texture, brown sugar is good. But he likes layer cakes to be more dry and aerated, so he sticks to white. He says you can also use a combo like many cookie recipes do.
Speaking of cookies, in her book “BakeWise,” Shirley Corriher notes that white sugar used in high proportions “makes a very crisp cookie that stays crisp,” while brown sugar is more “hygroscopic,” meaning it draws in water more easily from the air. Therefore cookies made with brown sugar “will absorb moisture from the atmosphere and soften on standing.” (So it’s key in chewy chocolate chip cookies, for instance.)
If your brown sugar is rock hard, by the way, see how to soften brown sugar.
What About Turbinado Sugar and Demarara Sugar?
Substituting turbinado or Demerara (the “natural” brown sugars usually sold as “raw sugar”) doesn’t work so well, says Ong. They won’t melt down the way granulated white or conventional brown sugar would in a recipe because of the large crystal size. He likes to take advantage of the texture of these bigger crystals by using them to crust cakes or cookies. (You can also use them in this crustless pumpkin pie recipe.)
Related Reading: 9 Baking Mistakes That Ruin Your Cakes, Cookies, Brownies & Bread
What About Powdered Sugar?
Fun fact: Powered sugar or confectioner’s sugar is just regular white sugar that has been pulverized to a fine, fluffy texture (so if you need powdered sugar and only have white granulated sugar at home, simply blitz it in the food processor or blender until it turns into the powdered stuff).
Cuisinart 3-Cup Mini Prep Plus Food Processor, $39.95 from Sur La Table
This size is great for smaller jobs.
Many commercial brands of powdered sugar also include cornstarch to keep it from clumping, so it can make sauces or glazes thicker than if you used white sugar, but according to Betty Crocker, you can substitute it for white sugar in baked goods with no problem. The suggested ratio is 1 3/4 cups powdered sugar for 1 cup regular white sugar. (See more substitutes for white sugar if you’re out of both granulated and powdered.)
Related Reading: A Guide to Types of Sugar
What About Sugar Substitutes?
There are a wealth of other options, so for more details, see our guide to sugar substitutes and alternative sweeteners (both natural and artificial).
How to Make Your Own Brown Sugar
If you really want brown sugar and all you have on hand is white granulated sugar, you can make it at home, as long as you have molasses, writes award-winning blogger and home cook Deb Perelman in “The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook.” “You can make your own brown sugar by mixing 1 cup of granulated sugar with 11/2 tablespoons molasses (for light brown sugar) or 1/4 cup molasses (for dark brown sugar) and measuring what you need from this mixture,” Perelman says.
As a reasonable backup if you don’t have molasses, use maple syrup instead—but in different proportions, and be sure to adjust the moisture in your recipe.
Coconut sugar is also a good 1:1 substitute for brown sugar, but it’s not as moist, so it can make your baked goods a bit drier.
White & Brown Sugar Recipes
Try some of our favorite recipes that include a combo of both brown and white sugar in different proportions.
These berrylicious muffins have a little nutrition squished inside, tasty nutrition that is: blueberrries, for starters, almonds, and whole wheat flour. You’ll need both white and brown sugar, but not as much as you would for other muffin recipes. Try our Almond-Whole Wheat Blueberry Muffin recipe.
No layers, no problem. This easy carrot cake requires one rectangle-shaped baking pan, and that’s it. The cake delivers a cartful of moist, carrot-ty goodness with that creamy cream cheese topping we crave. It requires both white granulated sugar and brown sugar. Try our Easy Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting recipe.
Chocolate and peanut butter go together like white and brown sugar in these gooey cookies. Each contributes its own gifts to make us go mmm. Try our Ganache-Filled Chocolate Peanut Butter Cookie recipe.
Both brown and white sugars play with Granny Smith apples and all the other fun packed within the tube pan in this simple, but sweet and moist cake. Try our Apple Dapple Cake recipe.
In this recipe, the sugars are actually separated, with granulated sugar in the rich cream cheese swirl and brown sugar sweetening the moist chocolate brownie layer beneath. Get our Cream Cheese Swirl Brownie recipe.
Related Video: How to Make Your Own Colored Sugar
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