Cookies are often one of the first foods that people get into when they first begin baking. After all, cookies are incredibly versatile with as many different types as there are and how many different ways there are to make a good cookie.
Because of this, many aspiring bakers quickly learn that, when it comes to baking, just about every ingredient plays a role.
Baking is one of the most finicky areas of cooking, as it is one of the few areas where precise measurements really make a difference.
Unless you are more experienced in the field of baking, simply saying “a large pinch” of an ingredient will not be enough to determine how much you will really need, as there’s a good chance any ingredient that you add to a baking dish is going to play a role.
Baking is actually a very good way to help yourself understand the role that chemical reactions play in baking and even cooking in general. In baking specifically, there are some core ingredients that have certain aspects used in various situations.
A good example could be that egg whites are often used when you need to be able to whip up an ingredient, as egg whites are known for being able to increase their volume immensely as seen with meringue.
Back to the topic of cookies, aspiring bakers will quickly be able to learn that each and every ingredient in the cookie plays its own role.
There are few times when you can simply forego the use of an ingredient, except for when you have prepared for that substitution and have the necessary components to make up the difference.
One example of where a lot of people do not realize the importance of every ingredient in baking is brown sugar. Many people equate brown sugar to simply being an interchangeable variant of standard sugar, but this is far from the truth. In cookies, brown sugar plays its own specific role.
With that in mind, you might begin wondering if you can remove brown sugar from the cookie equation entirely.
While you can remove just about anything from the equation and still get something that is remotely reminiscent of a cookie, you will always need to replace the removed ingredient with a substitute that offers similar properties as the original.
This means that before you can look into substitutions for brown sugar, you will first need to have a good idea of what brown sugar does in cookies and what aspects you need to look for when you are considering a substitute ingredient.
Why Is Brown Sugar Important?
Brown sugar adds a little bit more to the table than your standard white sugar does, and this is because brown sugar is made up of more ingredients than your standard white sugar is.
Most white sugar is exactly sugar without any additional ingredients added to it. On the other hand, brown sugar is a combination of molasses and sugar, which is where it gets its traditionally brown color from.
The ratio of sugar to molasses depends on the type of brown sugar you have. Your standard brown sugar tends to be about 10% molasses, while the variations that are meant to be even darker will be around 20% or so.
The molasses isn’t just there for the sake of appearance though. Molasses, in the context of brown sugar, helps to add some moisture to the cookie’s texture because of the fact that it is a liquid, albeit a slow-moving one. Additionally, molasses is slightly acidic by its nature.
What this means for your cookie is that the mild acid content will cause the proteins from the cookie dough, which usually come from the eggs and milk, to firm up a little bit faster than they normally would.
In the same amount of time that you would cook a cookie with more brown sugar in it than a cookie without any, you will find that the cookie with brown sugar turns out chewier than the other.
Now that you understand a little bit more about brown sugar and what it contributes on a chemical level to your cookie, you can now begin to consider what substitutions you can add, if you want to add any at all.
Can You Substitute Brown Sugar?
If you find that your situation is that you do not have any brown sugar to add to your cookies, there are a few ways that you can recreate the brown sugar without needing to make a special trip to the store. In fact, you can make your own brown sugar at home, if you really want to.
The easiest substitute, and the one that will be the closest to the original store-bought brown sugar, is going to be to create your own home version of brown sugar. All you would need for this is your standard white sugar plus some molasses and you will be good to go.
Of course, you wouldn’t be able to produce it at the same level as the factories that sell brown sugar, but by doing this you can easily make your own brown sugar in a pinch.
Typically, you will want to mix about one cup of sugar with about one tablespoon of molasses to make your own light brown sugar. If you are aiming for a dark brown variant, you can increase the tablespoon of molasses to two.
If you do not have molasses in your home, maple syrup can provide almost the exact same properties as molasses can, but with a sweeter scent to it.
Speaking of maple syrup, some people argue that you can add just the syrup to your cookie and it will be just fine.
Adding honey, maple syrup, or agave nectar can produce the same effects as brown sugar, but you will need to factor in the fact that these are all pure liquids. The amount of liquid you are adding to the cookie may affect the end result of it.
The rule of thumb for this is to replace each cup of brown sugar you would use with about two thirds of a cup of your liquid sweetener, and then subsequently reduce all other liquid sources in your recipe by one fourth of a cup for each two-thirds cup of liquid sweetener you use.
Finally, you can consider using coconut sugar as well. Coconut sugar provides much of the same properties as brown sugar and it even has a naturally similar appearance and taste. The one major difference is that it doesn’t hold as much moisture in it, considering that it is coconut sugar and not sugar mixed with a liquid.
This means that any cookies you make with this could end up dryer than intended, so you may need to add a little more fat to your cookies to balance this out.
What About No Substitutions?
The truth of the matter is that you do not necessarily need to have brown sugar, or even a brown sugar substitute in your cookies.
Brown sugar is not one of those vital ingredients to the cookie such as flour or butter, and if you are willing to accept the taste and texture differences that a cookie without brown sugar will offer, you can completely forego adding it to your recipe.
The biggest difference that you will notice is that cookies made with purely white sugar will rise more, since the slight acidity of molasses is not activating the proteins in the cookie before it manages to hit the oven.
You will also find that cookies made with just white sugar will also be a little bit crispier than your standard cookie as well.
If you are looking for cookies that are a little bit risen but still retain their crisp and crunchy texture that many people go after, then removing brown sugar from your cookies entirely might be the right option for you.
With this kind of recipe, you won’t be making any alterations to the ingredients to cover up for the lack of brown sugar, aside from the fact that you will not be including it at all in the first place.
Sarah is the founder of Baking Kneads, LLC, a blog sharing guides, tips, and recipes for those learning how to bake. Growing up as the daughter of a baker, she spent much of her childhood learning the basics in a local bakery.