Unexpected ways to use brown sugar in your cooking

Brown sugar is one of my favorite ingredients to bake and cook with. Inexpensive and widely available, both light and dark varieties can be categorized as refined sugars that are made by re-incorporating molasses back into refined white sugar. They boast complexity of flavor and a lovely, soft texture like moist sand. On the other hand, slightly pricier unrefined or partially refined brown sugars simply contain traces of molasses from the refining process. You’ll recognize these types at the grocery store labeled as raw sugar, turbinado, muscovado, or demerara.

Many recipes for cookies, cakes, muffins, and other baked goodies call for either light or brown sugar. While nearly identical, dark brown sugar contains a higher content of molasses than light brown sugar, which accounts for the former’s slightly darker color, wetter texture, and richer flavor. If you want to achieve deeper, richer flavor akin to dark caramel, opt for dark brown sugar. For more subtle sweetness and less of an overpowering molasses flavor, go with light brown sugar. That said, in a pinch, I’ve swapped in one kind of sugar for the other and vice versa with no adverse effects.

Even though recipes that cue brown sugar generally refer to the most commercial types — especially with baking — there are instances where an unrefined brown sugar like turbinado can play a delectable role in your finished dish. Wet and soft with a very rich flavor, muscovado can be an excellent choice in savory marinades and sauces as well as cakes that benefit from the strong flavor of molasses. A sprinkling of granular demerara sugar atop your baked goods can lend them beautifully caramelized crunchy tops.

All types of brown sugars — whether refined, unrefined, or partially refined — should be carefully stored to help retain their intended textures and flavors. Since the two common types of commercial brown sugars — light and dark — get their desirable softness from the moisture of the molasses, they also harden easily when exposed to air. To avoid returning to rock-hard lumps of sugar, be sure to seal the packaging shut tightly or store in another airtight container.

Pickle foods

Brown sugar is one of the go-to ingredients for pickling all varieties of foods. Pickled veggies or eggs get their nuanced flavors from a combination of spices, herbs, salt, and vinegars, but it’s luscious brown sugar that serves as the counterbalance to the otherwise sharp, acidic brine. By mingling with the salt and acid, brown sugar lends balance to your favorite pickled treats. The best part of pickling anything is the joy of playing around with the combinations of ingredients in the brine. That’s why you should always taste as you concoct to ensure you get the best results for your unique palate. Ready to play? Try these recipes out, but feel free to experiment with the ratio depending how sweet, salty, or tart you like your pickled delights.

This recipe from Bon Appetit is a deliciously fun way to pickle a batch of eggs. The brine is made with vinegar, brown sugar, and a colorful ingredient of your choice for perfectly balanced flavor and a stunning tie-dye effect.

Test out this recipe from The Duo Dishes when you want to transform some extra cucumbers into delectably zesty pickles. Brown sugar and bold spices lend this jar tons of personality and heat.

Simplify stir-fry dishes

Are you making all your stir-fries with brown sugar yet? As many Asian-inspired stir-fries boast addictively sweet and savory flavors, brown sugar is the ideal ingredient for the sauce component. Mixed with soy sauce, vinegar, and aromatics like garlic and ginger, rich brown sugar manages to add just enough sweetness and depth to balance out the salty notes. Whether you’re cooking up a heap of vegetables or thinly sliced meats, you’ll want to consider using versatile brown sugar to elevate an average stir-fry to true transcendence. If you need ideas, here are two I can’t get enough of.

This recipe from Gimme Some Oven makes a mean stir-fry dish to rival the ones at your local takeout joint. Heat, salt, and unrelenting savory flavors are complemented by the sweetness of brown sugar.

The Pioneer Woman knows what’s she’s doing with brown sugar in this recipe for an addictive veggie stir-fry. Yes, yes, there are heaps of nutritious vegetables, but the sauce in this dish really takes it to the next level. Brown sugar and soy lusciousness.

