A spoonful of sugar might make the medicine go down, but in a chocolate chip cookie, it does a lot more than you may think.
But the real question is, how much is too much? And no, we don't mean how much sugar — our recipe will tell you that. But how much variation is too much? After all, once you extend beyond the confines of your traditional supermarket choices, there's a world of alternative sugars to choose from: muscavado, demerara, Sucanat — the list goes on. So, for the sake of accessibility, we chose to stick to the basics: white, light brown, and dark brown.
Most brown sugars are made up of 95% sucrose and just 5% molasses. (Sucrose is just common table sugar, FYI.) That 5% change in makeup might not seem earth-shattering, but it's enough to make professional bakers choose their sweetener with a keen eye.
"Sugar will not only drive flavor, but also aid in texture and overall composition of a cookie," says Anna McGorman, director of culinary operations for Milk Bar. Her sugar of choice? A combination of both brown and white. "I'm all about combinations," says McGorman. "I like the structure white sugar provides paired with the rich flavors you get from brown sugar."
So, to better understand how sugar affects cookies, we decided to test five batches of cookies and compare them in a side-by-side taste test. We stuck to five of the most popular varieties and combinations of sugars professional bakers swear by and kept all of the other variables the same. We used the classic Nestlé Toll House cookie formula as our base recipe and simply swapped out the sweetener, keeping the quantity the same.
If you can't see the sign-up box above, just enter your email address here.
Here are the five sugars and sugar combinations we tested and how they affected the cookie:
The Science / What We're Expecting: Now, it might seem counterintuitive to begin this analysis with a combination of sweeteners, but hey, we must show respect where respect is due. Turns out, this is how Toll House likes to do it, so this is where we will begin.
Brown sugar, as it turns out, is more capable of retaining moisture, which explains its many characteristics that you've probably experienced while baking with it. (We're talking about the denser texture and extra moistness brown sugar often lends.) There's another catch, too: Brown sugar is a little acidic in nature, causing it to interact with the leavening agent at play, possibly resulting in a a cakier cookie. Then again, if you're a lover of thin and crisp cookies, you might prefer the neutral white that will spread across that pan.
The Test: Use 50% white sugar + 50% light brown sugar in the cookie recipe. (This is what is called for in the control recipe.)
The Results: As expected, these cookies had the best of both worlds. They spread nicely and had a subtle caramel flavor from the brown sugar. The caramel/molasses notes from the light brown sugar were relatively mild, but certainly not bland. These were your standard chocolate chip cookies. No complaints.
Overall Rating: 7/10
The Science / What We're Expecting: White sugar (or "granulated" sugar) will help your cookies spread large and wide across the pan. But due to its fairly neutral flavor, it may be a bit boring and make for a rather bland cookie. Given that it's neither acidic nor basic, it also doesn't contribute much to the rise of the cookie itself. What you're left with is crispy, crunchy nibbles. We're thinking that this test could prove to be a bit bland, but who knows.
The Test: Swap the 50% white sugar + 50% light brown sugar, originally in the recipe, for 100% white sugar. All other variables kept the same.
The Results: As expected, these cookies were pretty disappointing. They were pale in color, lacked depth, and looked rather ugly. They didn't spread as much as we predicted, and the flavor was seriously lacking. Disappointing!
Overall Rating: 2/10
The Science / What We're Expecting: Walk into any grocery store and you'll be greeted with two variants of brown sugar: light and dark. Most people default to light, and there's a reason why. Contrary to popular belief, it's actually a little more versatile than its darker counterpart. It's lighter in color and not as bitter, so when a recipe simply calls for "brown sugar," this is your go-to.
What can you expect from a cookie baked with brown sugar? A rich, warm molasses flavor and slightly chewy texture. Of course, part of this depends on your fat choice. If creaming the sugar with room-temperature butter, the increased density of brown sugar means less air pockets, less mechanical leavening, and wider spread. Since you're losing less moisture, you can be sure of a cookie that stays moist and is probably more chewy than it is crisp.
The Test: Swap the 50% white sugar + 50% light brown sugar, originally in the recipe, for 100% light brown sugar. All other variables kept as-is.
The Results: These cookies had a much deeper flavor — similar to caramel. The texture was a bit chewier compared to the ones made from a combination of white and brown sugars, and the texture was somewhat gritty — but not in an unpleasant way. The color was a tad dark, but overall a good cookie.
Overall Rating: 7.5/10
The Science / What We're Expecting: Toying with a recipe that calls for all dark brown sugar is a bit like jumping into the deep end. In all honesty, it's not too different from its lighter sibling, save for one teeny detail: It contains more molasses, explaining its more intense color. So scientifically, there's no reason switching out the light brown sugar for a darker one should change the way your cookie bakes all that much. (Except maybe for an additional punch of acid?) After all, the components are the same and the proportions are only mildly tweaked. Therefore, you can probably expect a rich, toffee-like flavor, along with a decent rise to your cookie (thanks to the interaction between the acid in the brown sugar and your leavening agent of choice).
The Test: Swap the 50% white sugar + 50% light brown sugar, originally in the recipe, for 100% dark brown sugar. All other variables kept as-is.
The Results: A bit too dark. The cookies looked almost burnt. The flavor was rich and caramel-like, and the texture was pleasantly chewy, but it was almost overwhelming in flavor. Nice, but not perfect.
Overall Rating: 5/10
The Science / What We're Expecting: Similar to the trademark Toll House recipe, this mix of sugars varies in only the type of brown sugar we'll be using.
If you choose this method, don't be alarmed if your dough looks, well, exactly how you're used to it looking: That's to be expected. The dough will mostly look (and act) exactly the same as your conventional cookie dough, and yet it'll take on an identity of its own in the baking process to give you a cookie that's just slightly different from what you're used to.
If you enjoy a richer, more caramel-infused flavor, this combination will most likely deliver. Ideally, the mix of the two sugars gives you the spread you've been looking for with the rise created from the brown sugar–baking soda interaction we've discussed.
The Test: Swap the 50% white sugar + 50% light brown sugar, originally in the recipe, for 50% white sugar + 50% dark brown sugar. All other variables kept as-is.
The Results: A rich, flavorful cookie that is perfectly brown. This cookie is a clear improvement from the light + white combination in the original Toll House recipe. It has more flavor and a slightly darker color, yet still has the crisp-yet-chewy texture we love. Highly recommend.
Overall Rating: 9/10
The Biggest Takeaways:
What We Learned: Sugar can drastically change the flavor, texture, spread, and color of your cookies — so choose wisely. Brown sugar is slightly acidic, while white sugar has a neutral pH level — so they react with leavening agents differently.
The Biggest Takeaways: When it comes to picking out which sugar you should use to make your chocolate chip cookies, keep these things in mind:
1. The darker the brown sugar, the more flavor your cookie will have: This also means the darker your cookie will turn out, so be careful. Too much dark brown sugar = a cookie that looks burnt.
2. White sugar makes cookies spread a bit more and look super pale, so you need to balance it out with a bit of brown sugar.
3. Brown sugar is acidic, so you should think of it as part of your leavening agent: The acid in the molasses will react with the leavening agent in your recipe, so keep this in mind.
4. Using a combination of sugars instead of just one gives you more control: This way you can achieve your ideal color and flavor. Brown sugar will give you depth, while white sugar will balance it out and help with spreading.