Difference between Light Brown Sugar and Dark Brown Sugar

Updated on February 3, 2017

Most recipes that require brown sugar do not really indicate whether it is referring to light brown sugar or dark brown sugar. Are both types interchangeable? If you’ve asked yourself this question, this article is for you.


Light Brown Sugar
A close-up picture of light brown sugar

Light brown sugar is white sugar that is combined with a dark brown syrup called molasses. It only contains about 3.5% molasses per total volume, which contributes to its light brown color and subtle molasses flavor. The molasses coats each sugar crystal, trapping in moisture. Light brown sugar has a fluffy, dry texture.

The “brown sugar” indicated in recipes usually means light brown sugar. It is perfect for caramel corns and butterscotch because of its mild flavor. It is also observed that using light brown sugar in cookies will make the cookies spread more.

Dark brown sugar
Dark brown sugar

Dark brown sugar is white sugar that is combined with molasses. It has a dark brown color and holds moisture because of the high level of molasses added to it during the process (about 6.5% per total volume). Because it contains a high amount of molasses, dark brown sugar also has an intense molasses flavor, which many people liken to caramel or toffee.

Recipes that require dark brown sugar specifically indicate “dark brown sugar” and not just “brown sugar” because it will affect the flavor of the end product. For example, gingerbread made with dark brown sugar will have a slightly bitter taste and chocolate cake made with dark brown sugar will have a deeper flavor with a hint of caramel.

Additionally, dark brown sugar is perfect for recipes that use sugar as the chief flavoring element, or if the baker simply wants to achieve an intense molasses flavor. It is also believed that using dark brown sugar in cookies make them rise higher.

Light Brown Sugar vs Dark Brown Sugar

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

Both of them are white sugar combined with molasses. However, light brown sugar contains 3.5% molasses while dark brown sugar contains 6.5% molasses. Light brown sugar is a little bit dry whereas dark brown sugar is moist. In terms of flavor, light brown sugar has a subtle molasses flavor. Dark brown sugar has an intense molasses taste.

Most of the time, recipes that indicate “brown sugar” call for light brown sugar and not dark brown sugar. Ideally, dark brown sugar is only used when specified in the instructions.

They can be interchangeably used; however, it is important to remember that dark brown sugar will result in a deeper flavor and may even add some bitterness to the end product. Cookies that are made with light brown sugar spread more, while the ones that are made with dark brown sugar rise higher because of its moisture.

Comparison Chart

Light Brown SugarDark Brown Sugar
Contains 3.5% molassesContains 6.5% molasses
Lighter color; dry textureDarker color; moist texture
Mild molasses flavorIntense molasses flavor; almost similar to caramel or toffee
Perfect for butterscotch and caramel corn or when a recipe simply indicates “brown sugar”Ideally used only when specified; may be a substitute to light brown sugar but the end product will have a deeper, slightly bitter taste; great for baked goods that use sugar as the main flavoring agent
Using light brown sugar in cookies makes them spread moreUsing dark brown sugar in cookies makes them rise higher because of its moisture
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