What Is Brown Sugar?

Buying, Baking, and Recipes

Bowl of maple sugar

Brian Yarvin / Getty Images

Brown sugar is made of crystalline sucrose combined with a small amount of molasses, which is responsible for its characteristic color and rich flavor. It's produced in major sugar-producing areas of the world, including the Caribbean, Brazil, Australia, Europe, South Africa, and parts of the U.S. Brown sugar's use is widespread because it contributes a dark sweetness to baked goods. It's used in cooking as well, including sweet sauces and glazes for savory dishes.

Fast Facts

  • Main Components: White sugar, molasses
  • Shelf Life: 2 years or more
  • Storage: Airtight container

Brown Sugar vs. Raw Sugar

The brown sugar called for in baking recipes is different from raw sugar (Sugar in the Raw is a popular brand name). They both have a brown color, though raw sugar tends to be lighter and more golden. Raw sugar still contains the residues of molasses left over from the refining process, whereas molasses is added to white sugar to create brown sugar. Raw sugar's sucrose crystals are generally slightly larger and the sugar is less moist in texture. Varieties of natural brown sugar include turbinado, muscovado, and demerara.

The two sugars have similar nutritional values and are used in similar cooking applications. Brown sugar is typically reserved for baking, candy, sauces, and on top of hot cereals. Raw sugar is used more like white sugar for baking, cooking, drink sweetener, and condiments. Where raw sugar is a better substitute for white granulated sugar, brown sugar's fine crystals make it more suitable as an alternative to caster (or superfine) sugar.

Varieties

The amount of molasses added to the white sugar determines what type of brown sugar is produced:

  • Light Brown Sugar: This is the most common type used for baking. Recipes that call for brown sugar without specifying either light or dark generally require light brown sugar. Light brown sugar contains approximately 3.5 percent molasses by weight.
  • Dark Brown Sugar: Dark brown sugar is approximately 6.5 percent molasses by weight and is used when an extra rich flavor or color is desired.
  • Liquid Brown Sugar: Domino Sugar, a predominant sugar manufacturer in the United States, used to produce a liquid brown sugar product. Although the product is no longer available, many older recipes still include this ingredient. To make a substitute for liquid brown sugar at home, combine one part water with three parts light brown sugar. The mixture may need to be heated slightly for the sugar to fully dissolve.

Brown Sugar Uses

Brown sugar is used very similarly to granulated white sugar, but it provides a touch of extra flavor. Since molasses is hygroscopic (able to absorb water), brown sugar and the baked goods made with it retain moisture well.

Common uses for brown sugar include sweetening baked goods, sauces, marinades, and even bacon. It's also made into a sugar syrup, often with spices, to flavor beverages. Thanks to the granules and slightly acidic pH (as well as its sweet smell), brown sugar has also become a popular ingredient in body scrubs.

How to Cook With Brown Sugar

Brown sugar requires no special preparation and can be used directly from the package. When measuring brown sugar, pack it tightly in the measuring cup or spoon. The extra moisture makes it difficult to accurately measure otherwise. Additionally, it's heavier than white sugar but lighter than most raw sugar. When using weight measurements, 1 cup is equivalent to 220 grams (white sugar is 200 grams and raw sugar is 250 grams).

It is typically mixed in with the recipe's other ingredients. In some baked recipes, including many for cookies, brown sugar is paired with white sugar. Brown sugar may also be heated on the stovetop to create candy or glazes. For these, you'll often stir it into a liquid until it's dissolved and use low heat to prevent burning.

What Does It Taste Like?

Brown sugar, in general, tastes like crystallized molasses or toffee. The taste of dark brown sugar is often likened to caramel with a deep molasses flavor, while light brown sugar is milder and less complex.

Brown Sugar Substitute

White or raw sugars can be used in place of brown sugar in many recipes. The food will retain the sweetness, but it won't have the extra flavor and the color will be lighter with white sugar. You may also need to slightly increase the recipe's liquid to make up for the lost moisture.

You can make brown sugar at home by combining 1 tablespoon of molasses for every 1 cup of granulated white sugar. Stir the sugar and molasses together until an even color and texture are achieved. This substitute will retain the recipe's flavor, moisture, and color.

Brown Sugar Recipes

Brown sugar is used in a variety of recipes, though most often in sweets such as cakes, cookies, muffins, and bars. It's also found in brown sugar frostings and sweet desserts sauces. The caramel flavor is a popular addition in sauces and glazes for savory dishes, including beans, meats, and vegetables.

Where to Buy Brown Sugar

Brown sugar can be purchased at any grocery store as well as other stores with a basic baking section and online. It's found in the baking aisle along with other sugars and generally packaged in 2-pound plastic bags for just a few dollars. You will likely pay more for dark brown sugar because it's not as common as the light variety. If you need a lot of brown sugar, it is available in bulk quantities up to 50 pounds. Most home cooks will find that one of the smaller bags lasts quite a while.

Storage

Brown sugar must be kept in an airtight container in order to retain its moisture content. When exposed to air, it may harden as the moisture slowly evaporates out. Some people prefer a canister, though you can also place the opened package in a plastic zip-top bag. As long as it's properly stored, brown sugar really doesn't have a shelf life, though the quality is best when used within 2 years.

Hardened brown sugar can be softened by adding a slice of bread, a few marshmallows, or an apple wedge to the container and sealing it tightly. Within a few hours, the molasses will have absorbed some of the moisture and the sugar will be soft again.

Nutrition and Benefits

Nutritionally, brown sugar is a little better off than white sugar because molasses naturally retains a few minerals. However, with the small amount of molasses in brown sugar, that's minimal. It does have a little more calcium, iron, and potassium than white sugar. One teaspoon of brown sugar has 15 calories, compared to white sugar's 16.3 calories.