I’m quite slapdash when it comes to using different types of sugar – I tend to use what I have more often than what the recipe tells me. Often this results in a happy accident when the flavour of my cakes or cookies change because the type of sugar I’ve used. But, the other day I was talking to one of my baking friends, who was a little confused about the difference between the dark and light brown sugar and whether it really matter which one to use.
So, if you like my friend need a little help in understanding how the use of dark or light brown sugar will change your baking, let me explain…
My quick tips for using different types of sugar
- Dark and light brown sugar can be interchanged in most recipes
- Stick to the specified type of brown sugar for moisture-sensitive recipes (e.g. cookies)
- Light brown sugar has a milder flavor and less moisture content
- Dark brown sugar provides a stronger molasses taste and more moisture
Next time when you need to decide between light and dark brown sugar, just think about the final flavour for your cakes, cookies or cupcakes and how moist you want the cake to be.
I would also always follow the recipe suggestion first and only change the type of sugar listed if I wanted to change the flavour (or moisture content) or didn’t have the right sugar in my kitchen cupboard.
What is the main difference between light brown and dark brown sugar?
Brown sugar is available in two varieties, light and dark, both of which contain a blend of granulated sugar and molasses. The difference between the two is in the amount of molasses each type of sugar contains, which affects the sugar’s color, flavor, and texture.
Dark brown sugar, as you would expect, has more molasses, which gives it deeper color, more pronounced molasses flavor, and a slightly different texture compared to light brown sugar.
On the other hand, light brown sugar has less molasses and because of that, it’s milder in taste.
In most cases, these two types of sugar can be used interchangeably in equal measure in baking recipes without significantly affecting the final bake.
But, the choice between dark and light brown sugar depends on what suits the recipe better and also on your personal preference.
For example, dark brown sugar is more popular in spice cake or chocolate recipes, whilst light brown sugar is more universal and often used in less strongly flavoured cakes, such as vanilla.
Can I use light brown sugar instead of dark brown sugar or other way round?
This is one of the questions, I always used to get asked when I was running my baking courses. What I would always say, is that, yes, you can use light brown sugar instead of dark brown sugar, but the flavour of your cake will be slightly milder (not as rich and deep in flavour as if you were to use dark brown sugar).
But if you love baking and you want to bake the best possible cakes, cookies or cupcakes, then you might like to pay attention to the different types of sugar you are using. Dark or light brown sugar can indeed make a difference in the flavor, texture, and appearance of your cakes and cookies.
Saying that, most recipes can accommodate the substitution of one type for the other without significantly impacting the final outcome. Light and dark brown sugar are interchangeable, so you won’t ruin your cookies, cakes, or breads if you use one instead of the other.
But, if you have both sugars available, then I suggest that when you are baking recipes sensitive to moisture and density (such as cakes, biscuits or cookies), it’s best to stick to the specified type of brown sugar.
As a general rule, light brown sugar contains less molasses and provides a milder flavor, while dark brown sugar has a more pronounced molasses taste and higher moisture content. This for example means that if you swap light brown sugar for dark brown sugar in the cookies, they might feel a lot softer than if you bake them with light brown sugar (and of course the flavour will be richer and deeper).
How is Dark and Light Brown Sugar made?
Both dark and light brown sugar are made by blending regular granulated sugar with molasses, a byproduct of sugar refining. Molasses provides the characteristic color and flavor of brown sugar, while adding also more moisture and changing the texture slightly. The main difference between dark and light brown sugar is in the molasses content.
Light brown sugar typically contains about 3.5% molasses, which results in a lighter color and a milder flavor compared to the dark brown sugar.
On the other hand, dark brown sugar contains nearly twice as much molasses, about 6.5%, giving it a darker color and a richer caramel taste. This higher concentration of molasses also influences the baking properties of dark brown sugar, such as acidity and moisture retention.
In baking, the choice between light and dark brown sugar can impact both flavor and texture. This is how the two sugars are different:
- Flavor: Dark brown sugar has a stronger, more robust flavor due to its higher molasses content, while light brown sugar imparts a milder, sweeter taste. This difference in flavor can subtly change the taste profile of the baked goods.
- Acidity: Dark brown sugar has a higher acidity level because of the increased molasses content. This can influence the leavening agents in the recipe and potentially impact the baked goods’ rise and spread.
- Moisture content: With more molasses, dark brown sugar also has a higher moisture content, which can lead to softer and denser baked goods compared to light brown sugar.
What does dark brown sugar taste like?
Dark brown sugar has a deeper, more complex flavor than light brown sugar. The added molasses gives it a rich, caramel-like taste with a hint of toffee. I always think that apart from the molasses flavor it also has a very slight bitter aftertaste.
What does light brown sugar taste like?
Light brown sugar has a milder flavor than dark brown sugar. It has a delicate, sweet taste with a subtle hint of molasses. The molasses content in light brown sugar is lower than in dark brown sugar, which means that it’s has a lighter color and less intense flavor.
When it’s best to use Dark brown sugar
The tighter amount of molasses in dark brown sugar gives the sugar a more robust, richer caramel flavor compared to light brown sugar. This deeper flavor profile can make a difference in recipes where you want the taste of molasses to come out strong.
For example, dark brown sugar is perfect for gingerbread, fruit cakes, spiced cakes, chocolate cakes, dark caramel cookies, and also savoury dishes such as barbecue sauce or rich meat sauces. I’ve also used dark brown sugar for baking pancakes (it gives them a beautifully rich deep flavour), making glaze for my Bacon Jerky Recipe or for a roasted ham or making a homemade dark flavoured miso or vinegarette for salads.
