What is brown sugar and how many types are there?

Brown sugar lends complexity to recipes, from savory barbecue sauce to chocolate chip cookies, as well as great flavor missing from white sugar. It’s a source of moist, earthy, irresistible sweetness, and there’s almost certainly a box in your closet that’s slowly turning into a brick.

But don’t let its status as a pantry staple fool you: brown sugar has a lot more to offer than you might think. Not only does it pack more of a punch than granulated sugar, but it also comes in all kinds of varieties beyond light and dark, each with their own personality. Here’s what they are, what sets them apart, and how you should use them.

What is brown sugar?

To answer this question, it helps to know how sugar is made. Sugar growers boil sugar cane or beets to separate and refine the pure sugar they contain. As the sugar crystallizes and the water boils, it leaves behind a thick, viscous syrup called molasses-a valuable by-product.

The deep flavor and syrupy texture of molasses make it an essential ingredient in many baking recipes (e.g. this chewy Rye Ginger Cookie), but since the sugar is refined from molasses, it’s tasty but not very sweet. To compensate, sugar producers combine refined sugar and concentrated molasses to make brown sugar.

Because it contains molasses, brown sugar contains more moisture than white sugar, a big reason these ingredients behave differently in baking. This is also why brown sugar hardens over time, as the remaining water in the molasses evaporates.

What is the difference between light brown sugar and dark brown sugar?

Light brown sugar and dark brown sugar are produced almost identically, the only difference being that dark brown sugar contains more molasses than light brown sugar. The two are mostly interchangeable in recipes, but dark brown sugar brings a bit more moisture and acidity to recipes, as well as an extra molasses flavor. Still, the difference largely comes down to taste and won’t seriously affect most baked goods.

Are there other types of brown sugar?

Beyond light and dark, the world of brown sugars is vast. Here are some of the most common.

Turbinado

Turbinado sugar, which you can find in the form of large golden grains, is also known as “raw” sugar. Somewhat true to its name, raw sugar is less refined than pure cane sugar, meaning it contains traces of molasses. Yet, this molasses content is significantly lower than that of light brown sugar, and turbinado sugar does not contain as much moisture, which can have a huge impact on cookies, cakes, and other doughs and doughs.

Demerara

Like turbinado sugar, demerara sugar is often used to shower baked goods with a dramatic, glistening finish thanks to its large, crystalline granules. Example: this shortbread cookie with chocolate pieces rolled in sugar. Turbinado and demerara sugars can be used roughly interchangeably; they are produced similarly, although demerara may have a slightly more molasses flavor.

Moscovado

Consider muscovado sugar the darkest of the dark brown sugars. Rich, moist and saturated with molasses, it has the texture of wet sand and a robust, almost bitter flavor. Produced using methods similar to jaggery (see below), sugar cane juice is evaporated, retaining all of its molasses content, instead of being separated and then recombined as in brown sugar.

India Tree Black Muscovado Sugar

Piloncillo

Piloncillo is a dark cane sugar commonly found in Latin recipes. You will often have find it sold in cones similar to an old fashioned sugar loaf. What sets piloncillo apart from other brown sugars is its unique smoky taste. Add it to churros, hot drinks or those party-ready pig cookies.

Jaggery

Used in many South Asian and Southeast Asian recipes, such as kolar pitha or kiribath, jaggery is made from unrefined cane sugar (although jaggery from date or sap palm is also common). The cane juice is strained, then boiled until a thick, caramelized paste forms. This dough is packaged in molds to form bricks, similar to piloncillo. Jaggery has a rich caramel flavor – think of the aroma of a just-burnt piece of toast. Use it in sweet and sour chutneys, stir it into oatmeal or rice pudding, or add it to any sweet treat that might need an earthy boost.

Okinawan sugar or black sugar

Black sugar begins production the same way as white sugar – by boiling the sugar cane to separate the sugar. But instead of refining the sweets of the solution, the syrup is let it dry on its own, producing a dense, dry block. Okinawan sugar has rich caramel notes in its flavors, making it a popular addition to milk tea. It can also be powdered and sprinkled on candies.

Rachel J. Bradford