How to Substitute Brown Sugar for White Sugar in Baking Recipes

Can you substitute brown sugar for white sugar in baking recipes? Our Test Kitchen is sharing their sweet secrets so you can know when—and how—to use each.

Nearly all of us have been there, felt that. You're ready to whip up a batch of cookie dough, cake, or brownies and are digging up all of the ingredients to measure, mix, and ace that bake. Eggs? Check. Butter? Done. Vanilla? Got it! But then you open the pantry only to realize you're fresh out of cane sugar (aka granulated sugar). Crud. Rather than running to the supermarket to restock this pantry staple immediately, add it to your shopping list for next time and use the Test Kitchen tips below about using brown sugar instead of white sugar.

brown and white sugar in glass jars

BHG / Sonia Bozzo

Can You Substitute Brown Sugar for White Sugar?

The answer is not exactly a simple yes or no (apologies!), but more of a "yes, but"…

In most baking recipes, you can substitute brown sugar for white sugar in a one-to-one ratio. So if your recipe calls for one cup white sugar, swap one cup brown sugar. The sweetness level will be exactly the same, but the brown sugar may change the texture of your baked goods. You'll likely notice a more robust flavor and the color of the finished baked good may be darker as well.

pouring brown sugar into a bowl

BHG/Sonia Bozzo

These alterations in color, flavor, and texture come from the way brown sugar is made. Brown sugar is white sugar with molasses mixed in; as much as 10 percent molasses, by weight, depending on the manufacturer. That molasses might make the texture more moist, so it might be helpful to slightly decrease the amount of the wet ingredients (like milk or water) in your recipe or slightly increase the dry ingredients (such as flour, cocoa powder, or oats). You'll also probably notice a hint of caramel or butterscotch flavor.

Brown sugar generally works much better in quick breads than light and airy cakes—we're looking at you, angel food—since these take advantage of the lighter texture of the white sugar. Substituting brown sugar for white sugar will actually be a win if you prefer softer and chewier over crispier cookies since the molasses lends that extra moistness.

Can You Substitute Light Brown Sugar for Dark Brown Sugar?

So now that you know you can, in most cases, substitute brown sugar for white sugar without causing a total baking fail, you might be wondering if you can swap light brown sugar for dark brown sugar and vice versa.

That's an easy yes. Dark brown sugar offers a stronger molasses flavor while light brown sugar has a milder flavor, but structurally, the two sugars will work the same. The difference in the amount of molasses is so minimal, no one will likely notice the difference.

Now that you know you can substitute brown sugar for white sugar in most baking recipes, you can get back to baking. Ready, set, preheat that oven!

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