Need a Substitute for Brown Sugar? We Have 6

Your farmers market haul is finally ripe enough to be turned into peach cobbler. That is, until you check the pantry and find you’re all out of brown sugar. Don’t stress yet—odds are you have an easy alternative already in your kitchen. Here are six ideas to use when you need a substitute for brown sugar.

So, What *Is* Brown Sugar?

The key to drool-worthy baked beans, candied bacon and lots of bold baked goods. According to King Arthur Flour, brown sugar was once made from partially evaporated sugar cane juice, which produces natural molasses. Now, brown sugar (both light and dark) is made by adding molasses to white granulated sugar. Light brown sugar infuses treats and dishes with toffee-caramel flavor and color, while dark brown sugar does the same but more intensely.

You can substitute light brown sugar for dark brown sugar and vice versa. The only potential difference will be the strength of brown sugar flavor and color in the finished product, but it should be pretty minimal. But if you don’t have light or dark brown sugar, it’s time to get creative.

Which Brown Sugar Substitute Is the Best to Use?

As we learned in the video below, it totally depends on what you're baking. We tested the same chocolate chip cookie recipe with five of the six recommended swaps below—and got wildly different results. Check it out, then see our breakdown of the top substitutes for brown sugar and how to use 'em.

The 6 Best Substitutes for Brown Sugar

1. White granulated sugar and molasses

No surprise, this is the closest you can get to store-bought brown sugar without actually having any. Brown sugar is up to 10 percent molasses by weight so these ratios will give your DIY version just the right amount of moisture, plus the caramel flavor your crave. Substitute 1 cup white sugar and 2 teaspoons molasses for every cup of light brown sugar the recipe calls for. If it calls for dark brown sugar, up the molasses to 1 tablespoon per cup of white sugar.

2. White granulated sugar and maple syrup

If you have a bottle of the real stuff at home, use it in place of molasses. Maple syrup mimics its sweetness and color, plus gives white sugar the moisture it needs to pull off this substitute. Use 1 cup of white sugar and 1 tablespoon of maple syrup for every cup of brown sugar.

3. White granulated sugar

Before you dunk your measuring cup thinking this one’s a no-brainer, not so fast. White sugar can be a decent alternative—but only in some cases. Brown sugar has a lower pH than white, so it’s often paired with high-pH baking soda in desserts for leavening. Because white sugar has a higher pH, it’s best for substituting in recipes that exclusively rely on baking powder for lift rather than baking soda. Brown sugar also has more moisture than white sugar, so the final product may be a bit flatter and crispier. And you’ll unfortunately miss out on the signature caramelized flavor of brown sugar. In recipes that use less than half as much brown sugar as white and no baking soda, replace the brown sugar with white in equal parts. 

4. Turbinado sugar

You know those brown packets of Sugar in the Raw you’re always putting in your coffee? That’s turbinado. Unlike white granulated sugar, turbinado sugar is unrefined and raw. It’s created the same way brown sugar was back in the day, by centrifuging partly-evaporated sugar cane juice. While large-grain turbinado is ideal for garnishing or finishing desserts, fine-grain turbinado has small enough granules that it will melt into batter or dough. Substitute brown sugar 1:1 with fine-grain turbinado sugar.

5. Coconut sugar

You’ve seen this alternative sweetener everywhere, but what is it? This light-brown gem is created from the nectar made by coconut blossoms, which gets boiled and ground into sugar. It’s a great substitute for brown sugar in terms of looks and taste, but here’s the science. Refined sugars are hygroscopic, meaning they attract and retain water and as a result, offer more moisture to baked goods than alternatives. So, if coconut sugar is all you have on hand and you want to avoid a dense, dry dessert, try adding a little extra oil or butter to the recipe to compensate. Adding a dollop of Greek yogurt or sour cream helps too. Replace brown sugar with coconut sugar in equal parts and add extra fat to give the dish more moisture.

6. Honey

This pantry staple is sweeter than white sugar and acidic like brown sugar. You can swap honey in for brown sugar when making soft baked goods like cake, and you may just fall in love with its slight floral flavor. But beware: Because of the types of sugars honey contains, it browns quickly, meaning it should only be used in recipes that bake at 350°F or lower. Agave can be used instead of honey, but you may need to add more because it’s less sweet. Use ¾ cup of honey for every 1 cup of brown sugar. If there’s other liquid in your recipe, lessen it by 3 to 4 tablespoons per 1 cup substitution. If there isn’t any additional liquid, add 1 extra tablespoon of flour per ¼ cup of honey.

Looking for more ingredient substitutes?

Ready to cook? Try some of our favorite recipes that call for brown sugar.

taryn pire

Food Editor

Taryn Pire is PureWow’s food editor and has been writing about all things delicious since 2016. She’s developed recipes, reviewed restaurants and investigated food trends at...