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What’s the Difference Between White Sugar and Brown Sugar?

Two bags of sugar comparing the difference between brown sugar and white sugar.

You probably have both white and brown sugar in your pantry right now, but unless your recipe specifies, how do you know which one to use? The two types of sugar look different, but we wanted to know if that’s the only factor that sets them apart.

To learn more, we spoke with Courtney Gaine, President, and CEO of The Sugar Association, about the difference between white and brown sugar.

Table of Contents

What is White Sugar?
What is Brown Sugar?
Are There Different Types of White and Brown Sugar?
Types of White Sugar
Types of Brown Sugar
How Do You Use White and Brown Sugar?

What is White Sugar?

A brown bowl filled with white sugar.

Sugar (aka sucrose) is produced naturally through a process called photosynthesis. Some plants tend to make more sugar than others, making them the most efficient for sugar extraction. Those two plants are sugar cane and sugar beet plants.

Gaine told LifeSavvy, white sugar is made by “extracting the sugar from the plants, then washing with water, and crystalizing the sugar juice.”

Essentially, the juices are then clarified, concentrated, and spun in a machine to remove the liquid, creating raw sugar. The raw sugar is then melted and filtered, leaving behind a brown syrup called molasses. The sugar is then crystallized, dried, and packaged up for convenience.

From there, it gets mixed into batters and doughs to create baked treats like delicious pumpkin chocolate chip muffins and three-ingredient sugar cookies.

What is Brown Sugar?

A bowl of brown sugar.

All sugars are made by extracting juice from sugar cane and sugar beet plants. From there, depending on the process, several different kinds of sugars are made. For example, brown sugar goes through most of the same steps that white sugar goes through, with a few added measures.

Gaine explained that brown sugar can be made in two different ways. She told us that “the molasses can be left on the sugar crystals during the purification process, or it can be added back to granulated white sugar in varying amounts to produce light and dark brown sugars.” Pretty neat, right?

Brown sugar is used in baking recipes like maple brown sugar cookies and chocolate fudge goody bars, but it’s also an important component of homemade barbeque sauce.

Are There Different Types of White and Brown Sugar?

An image displaying all the different types of white and brown sugar.

All sugars are made by extracting the juices from sugar cane and sugar beet but go through various processes of purifying, crystallizing, and drying before being classified. Varying levels of molasses also lead to different types.

Types of White Sugar

Most of us have regular white sugar in our cabinets, but there are several types of white sugar that can be used in different cooking and baking methods. Here’s a breakdown of each.

According to The Sugar Association, the types of white sugar include:

  • White granulated sugar: This is the regular old sugar you find at diners and the most common sugar used in recipes.
  • Confectioner’s sugar: Often called powdered sugar, confectioner’s sugar is granulated sugar ground down into a powder with cornstarch added. It’s used to make frosting and icing.
  • Sanding sugar: Has a sparkling appearance, making it a good product for decorating baked goods.
  • Baker’s special sugar: A finer crystal size, making it ideal for coating donuts and other baked goodies.
  • Superfine sugar: The finest crystal size available before becoming powdered. It’s typically used to make mousse or homemade pudding.
  • Coarse sugar: As the name suggests, coarse sugar has larger crystals.

Types of Brown Sugar

There are also a few types of brown sugar to know about, especially if you are getting into the baking hobby. From light brown sugars to turbinado sugar, you’ll want to know what sets each apart and how they can be applied in cooking or baking.

  • Light and dark brown sugar: Gaine told us, “Dark brown sugar has almost twice the amount of molasses present in light brown sugar, giving it a deeper color and stronger molasses flavor. Light brown sugar is often used in sauces and most baked goods.”
  • Turbinado sugar: Sometimes called raw cane sugar, it retains more of the natural molasses. The larger crystals give off a mild brown sugar flavor.
  • Muscovado sugar: This type of sugar has a strong molasses flavor because the molasses has not been removed. The texture is sandy and stickier than regular brown sugar.

If you plan on becoming a pastry artist anytime soon, you’ll at least have some sweet knowledge about sugar under your belt!

How Do You Use White and Brown Sugar?

A small pile of sugar cookies with sprinkles.

With so many white and brown sugar types available, we wanted to know how they each can be used in cooking and baking. Gaine told LifeSavvy all about how sugar generally does a great job of adding sweetness to several foods, but it does much more, too.

She said, “Far beyond their sweetness value, white sugar has properties that range from balancing acidity or bitterness in bread, sauces, and dressings to hold onto moisture, thus preventing spoilage in things like jams and preserves.”

According to Gaine, if you’ve ever made homemade bread, you should also know that sugar helps the dough rise in the process.

When we asked about brown sugar, she explained that “it adds a rich aroma and flavor with a hint of nutty caramel that can enhance and balance the flavor.” Gaine went on to say that “Brown sugar also naturally retains more moisture and has a higher acidity than white sugar, which imparts a unique texture, mouthfeel, softness, stability, and shelf life to the desired recipe.”

She explained that white and brown sugar could be used interchangeably in equal amounts if you plan to sweeten food and drinks like coffee or oatmeal. You can even swap one out for the other if making cookies or cake, but the outcome will no doubt change in texture, mouthfeel, and stability of your baked good.

Gaine also told us, “for certain recipes where molasses flavor is so important, such as barbecue sauce, substituting white sugar will dramatically change the flavor.” Keep that in mind if you plan on making homemade BBQ baked beans anytime soon.

It turns out both white and brown sugar are different in many ways beyond appearance. I don’t know about you, but all this sugar talk makes me hungry for some cookies and cake!

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