Perhaps I am not the best person to go to for advice about sugar. After all, I didn’t know it existed until I was about six. As a kid, I was always the first one to leave the birthday party with my mom. We left, you see, so I wouldn’t discover the cake. Weaving through the front gardens of my kindergarten friends’ oversize Berkeley homes, my mother would pick the candy from the goodie bag and, with righteous conviction, toss it into the potted plants.
You can imagine my surprise when, around the time my friends found out about Santa, I discovered I’d been suckered into celebrating my own birthdays with “birthday soup” and had lost a few pounds of perfectly good candy to somebody’s flowerpot. The good news is that while my friends were totally decompensating as their entire theological framework went up the chimney, I was eating cake.
I may have gotten a late start on sugar, but I was way ahead on wholesome sugar substitutes. Muffins sweetened only with yams (okay, this tasted like warm cardboard), barley-syrup cookies, amazake pudding. I could list off about a dozen healthy sugar alternatives faster than my friends could finish a candy bar.
Now, I would no more return to my pre-sugar innocence than you would go sit on a mall Santa’s lap and beg for Christmas presents, but I will say that my savory past has given me certain insight. I know, for example, that there are many interesting and unexpected flavors to be found in sweeteners other than sugar. And I know that these other sweeteners are particularly useful in place of brown sugar, which is really just white sugar plus flavor (well kind of; it’s more complicated when it comes to baking).
So whether you squandered the last of your brown sugar on body scrubs or bubble tea, this guide will help you make substitutions with ease. Just know, if you use this to deprive your six-year-old son of birthday cake, you can forget about Santa. I’ll send the coal myself.
You’d be forgiven for assuming that brown sugar is just a less processed version of white sugar. But in most cases, the opposite is true. Sugarcane juice is partially evaporated and centrifuged to remove molasses, creating white sugar (almost pure sucrose). Then, it is further processed by reintroducing some of the molasses. The sandy, slightly wet result is about 10 percent molasses by weight and has a warm caramel flavor and color. Brown sugar is very hygroscopic, meaning it attracts moisture, and this has an effect on the texture of baked goods (more on this later).
Fortunately, in many cases, substituting other sweeteners for brown sugar is a piece of cake. Just not for things like, well, cake. Sweetening cocktails, pudding, pie filling? Making the topping for an upside-down cake? Swap away in a 1:1 amount. If you need a precise amount for the recipe, just do it by weight and you’ll be fine.
But for baked goods, where sugar is playing a role in a set of complex chemical reactions, things get trickier. Below is a list of useful brown sugar substitutes for baked goods and beyond, with suggested recipes (yam muffins not included).
DIY brown sugar
The best substitute for brown sugar is… brown sugar. Since we know that it’s made up of about 90 percent white sugar and 10 percent molasses by weight, we can just combine these and end up in about the same place (by volume, this is about 1 cup white sugar to 1 tablespoon molasses). Just stir them together thoroughly before adding to your recipe.
Other cane sugars
I wish I could say that less refined cane sugars work just about the same as brown sugar in recipes, but no such luck. Depending on the amount and method of refinement, other cane sugars have different hygroscopic properties, and possibly different pHs. Some are evaporated over high heat and have deep caramel notes or even a touch of smokiness. Though you can substitute these sugars 1:1 into most recipes, it’s for the most part best to use a recipe that’s designed for the sugar you have on hand.
An unrefined granulated sugar with a darker color than brown sugar and a higher molasses content, muscovado has a powerful, enveloping flavor. It packs a punch in this rich flan and plays off butterscotch and miso in this banana cake. There are both light and dark versions, like brown sugar. The lighter one is close enough to brown sugar to use in most recipes, though the flavor is stronger.
Jaggery is an unrefined cane or palm sugar usually molded into hard blocks. It is traditional to many South Asian cuisines, and its earthy flavor is perfect in savory Andhra chippa karamu (a spicy tamarind sauce) or in less traditional Spicy Chocolate Chip–Hazelnut Cookies.
Made from the first pressing of sugarcane, turbinado is lighter than other unrefined sugars, and milder. Its large grains are also low enough in moisture-loving molasses to have a nice crunch. Sprinkle it over Marian Burros’ beloved plum torte for texture.
Raw sugar is heavily centrifuged, partially evaporated cane juice, making it much closer to white sugar than brown sugar. Its mild flavor plays well with others, as in this delicate almond rice pudding. With its low molasses content, it will usually result in baked goods with a slightly different texture (this can be unpredictable). Your best bet is to slightly increase the liquid.
Produced during the sugaring process, molasses is beloved for its robust, slightly bitter flavor and its ability to make wonderfully moist baked goods (because it’s hygroscopic, remember?). Light molasses is made from the first boil in the production process, dark from the second, and blackstrap from the third. Blackstrap is not what you want. It makes mild-mannered molasses cookies taste like nuclear waste.
