Sugar is sugar, right? Well, yes and no. White sugar, also known as granulated sugar or table sugar, and brown sugar both start out as sugar beets or sugar cane. What sets them apart is their molasses content. The darker the sugar, the more molasses it contains.
How Sugar Is Made
At its simplest, both white and brown sugar come from the natural, colorless sucrose or sugar crystals in sugar beets and cane sugar. In addition to sugar crystals, the byproduct of heating or boiling the raw plants is brown-colored molasses.
In the case of white sugar, after boiling and filtering, the molasses is completely removed from the sugar crystals by spinning. Drying the crystals produces the snow-white substance known as white sugar, says The Sugar Association.
White sugar "is an all-purpose sugar ideal for table use, baking, preserving, canning, and for sweetening beverages," according to Domino Sugar.
Brown sugar also is made from sugar beets and cane sugar that are boiled and filtered. The difference is that not all the molasses is spun out resulting in sugar with a brown color. A second method involves molasses being added back into white sugar. Both methods result in brown sugar that has a soft texture and molasses flavor. Light and dark brown are the most common styles.
- Light-brown sugar: Also known as golden-brown sugar, light-brown sugar has a less-pronounced molasses taste making it the go-to sweetener for moist cookies, spiced cakes, quick breads and streusel toppings.
- Dark-brown sugar: This style has a stronger molasses flavor that lends itself to both sweet and savory foods. It's most often used in gingerbread, coffee cakes, baked beans, minced meat, barbecue sauce, marinades and syrups.
Most recipes will specify whether to use light- or dark-brown sugar but, if they don't, use light-brown sugar.
Substituting One for the Other
The Domino Sugar company says 1 cup of firmly packed brown sugar can be substituted for 1 cup white sugar in most recipes. The most accurate way to do this is to weigh the sugar. When the recipe calls for 1 cup (7 ounces/198 grams) of white sugar, substitute 7.5 ounces/213 grams of either light- or dark-brown sugar.
Escali Scales, however, says that, while brown sugar and white sugar can be used interchangeably, baked goods made with brown sugar will have a moister, softer texture and darker color than those made with white sugar. Clearly, it's a trial-and-error process. Other things to take into consideration when using brown sugar for baking:
- Liquid ingredients might have to be decreased or dry ingredients increased to achieve a good balance.
- Stick with white sugar for products meant to be dryer, like cakes, and consider brown sugar for products meant to be moist like quick breads.
- Granulated brown sugar and liquid brown sugar, however, have a different makeup than light- or dark-brown sugar and will not perform the same way and cannot be substituted for regular brown sugars.
What to do if your recipe calls for brown sugar to give it a distinctive flavor and you're fresh out? If you have unsulphured molasses on hand, you can make your own using Joy the Baker's method.
Are You Packing?
Brown sugar is naturally more moist than white sugar because of the molasses content. When recipes call for packed brown sugar, you are effectively pressing out the trapped pockets of air caught between the sticky grains of brown sugar. Packing is a way of ensuring measurements and results are the same from batch to batch. Even if a recipe doesn't specify the brown sugar be packed, it is recommended.
The most accurate way to tell if your cup measure is firmly packed is to weigh it. One cup of packed light- or dark-brown sugar weighs 7.5 ounces/213 grams.
Surprisingly enough, white sugar and brown sugar have nearly identical nutrition stats. One teaspoon of either type rings up at 15 to 16 calories, 0g total fat, 0mg sodium, 4g total carbohydrate from sugar and 0g protein.
Brown sugar is often considered superior to white sugar health-wise because the molasses in brown sugar has more nutrients like potassium, calcium, magnesium and B vitamins. But they are so negligible as to not make much of a difference. As with all carbohydrates, moderation is key.
Why Brown Sugar Hardens
You know how brown sugar clumps like wet sand when you grab a handful? That's because the extra molasses makes it more moist than white sugar. When that moisture evaporates, it becomes brick hard. But don't beat yourself up. Despite the most careful storage of an open bag or box of brown sugar, it can, and probably has, happened to almost everyone.
So, What's a Cook to Do?
The solution is to put the moisture back in. Short of whacking it with a sledge hammer, here are some helpful tips. One caveat is to use the softened brown sugar immediately otherwise it will revert to its brick-hard state.
- Let it stand overnight in a sealed container with a damp paper towel or apple slice.
- Heat the amount needed in a 250-degree F oven for a few minutes.
- Heat just the amount needed in a microwave on low for 1 to 2 minutes per cup.
It All Boils Down to Taste
Since light- or dark-brown sugar can be substituted for white sugar in many recipes, it all boils down to a matter of taste. Do you like the flavor of molasses? If so, proceed cautiously because your end-product can be very different when using one over another. Classic recipes for things like pastry creams or sponge cakes cry out for white sugar, while products meant to bake up moist or have a pronounced molasses flavor are better served by white sugar's darker cousin.