When you want to make ingredient substitutions in baking, whether it's for reasons of taste, health or the current contents of your pantry, things can get complicated. If a recipe calls for packed brown sugar but you don't have any on hand, or perhaps you prefer to use other forms of sweeteners, know that you shouldn't necessarily sub in the same exact weight or volume of the alternative. Whipping up a batch of cookies or a cake with a fairly comparable taste, texture and weight to the original recipe requires careful consideration. With savory dishes featuring brown sugar, such as barbecue sauces and rubs, you do have a little more leeway and room for experimentation.
White Sugar and Molasses
Brown sugar contains sugar and molasses. The closest you can get to this without having the real thing is to mix some white granulated sugar with molasses. Blackstrap molasses work well for substituting dark brown sugar. Otherwise regular molasses does just fine. Add just a couple of tablespoons of molasses at a time. You don't want to add too much weight to your recipe, and white sugar already weighs a bit more than brown sugar – even packed brown sugar. If you don't have the molasses, substitute it with white granulated sugar (1 cup of white sugar for 1 cup of packed brown). Do know that it won't taste exactly the same as with brown sugar.
If you're in a pinch, honey can add weight and sweetness to your recipe in a similar way that brown sugar does. It's important to remember that honey weighs more than brown sugar. A cup of honey weighs 12 oz, while a cup of packed brown sugar weighs only 8 oz or so. Honey is also sweeter than sugar and adds acidity to your ingredients. You can neutralize this with just a pinch of baking soda. Honey also causes baked goods to cook quicker. Because of this and the fact that honey doesn't attract moisture, baked foods can dry out quicker. You can adjust the weight and sweetness simply by adding less, but do know that your dish won't taste exactly the same as it would with packed brown sugar.
Let's say you want to skip the granulated sugar or are out of it. You also have no molasses. You can substitute maple syrup for sugar as a sweetener, but it must be 100 percent maple syrup. You should only use 3/4 cup maple syrup for each cup of packed brown sugar the recipe calls for. Also, for each cup of syrup that's used in the substitute recipe, 3 tbsp. of liquid should be removed from the recipe. So, if you use 2 cups of syrup baking a cake, you would reduce the water, milk or whatever liquid it calls for by 6 tbsp.
Most artificial and plant-based sugar substitutes are much sweeter by volume than regular sugar, so if you want to use one in place of packed brown sugar you'll certainly need less than is called for in the original recipe. If you use one particular brand on a regular basis you're probably familiar with substituting it for regular sugar; otherwise read the packaging or go to the manufacturer's website for measurement recommendations when replacing sugar. Not all brands are suitable for baking, but Splenda and Stevia can be used. Splenda also makes a brown sugar blend that's half regular Splenda and half brown sugar, so it cuts down on the amount of sugar without eliminating it for a nice balance of flavor. You can, of course, prepare a similar blend yourself.