And that’s because the three-dimensional punch of brown sugar boosts other seasonal flavors such as cinnamon, clove, anise and allspice. And it does so with a vigor that white sugar just can’t match.
“It’s sweet, and sweet makes our tummies happy. But it’s more complex,” says cookbook author Michael Ruhlman. “It’s got molassesy, caramelly deeper notes. It’s more fun to use because of its complexity.”
Brown sugar’s color, texture and subtle flavor come from molasses, which is either added to refined sugar or remains present after processing. Sugar enhances sweet tones the way salt emphasizes sugar, says Karen Page, co-author with Andrew Dornenberg of The Flavor Bible and What to Drink with What You Eat.
The “sugar” side of brown sugar brings out the inherent sweetness in vegetables, such as carrots, squash and sweet potato, Page says. Its molasses component unifies their unique flavors. “It’s a flavor emphasizer,” Page says.
But a balanced savory dish also needs sweet notes. Brown sugar can add those while boosting other warm tones, such as the smokiness in a bacon-spiked stuffing or the heat in a spice-rubbed turkey. The autumnal warmth of brown sugar also recalls childhood comforts, such as oatmeal with butter and brown sugar.
“It’s a feeling thing,” Dornenberg says. “It’s brown, you’re looking outside and seeing brown colors. It makes sense to my body for that reason.”
CANDIED BACON STUFFING
In a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, slowly cook two sliced yellow onions in 2 tablespoons of olive oil until well browned and caramelized, about 15 minutes. Arrange 1 pound of bacon on a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet, sprinkle liberally with brown sugar and black pepper. Bake at 350 F until crispy, about 15 minutes. Allow to cool, then chop. Prepare a 12-ounce bag of stuffing according to package directions. Stir in the caramelized onions, candied bacon and 2 teaspoons of fresh thyme. Serves 8.
SMASHED HARVEST VEGGIES
In 2 large casserole dishes, toss together 2 pounds peeled, cubed sweet potatoes, 2 pounds peeled, cubed butternut squash, and 2 pounds peeled, cubed rainbow carrots. In a small bowl, mix together 1/2 cup brown sugar, 1 teaspoon dried sage, 1 tablespoon dried mustard powder, 1 teaspoon dried thyme, 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves, 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, 1/4 teaspoon cayenne, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon ground black pepper. Sprinkle this mixture over the vegetables. Pour 1 cup of heavy cream over each dish, then bake for 30 to 40 minutes at 350 F. Gently smash the mixture with a potato masher. Serves 12.