Season meat, poultry, and seafood

There’s a good reason so many people are enamored with the combination of sweet and savory flavors. They’re downright glorious together. Their magical way of mingling is like an artistic dance number. As such, brown sugar is the perfect texture and flavor when you’re looking for deep, thoughtful ways to season your main dishes of meat, poultry, or seafood. Whether you’re marinating a slab of steak to ultimate tenderness, slathering chicken for the grill, or glazing a fillet of fish, brown sugar proves to be indispensable. There is, of course, no shortage of ways to use this adaptable ingredient to season proteins, but here are a couple of excellent ones in case you need a head start.

This recipe from Iowa Girl Eats makes a steak marinade you can easily use for other proteins if you like. Kicky Dijon mustard is combined with brown sugar and olive oil for an easy and streamlined way to season your weeknight red meat.

Turn boring chicken into a dish to remember when you use this recipe from Damn Delicious. Tender thighs are seasoned with garlic, brown sugar, honey, and woodsy herbs for the ideal combo of sweet and savory.

Glaze vegetables

When vegetables cook, they naturally become sweeter and more caramelized. Brown sugar enhances this inherent sweetness, creating deep flavors you won’t be able to resist. As a moist sweetener, brown sugar gives veggies beautiful sheen and outstanding flavor. Whether you’re making traditional holiday favorite side dishes or whipping up whatever’s-in-the-fridge ones for busy weeknights, you’ll love what brown sugar can do for a heap of humble produce. Without further ado, here are some recipes that inspire me.

This recipe from Eating Well takes beets and glazes them with brown sugar and orange juice, bringing together sweet, tart, and salty flavors with great aplomb. You can easily make this glaze for other seasonal veggies as you see fit.

Enhance oven-roasted veggies with this recipe from Taste. Carrots, parsnips, and onions are roasted with brown sugar and thyme for unforgettable sweetness and technicolor awesomeness.

Fix simple salad dressings

There are many reasons why you should opt for homemade salad dressings over store-bought ones. Luckily, making dressing at home is a cinch and delicious when you incorporate brown sugar. Since most vinaigrettes simply contain oil and vinegar, they’re inherently easy to make at home. Add brown sugar to the mix and you’re instantly able to imbue dressings with complexity. As in pickling brines, this pantry ingredient is a fast way to make salad dressing taste amazing. Why buy dressing when all you need is a little assist from brown sugar? Try these recipes if you remain unconvinced.

This recipe from How Sweet It Is takes three ingredients you’re likely to have on hand and turns them into a lip-smacking dressing that only tastes like it came out of a five-star restaurant kitchen. Secret? Brown sugar, of course.

A grilled apple salad gets the star treatment in this recipe from Tasty Kitchen thanks to a mouthwatering brown sugar dressing you’ll want to drizzle on everything. Dijon mustard, basil, cayenne pepper, and dark brown sugar make this vinaigrette irresistible.

Elevate standard popcorn

Is it weird that I make stovetop popcorn three nights a week without fail? (Anyhoo.) While theater-style buttered popcorn is delightful, sometimes I want to change things up, especially since I’m eating popcorn on the reg. Brown sugar is an amazing secret weapon for flavoring kernels with just the right touch of sweetly caramelized goodness. Whether you combine it with cinnamon for a classic combo or go for smooth caramel, brown sugar can help you make your popcorn dreams a reality. These recipes can show you how it’s done.

This recipe from The Kitchn should be a part of any popcorn enthusiast’s repertoire. As brown sugar is the main ingredient in caramel, it probably comes as no surprise where these baked popcorn kernels get their oomph.

Brown sugar and cinnamon make a lovely pair in many recipes, especially this one from BBC Good Food. Brown sugar sweetness combines with warm cinnamon to create a delicious glaze for your mid-week popcorn.

Concoct vegan ‘faux’ bacon

Brown sugar is an indispensable ingredient when you’re looking to fix some faux bacon. That’s something we all do from time to time, right? Whether you’re a carnivore looking to test your limits or a vegan craving the sweet, smoky flavors of those famous a.m. pork strips, you’ll love the fact that brown sugar can help you whip up pretty tasty “bacon.” If you’re looking to turn your BLT into a vegan treat or if you just want to nibble on a few slices with your morning eggs, brown sugar has the amazing ability to lend rich, bacon-y sweetness to non-meat ingredients. If you’re doubtful, check out these incredible recipes for faux bacon.

