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The Top 5 Brown Sugar Substitutes and Alternatives

By Fitoru | 27 September 2019
A glass jar of brown sugar, refined brown sugar in a spoon and condiment bowl, cubed brown sugar laying on checkered table mat

Whether you need a brown sugar substitute because you’ve suddenly run out or because you just want a healthier, more natural sweetener option, we have five brown sugar alternatives that you can use whenever your recipe calls for it. Find out what is in brown sugar that makes it so sweet (and so detrimental to your health) and what goes into making the alternatives—some of them you can whip up at home!

What’s in Brown Sugar?

Brown sugar is, in essence, regular sugar combined with molasses, which lends it not only a brown color, but also that molasses flavor. Brown sugar is made in two distinct ways.

  1. Unrefined brown sugar: Molasses is a byproduct of sugar refining, basically the syrup that’s left over as sugar cane or sugar beets is boiled to extract sugar. Un- or partially refined brown sugar is sugar that’s still got more molasses in it than out of it, making it denser (more likely to cake up on you) and creating darker and lighter types of brown sugar. Product label titles for unrefined brown sugar may include “raw,” “natural,” “factory,” “turbinado,” “muscavado,” and “demerara.”
  2. Refined brown sugar: Refined brown sugar means they’ve taken refined sugar, which is white sugar, and added molasses back into it. This results in the softer and more moist commercial brown sugar most people think of when they imagine the brown sugar on their kitchen shelves, as it’s much more commonly found in grocery stores and called for in baking recipes.
The top 5 brown sugar substitutes.

The Top 5 Brown Sugar Substitutes

Here we have a mix of brown sugar hacks you can use to finish a recipe you’ve already started, plus some sugar alternatives that take you out of the refined sugar game completely. Either way, one of these brown sugar substitutes is sure to help you all the way through to a perfect muffin, cake, or chocolate chip cookie.

1. White Sugar and Molasses

You’ve just found out that the brown sugar you buy in the supermarket is refined white sugar mixed with molasses, so if you’re out of brown sugar, you can cut out the middle man and just make your own. This is less of a substitute and more of a clever kitchen hack that no one thought to tell you about (like the little handles built into every single box of foil and cling wrap—if you haven’t heard of this go check right now, there are tabs on the sides that you can punch in to keep the roll from flying out of the box when you use it!). 

Here’s a quick recipe for you: mix 1 cup of granulated white sugar with 2 tablespoons of molasses (or just 1 tablespoon if you want light brown sugar rather than dark). Now you’re looking at the real thing: the exact sort of brown sugar you started working with in the first place, and you haven’t lost or compromised a single step in your recipe.

2. White Sugar and Maple Syrup

Let’s say you’re perfectly willing to stir up your own brown sugar at home, but you don’t keep molasses around and don’t want to go to the grocery store when you’re already up to your elbows in dough and baking sheets. No worries: instead of molasses you can mix white table sugar with the same maple syrup you use on pancakes, waffles, and French toast in the morning. 

While it isn’t exactly brown sugar, combining a cup of white sugar with a 1 tablespoon of pure maple syrup will get the job done and not drastically alter the taste (in fact, you may even prefer the final product with that hint of savory maple thrown in).

3. Honey or Agave Nectar

Using a liquid syrup alternative may not be perfect since it will change the moisture content and consistency of your recipe. Nevertheless it may be far preferable if you’re truly out of all sugar, but don’t want to just throw away a day’s efforts mid-recipe.

To help counterbalance the difference in moisture, we advise that if you’re using honey or agave nectar to complete a recipe, for every cup of brown sugar, replace it with 2/3 cup of the liquid sweetener you have on hand. Then (and this is the critical part) reduce the other liquid ingredients in your recipe by 1/4 cup for every 2/3 cup of syrup. This should help the moisture content of your recipe stay consistent, and on the bright side: maybe you’ll prefer your new Frankenstein concoction to the original! Just keep your eye on the oven during the last few minutes of bake time, as these types of sugar substitutions may caramelize a lot quicker than brown sugar does. 

4. Raw Sugars

Depending on what you consider “real brown sugar,” you may want to start purchasing raw sugars, meaning un- or partially refined brown sugars. Demerara or turbinado sugars can be easily acquired, and have undergone less of the refining process that prompts people to quit sugar altogether. Why wait for sugar and molasses to separate only to recombine them and still have all the detrimental health impacts of stripped and highly processed white sugar? By purchasing your sugar closer to its natural state, you can still enjoy the caramel flavors you’re used to, all while knowing it hasn’t been repeatedly chemically altered.

The only downside is that raw sugars have larger, coarser granules that might make your final product a bit more grainy than you’d like. You can account for this by manually grinding the raw sugar crystals through a spice grinder or mortar and pestle to get the consistency you need (you could even try finding a dedicated pepper grinder just for this purpose). Use of a food processor also might help raw sugar mix more thoroughly.

Another option is to dissolve the crystals before adding them to your recipe in whatever liquid ingredients are called for, be that oil, butter, or water. Muscovado sugar is notoriously known for having more moisture content than highly refined brown sugar, so you may have issues with clumping. To mitigate clumping issues, sift the sugar before you use it. And by melting down these raw sugars into a liquid you’re already going to include in your recipe, you can better ensure that the raw sugar is folded into the dish seamlessly. 

5. Natural Sugar Alternatives

If you’re perhaps over the idea of regular brown sugar after reading about how much refining and processing goes into it, we have three alternatives that are far more natural options. 

  • Coconut sugar: Made from coconut tree sap, coconut sugar has nutrients and fiber that you cannot find in highly processed and refined sugar. Whenever your recipe calls for light or dark brown sugar, use coconut sugar in a 1:1 ratio and don’t even worry about it. You can even combine coconut sugar with a tablespoon of molasses and not derail your anti-sugar efforts, because products like blackstrap molasses are very low in sugar (the blacker it is, the more sugar has been extracted, leaving only color, flavor, and nutrients).
  • Swerve brown sugar with erythritol: With zero net carbs, the Swerve company offers a sugar-free natural sweetener made with erythritol and citrus flavorings that looks, tastes, and bakes just like the brown sugar you’re used to, the big difference being that it doesn’t impact your blood glucose levels (so it’s also safe for diabetics). Swerve also makes alternatives for white and powdered sugar.
  • Stevia brown sugar: Stevia products like Truvía have brown sugar options with the same texture, moisture, and taste you’re accustomed to with brown sugar, but with way fewer calories (75% less). While this product is a blend of stevia, erythritol, molasses, and (oops!) some actual sugar, check out this recipe from My Montana Kitchen that shows you how to make your own completely sugar-free, stevia-based brown sugar at home.

Sugar addiction is real, and if you want to get that monkey off your back before it puts you at risk of metabolic syndrome and other chronic health issues (like obesity or type 2 diabetes), then natural sweeteners may your way out.

Golden Brown Confection Perfection

Now you know the secret behind what makes brown sugar brown, and you know that you can quickly use even plain white sugar in its place if you can do without the taste and color of molasses. If you’re less interested in substitutions and more interested in alternatives, coconut sugar, erythritol, stevia (not to mention other non-sugar sweeteners like sucralose and xylitol) are readily available. The field is wide open for finding the other side of sugar detox and never needing original brown sugar again. So, which brown sugar substitute is your fave?

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