Best Substitute for American Brown Sugar

The Brown Sugar Dilemma

One of the most difficult ingredient dilemmas I have had to overcome in Spain is brown sugar because it is not an ingredient typically used in Spanish baked good. It is not readily available here and because of its unique texture and flavor, is not easily replaced in recipes. I am lucky that I travel back to the US at least once a year so can take advantage and bring some back with me (and not feel so guilty for potentially breaking one of my cardinal baking rules). However, now that I am more settled in Madrid, it is time to get down to finding a suitable substitution for American brown sugar and really start living my ideal of using local ingredients to get the best possible baking outcome, American or otherwise. 

What is the difference between light and dark brown sugar?

In order to know the best substitute, I had to know exactly what brown sugar is. I learned a while back that what we know of in the States as brown sugar is simply regular white sugar with molasses added in, resulting in the sticky, soft and moist texture. However, there are other ways of creating brown sugar and the amount of molasses varies by product (3.5% for light brown sugar, 6.5% for dark, according to this article, and others) and that will, of course, affect the moisture content, flavor and texture of a baked good.

So, the obvious substitute is to take regular white, granulated sugar and add molasses, however molasses is not easily found (or widely produced) in Spain. This made me curious if there was another option that could give a close taste and texture match to American brown sugar. Awhile back I found a minimally processed, fair trade sugar that is light brown in color and quite fine in texture so decided to begin my experimentation with that. Then, for a molasses substitute, I also considered both lighter and darker colored honey – very similar texture, however the taste may or may not make the cut. After some initial testing with several combinations of all the solid and liquid sweeteners, I ended up with these final substitutes for the testing (with varying amounts of the molasses/honey to simulate light or dark brown sugar):

  • American brown sugar (for the control group)
  • Regular white sugar with molasses (spanish-made, I was able to find some!)
  • Regular white sugar with local, light honey
  • Minimally processed, fair trade sugar with local, light honey (or molasses, for the syrup testing – see notes below)

What recipes use American-style brown sugar?

When thinking about what recipes to try in order to test out these substitute options, I immediately turned to the basic chocolate chip cookie. How can you get more American than that? The caramel-y flavor and beautiful crispy-yet-fudgy texture is very much dependent upon light brown sugar (although the rest of the world may not realize that). The oatmeal cookie recipe (thanks, Cooks Illustrated) I prefer uses dark brown sugar, so I knew I wanted to use that as a test recipe as well. Lastly, I thought of a basic sweet syrup that my mother makes with brown sugar and butter in order to do quick sticky buns or her famous Monkey Bread (recipe to come soon!). I was curious to see how these substitutes measured up to the regular brown sugar when turned into liquid form, so I decided on easy sticky buns, which also then warranted a brown sugar-based spice filling…more options to test!  

What can I use as a substitute for brown sugar?

After an intense weekend of baking and eating (and lots of happy friends with full tummies), the short answer for the best brown sugar substitute is: it depends! Not very clear, sorry. However, it really comes down to the recipe you need the substitution for. 

  • Chocolate chip cookies (light brown sugar in solid form): The most similar taste, texture and moisture level was created by regular white sugar mixed thoroughly with molasses. The honey (with both the white and minimally processed sugars) created dough that was very sticky and cookies that severely lacked the rich, caramel-y flavor that an authentic chocolate chip cookie needs. 
  • Oatmeal cookies (dark brown sugar in solid form): In this test, it was actually the minimally processed sugar with honey that most closely resembled the control cookie. It was a lovely soft texture – perhaps a bit more than the control, but not displeasing by any means – and had excellent spicy notes that mimicked the original cookie with dark brown sugar. 
  • Sticky buns (light brown sugar in both solid and liquid form): For this test, I decided to not use honey, because taste-wise, I knew immediately it would not measure up to the control. So, in addition to the control (with light brown sugar), I tested white sugar and minimally processed sugar, both with added molasses. Surprisingly, the minimally processed sugar with molasses was the winner, and I almost enjoyed the resulting sticky bun more than the original! This syrup was a smooth, easy pour both in the pre-baked and post-baked stages, and the overall flavor was a punch of sweet cinnamon and clove that really felt warm and inviting. It is unclear whether this flavor profile came from both the sweet filling and syrup or more from just the filling. Regardless, it was absolutely lovely and from now on, I will use a minimally processed sugar for quick syrups!