This recipe from Food Network plays up the meaty texture and earthy flavors of mushrooms by turning them into some of the best faux bacon I’ve ever tasted. Brown sugar, molasses, and soy work together to recreate the cured pork essence.

The blogger behind Brokeass Gourmet developed this faux bacon recipe that I love for its crispiness and authentic flavor. Smoked sea salt and brown sugar are combined to season meaty king oyster mushrooms. The result is pretty close to bacon.

Glaze all the things

If I could glaze my fork and knife, trust me, I would. A sweet, smooth, rich glaze can make any number of desserts and savory dishes glorious. The deep flavor of molasses in brown sugar lends itself well to complementing cakes as much as dinner fare like meatloaf or fish. The soft texture of this type of sugar melts into glazes, rendering them smooth, luxurious, and ideal for drizzling, spreading, or slathering — whatever method you determine is appropriate. As such, it’s become my informal, part-time goal in life to find more ways to use brown sugar to glaze all the things I can get my hands on. Here are two recipes that ought to convince you of the powers of a good brown sugar glaze.

This apple spice cake recipe from Epicurious has one leg up on all the others owing to its genius use of the brown sugar glaze. Made with cream, butter, and brown sugar, the glaze is ridiculously thick and decadent.

This recipe from The New York Times turns weeknight salmon into a glistening masterpiece with a simple brown sugar and mustard glaze. The result is a shiny lacquered surface that looks pro and tastes legit.

Using those miscellaneous brown sugars

While I’ve been going on and on about light and brown commercial sugars, I almost forgot to mention those unrefined or partially refined fancy-pants varieties. Yes, there is a place for extra moist muscovado sugar with its crazy deep molasses flavor. Coarse granular brown sugar has a place in the kitchen beyond sweetening your iced tea. While these sugars may be pricier than the standard variety of brown sugars, they can be perfect for a number of uses. Let’s get to it.

This recipe from Love and Olive Oil calls for impossibly soft and dark muscovado sugar because the cookies produced are magnificently soft, chewy, and bursting with molasses flavor.

These little tea cookies from Wholesome! are made with coarse turbinado sugar to achieve a beautiful cracked texture on their surface. The sweetness and crunch are just right.

These sugar buns from Bon Appetit are light, buttery, and utterly dreamy with a sugary crunch thanks to lovely demerara sugar crystals. If you have a few hours to spare, you won’t feel bad spending those hours making and devouring these yeast breads.

Make all cookies chewier

There are people who like crispy cookies and people who need their cookies to be chewy. If you’re in the latter category of cookie eaters, then you need to get familiar with the wonders of brown sugar. The molasses in light and dark brown sugars magically renders all varieties of cookies more tender, moist, and impeccably chewy. The moisture in the sugars is incorporated into the cookie dough, rendering cookies incredibly soft. Whether you’re making chocolate chip cookies or classic oatmeal raisin, you’ll find that the addition of brown sugar is a game changer. Here are a few chewy cookie recipes to whet your appetite.

This recipe from Food Network makes traditional chewy chocolate chip cookies like the Chips Ahoy! version. If you’re anything like me, that statement alone sold you completely on the recipe.

For a chewy oatmeal raisin cookie, look no further than this recipe from Sally’s Baking Addiction. It makes a batch of cookies so soft and scrumptious that you’ll end up doubling the recipe the next time you revisit it.

This recipe from Serious Eats turns standard sugar cookies into softer, chewier, more delectable versions of themselves by using brown sugar. Thank you.

Since brown sugar is likely in your pantry somewhere right now, aren’t you just the least bit tempted to put it to good use? Hopefully, these recipes help serve as starting points for many brown sugar cooking adventures to come. While it will always be a favorite tenderizing ingredient in baked goods when you’re striving for a delicate crumb and unrivaled moistness, you can also keep brown sugar in mind when you’re cooking up savory meals in the kitchen. Depending on how you like the combination of sweet and savory, you can play around with the proportion of brown sugar in various dishes in order to imbue them with just the right amount of warm, rich, caramel flavor.