Sugar plays a fundamental role in cooking and especially in baking. Aside from sweetness, it can provide coloring as well as moisture and bulk. Brown sugar and white sugar provide these things to different degrees but how different are they from each other? Do they taste the same? Can you use one in place of the other? We answer these questions and more in this installment of SPICEography Showdown.
Do white and brown sugar taste the same?
Brown sugar gets both its color and its flavor from molasses. The more molasses it contains, the darker it is and the more molasses flavor it has. This means that dark brown sugar contains more molasses and has a stronger molasses taste when compared to light brown sugar, while white sugar has no molasses flavor. Molasses gives brown sugar a strong caramel flavor with a little acidity and bitterness in the background.
White sugar is neutral in that it has no flavor aside from sweetness and no aroma either.
Can you use brown sugar in place of white sugar and vice versa?
Brown and white sugars are interchangeable in most applications including in baking. Both types of sugar provide the requisite sweetness; however, brown sugar will make dishes darker in color because of its molasses content. In addition, the molasses in brown sugar gives it more moisture. The molasses makes brown sugar hygroscopic so that it soaks up water, which is why dishes made with it tend to be moister and softer than those made with white sugar.
Note that you can make your own brown sugar with white sugar by adding molasses to it.
You can compensate for the difference in moisture between the two types of sugar by adding and removing liquids as necessary. For example, you can slightly increase the liquids in your recipe if you are using white sugar in place of brown sugar. When using brown sugar in place of white, you can remove some of the liquids.
Is brown sugar better for you than white sugar or vice versa?
Realistically? No. Technically, yes. Molasses does provide some nutrients in the form of minerals like calcium, iron, and magnesium. These minerals are present but in such tiny amounts that there is barely any difference between the two types of sugar as far as their nutritional value is concerned. Another factor is that molasses does make brown sugar soak up more moisture. The result is that it has marginally fewer calories if you compare the two types of sugar on an ounce for ounce basis. The difference is not significant enough to be the basis of a decision between them.
Which dishes are better fits for brown sugar and which are better for white sugar?
White sugar is the main form of sugar used in most American households. It is versatile enough to be used for most baking applications and can be converted to brown sugar if necessary. It is a popular sweetener for coffee and tea in addition to being useful when making light-colored sauces and salad dressings.
Many of brown sugar’s uses lie in the area of baking where it is the primary sweetener and coloring for dishes like ginger bread and banana bread. It is also used for cooking savory dishes like hams and roasted meats where it is added to create a glaze and to provide light caramel notes.