The other two are interchangeable. Bake molasses into all manner of cozy fall and winter desserts, but mostly into David Lebovitz’s superlative Fresh Ginger Cake, where molasses’s moisture-retaining properties are on full display.
Cane sugar alternatives
There is a huge array of natural sweeteners out there, and many of them are actually good. So long as you consider their unique flavors, and don’t, for example, try to sweeten a chocolate mousse with applesauce, you’ll be ok. Just remember that along with sweetness, moisture, and chemical composition (fructose, glucose, and other sugars behave differently from sucrose), sugars also vary in terms of pH. If you are using a recipe with baking soda, it is likely meant to react with the slight acidity of brown sugar. Switching to another sweetener may throw off the reaction.
In sum: These brown-sugar subs are great for helping season dishes (like in BBQ sauce or on top of oatmeal, say), but are maybe not the best for baking.
The boiled sap of red, black, or sugar maples, maple syrup was produced and consumed in North America by Native American peoples for many centuries prior to European colonization. It’s wonderful drizzled over pancakes and waffles, of course, but also try it in this airy frosting, or layer it into this outrageous walnut cake.
This granulated sugar produced from maple syrup has a lot in common with brown sugar, in theory. In practice, it’s much sweeter, and lacks brown sugar’s hygroscopic properties. Therefore, it’s best to use in recipes that call for white sugar, but that could use a flavor boost. Or try it in this Rum Apple Cake, which also happens to be gluten-free.
Every summer, my family went to Vermont for a month. We stayed on a beautiful island on Lake Champlain, and my parents and brother spent their time swimming in the icy water, wandering through the birch groves, lounging in the sun. I spent my time eating maple butter. The light, whipped protégé of maple syrup, this is a situation where the student has become the master. Slather it on toast, spread it between cookies like dulce de leche, or use it to glaze banana bread.
Honey, I hate to break it to you, is semidigested flower nectar that’s been repeatedly swallowed and regurgitated by a large group of bees before being partially evaporated by their body heat. But hey, I’m not here to judge you. Like brown sugar, honey is hygroscopic, but unlike brown sugar, it mostly consists of fructose and glucose, instead of more complex sucrose. It’s sweeter than brown sugar (around twice as sweet) and also acidic. To sub it into recipes calling for brown sugar, add less, and also reduce the amount of liquid a bit (honey is around 20 percent water). Because its acidity is much higher than that of brown sugar, you may need to add a pinch of baking soda to make cakes rise properly. Or cut out the guesswork and just make this honey cake.
Barley malt syrup
Made by heating barley until its own enzymes break its starches into sugars (mostly maltose), barley malt syrup is addictive without being particularly sweet. Try it in this satisfying, layered pudding.
Brown rice syrup
I grew up practically bathing in brown rice syrup, and have therefore tried to avoid it as an adult. But it absolutely has its place. Made much the same way as barley malt syrup, it’s thick, mild, and perfect for the kind of hippie desserts I was raised on, like these crunchy rice-cereal treats.
A sort of porridge made by fermenting rice grains with koji (the same family of mold responsible for soy sauce and miso), amazake is sweet, slightly alcoholic, and deeply comforting. Eat it, drink it, or heat it with a bit of cornstarch, rice flour, or agar to make a very healthy pudding.
Dates themselves are an excellent sweetener, found in smoothies the world over, as well as in Middle Eastern confections like mamool (possibly the best cookies in existence). Date sugar, produced by baking date paste with maltodextrin, is even more versatile. Try subbing out the white and brown sugar in these Date, Halvah & Chocolate Chunk Cookies for extra date flavor.
Another childhood staple of mine, date paste is exactly what it sounds like. Try it in these nutritious breakfast muffins.
This powerfully sweet syrup is delicious drizzled on yogurt or baked into granola (if the recipe calls for brown sugar, use about half as much date molasses by weight). It’s also great served with asida, a wheat flour pudding popular in much of North Africa and the Middle East.
The boiled sap of the sugar palm, this sweetener is sold in solid cones and as a thick paste in many Southeast Asian markets. Use it to add a rounding sweetness to Thai curries or to transform David Lebovitz’s ginger cake, along with young ginger and a touch of turmeric or galangal.
Produced from the leaves of the agave cactus, this sweet amber syrup behaves more like honey than brown sugar (and it's vegan, thanks to the lack of regurgitating bees). It’s right at home in this gluten-free tiramisu.
Yes, it’s good on latkes, blintzes, and by itself. But it’s also pretty tasty in a birthday cake. Even my mom would approve.