It is important to note that coconut sugar and palm sugar (also known as arenga sugar) are two distinct types of sugar that are obtained in different ways from different plants. The problem is that coconut sugar is sometimes called coconut palm sugar, which can lead to confusion between the two types of sugar. This is a common mistake, with many online resources erroneously claiming that the two are one and the same. In many cases, they may be incorrectly labeled. You should check the ingredients list rather than rely solely on the product’s name.
Palm sugar is harvested from the trunks of palm trees, while coconut sugar comes from the blossoms of coconut trees. Given that these are two different products with different harvesting methods, do their flavors differ? Can one be used as a substitute for the other? We will answer these questions and more in this SPICEography Showdown.
How do palm sugar and coconut sugar differ in flavor?
When considering the flavor differences between the two types of sugar, it is important to note that the palm sugar that you get in the US is usually blended with cane sugar. This is because pure palm sugar is difficult to find. As a result, the pure stuff has to be cut for there to be enough to meet market demand. In many cases, what is sold as palm sugar will provide a flavor that differs from the type that you may see recommended in a traditional Asian recipe. All that said, the types of sugar mentioned above all have similar flavors. Any differences that you find between most palm sugar and most coconut sugar will be subtle.
The most significant difference between the two lies in the fact that coconut sugar has a butterscotch caramel taste similar to that of brown sugar. Pure palm sugar’s flavor has many of the same notes, but comes with a smokier taste. Palm sugar is also the most fragrant of the two. Note that there is a difference between the Indonesian variety of palm sugar and the Thai version, with the former having a darker color and stronger flavor than the latter. Keep this in mind when making dishes from either one of those cultures.
Can you use one in place of the other?
Given that you will most likely be using palm sugar that contains a substantial amount of cane sugar, palm sugar can be used in place of coconut sugar. It will have many of the same notes along with a little smokiness that should complement the flavor profiles of dishes that require coconut sugar.
Coconut sugar will make a passable substitute for palm sugar, but will lack the smoky aroma of pure palm sugar. Even so, its caramel notes should work in most of palm sugar’s applications. It will be a closer match than most other substitutes though it will not be perfect.
When should you use palm sugar and when should you use coconut sugar?
Coconut sugar is best used in dishes where its caramel notes will be beneficial. You will get more benefit from it in baked goods like cookies and cakes, but it can also be used as a sweetener for coffee and tea.
Palm sugar works best in traditional Indonesian desserts where the more intense fragrance and stronger flavor will complement other strong flavors in the dish.