I personally taste-tested a variety of rock sugar substitutes to find the best one for every cooking occasion. Whether you’re on the hunt for the closest flavor match, in need of a last-minute pantry substitute, or want a swap that fits your diet, I’ve got the answers.
White granulated sugar is the easiest substitute for rock sugar because it’s cheap and readily available, but it has a flatter flavor. For a better flavor match, try turbinado or palm sugar. Cutting down on your sugar intake? Try the zero-calorie monk fruit sweetener.
I brewed a pot of black tea to test different rock sugar substitutes.
Rock sugar (also known as Chinese sugar) is produced by boiling sugar, and then cooling it into large, irregularly shaped crystal-like chunks. In Western societies, rock sugar is sold as candy, but in Asia, rock sugar is used for teas, desserts, and savory dishes like Peking duck. It adds pure sweetness with no extra flavor notes.
If you’ve ever had Chinese red pork belly before (video below), rock sugar is an important ingredient for adding shine.
The bad news is that rock sugar can be hard to find (make sure you have checked any Asian grocery stores near you!), so I was looking for more accessible substitutes. Here are the substitutes I tested and my verdicts:
|Regular Granulated Sugar||Start with ¾ the amount||8/10|
|Turbinado Sugar||Replace in a 1:1 ratio||9/10|
|Palm Sugar||Replace in a 1:1 ratio||9/10|
|Maple Syrup||Start with ½ the amount||7/10|
|Monk Fruit Sweetener||Replace with ½ the amount||8/10|
|Pearl Sugar||Start with ¾ the amount||6/10|
White or brown granulated sugar
White granulated sugar is the most readily available and straightforward replacement for rock sugar. It’s similar to rock sugar in that it delivers pure sweetness with no added flavor notes, but it tends to be sweeter than rock sugar and has a flatter flavor. I recommend starting with 3/4’s of the amount and then adding more to taste.
Want to add more flavor? Try caramelizing the granulated sugar before using it. This will give it a lovely golden color similar to rock sugar and also deepens the flavor slightly. But be warned: it caramelizes a lot quicker than rock sugar, so don’t overdo it.
Psst… if you’re replacing the rock sugar in pho, you will see a lot of advice about not using regular sugar, but if it’s all you have, it will work fine.
How to substitute: Replace rock sugar with 3/4 the amount of regular white or brown sugar.
Turbinado sugar (cane sugar)
Turbinado sugar is derived from sugar cane and is unrefined, giving it a rounded flavor profile and making it a good option if you’re on an organic diet. Its sugar crystals are slightly larger than granulated sugar, but they’re nowhere as big as rock sugar.
The larger turbinado sugar crystals means it caramelizes and melts in a slower and more controlled way than regular white sugar, making it an excellent substitute for achieving a beautiful sheen in sauces and glazes.
I’d never heard of turbinado sugar before, but it was easy to find and only slightly more expensive than white sugar.
How to substitute: Replace rock sugar with an equal weight of turbinado sugar.
Palm sugar is another unrefined sugar that you can use as a rock sugar substitute. This sweetener is made from the sap of sugar palm trees (aka date palms) and it’s got a very similar sweetness level to rock sugar.
However, because it’s unrefined, it retains most of its caramel and toffee-like notes. I didn’t mind this in my tea though and they weren’t overpowering.
Psst… I love palm sugar in pho (if you’ve never added sugar to your pho, you’re really missing out).
How to substitute: Replace rock sugar with an equal weight of palm sugar.
Maple syrup is made from the sap of maple trees and is sweeter than rock sugar, with hints of buttery caramel.
It’s not a perfect flavor match for rock sugar, but it’s a solid alternative if you don’t want to use sugar. Its glycemic index is also slightly lower than rock sugars.
There’s one golden rule, though: make sure to use 100% pure maple syrup. The market is flooded with imitations made with corn syrup, and they won’t give you the authentic flavor you’re looking for.
How to substitute: Start with ½ the amount of maple syrup, and adjust to taste.
Monk fruit sweetener
Following a keto diet or simply cutting back on sugar? Monk fruit sweetener has your back! This is a zero-calorie sweetener with a low glycemic index rating, making it a good option for anyone watching their blood sugar levels.
It’s far sweeter than rock sugar, so a little goes a long way. But it dissolves and caramelizes perfectly, meaning you can use it most of the ways you would use rock sugar.
Psst… unlike stevia (another low-calorie sweetener), I wasn’t able to detect any bitter aftertaste when I mixed this with my tea.
How to substitute: Replace rock sugar with half the amount of monk fruit sweetener.
If you’re into baking, you might have some pearl sugar in your cupboards. Pearl sugar is named for its appearance as small, round, hard balls of compressed sugar and it’s normally used in Belgian waffles.
Because the sugar is so compressed, it melts very slowly, but still faster than rock sugar because of the small crystal size. The crystals are made with white sugar, so they will be slightly sweeter than rock sugar and don’t have quite as much depth.
Psst… decorative sugar can also work, but again it will be sweeter than rock sugar.
How to substitute: Replace rock sugar with 3/4 the amount of pearl sugar.
Best Rock Sugar Substitutes
- ¾ tbsp white granulated sugar
- 1 tbsp turbinado sugar
- 1 tbsp palm sugar
- ½ tbsp maple syrup
- ½ tbsp monkfruit sweetener
- Cook your meal according to the recipe.
- Add your chosen rock sugar substitutes at the appropriate cooking time.
- Mix until thoroughly combined and continue with the recipe.