When you are baking cookies and use dark brown sugar you might end up with a denser, heavier, and moister texture, but with less spread in the oven. If I want to make rich dark chocolate cookies, such as caramel, toffee or chocolate, I would always use dark brown sugar to give them extra flavour.
Swapping the regular white sugar in Cinnamon Pumpkin Rolls Recipe for dark brown sugar also works great as it gives the normally mellow pumpkin flavour a bit of a boost.
I’ve also successfully used dark brown sugar to recreate the Starbucks Brown Sugar Syrup Recipe, which can be used for making coffee, cold or hot drinks, added to smoothies or drizzled over puddings, pancakes or breakfast oatmeal.
Dark brown sugar is also fab swap for regular sugar if you are making homemade apple sauce with cinnamon as it works great with the apples and adds slightly caramelised flavour.
When I’m baking bread I often use darker sugars instead of the regular white sugars as it adds colour and flavour to my bread. It’s just a personal preference, but if you fancy baking my Dark Rye Bread Recipe with Chocolate, you do need to use dark sugar for best result – it’s absolutely delicious and the bread is still savoury (not sweet).
When it’s best to use light brown sugar
On the other hand, light brown sugar has milder, sort of subtle caramel flavor, which makes it ideal choice for general baking – cookies, cakes, and cupcakes.
In most cake and cupcake recipes, light brown sugar is the the saver option to use as it’s not going to clash with other flavours (and you can even use it if the recipe says, that you meant to use regular white sugar).
I’ve previously baked Pecan Pie Bars with light brown sugar or white chocolate blondies (the sugar gives the blondies slightly caramelised flavour, but not as much as if you’ve use dark brown sugar).
Light brown sugar is great for cookies, when you don’t mind them spreading a bit more in the oven, but they will have more airy texture. The light brown sugar is perfect if you are baking cookies, such as Vanilla Cookies, Chocolate Chip Cookies (but the batter is basic vanilla cookie) or Oatmeal Cookies orange, mint or other lighter types of flavours.
How the choice of sugar impact the texture of your bakes
The difference in molasses content between light and dark brown sugar can impact the texture of your cakes, cookies and pastries. Molasses increases the moisture and acidity of your bake, which can make the cookies, cakes, and cupcakes to come out slightly differently depending on what sugar you use.
Using light brown sugar, which has a lower molasses content, gives your cakes lighter and softer texture. On the other hand, dark brown sugar, with its higher molasses content, can create a denser and moister texture in your bakes.
This difference can be quite noticeable in recipes, where the overall texture plays a significant role, such as in cookies.
In my experience, this is how light and dark brown sugar can affect the texture of various baked goodies:
- Cookies or Biscuits: Light brown sugar may produce cookies with a softer, more tender crumb, while dark brown sugar can yield chewier, denser cookies.
- Cakes and Loaf (Pound) Cakes: Cakes made with light brown sugar may have a more delicate crumb, whereas those made with dark brown sugar can be denser and moister.
- Cupcakes or Fairy Cakes: Similar to cakes, light brown sugar can create cupcakes with a lighter, fluffier texture, while dark brown sugar may result in a heavier, more moist cupcake.
How to substitute light brown sugar for dark brown sugar
If a recipe calls for a dark brown sugar but you only have the light brown sugar you can just use the light brown sugar instead (measure out the same amount). The flavour is going to be slightly less rich, but still absolutely fine to taste and eat.
If you want to make sure that you get the same results flavour and texture wise, you can use light brown sugar and molasses. Use one tablespoon of molasses for every cup of lightly packed light brown sugar in your recipe. If you don’t have molasses, you can also use agave syrup, maple syrup or it’s substitutes or darker honey if you have any.
If you don’t have dark brown sugar, you can also use coconut sugar or most of the coconut sugar substitutes, that have a darker colour (and are not liquid, like pure mollases).
Can I adapt dark brown sugar to make it into light brown sugar?
This is little bit trickier, but yes, you can mix dark brown sugar with granulated white sugar to make it into light brown sugar. Start with 1/3 of dark brown sugar and 2/3 of white sugar to make up the total amount. You are basically diluting the dark brown sugar with white granulated sugar to achieve the right flavour of light brown sugar.
Another option to make light brown sugar is to mix 1 cup of granulated white sugar with 1 tablespoon of molasses and mix well until the molasses is evenly distributed throughout the sugar.
If you prefer a lighter color and a milder flavor, you can add more white sugar until you achieve the desired color and flavor.
Mixing dark brown sugar with white sugar in this way is an easy way to create a substitute for light brown sugar if you run out or do not have any on hand.
Is dark brown sugar more expensive than light brown sugar?
Yes, dark brown sugar is often more expensive than light brown sugar. If you are deciding on which type of sugar to use, this might be also a consideration.
Dark Brown Sugar is more expensive because it contains more molasses than light brown sugar, which makes it more flavorful and gives it a richer color. The production process for dark brown sugar is also more complex than that of light brown sugar, which can contribute to its higher cost. The price differs depending on the brand and location, but I usually find that it could be easily up to 1/4 or even 1/3 more of a cost of regular or light brown sugar.
Is there a difference between dark and light brown sugar in the terms of calories or nutrition?
There is very minimal difference between the two types of sugar.
One teaspoon (about 4 grams) of light brown sugar or dark brown sugar contains approximately:
- Calories: 15
- Total Carbohydrates: 4 grams
- Sugar: 4 grams
Both types of sugar are source of carbohydrates and give you plenty of energy, but at the end of the day, it’s still just a sugar. Neither of the sugars not contain any significant amounts of vitamins, minerals, or other nutrients, so you need to be careful about how much you are adding to your cakes, cookies or breakfast oatmeal.
This blog post was originally written on 15 June 2023 and last updated on 15 June 2023