I was introduced to turbinado sugar at a young age while at fancy brunches with family. They chose restaurants which served coffee with a bowl of golden-hued sugar cubes, craggy like small boulders. I was told they were "sugar in the raw," which I found incredibly exotic, and I made a game of sneaking as many cubes as I could while those around me dithered with eggs and sausages and other silly distractions. That surprisingly complex caramel-like taste was all I needed, and at the time was my personal height of culinary sophistication.
I may have grown up, and I may no longer think raw sugar is the summum bonum of the culinary arts, but I still cherish and respect its power on the plate and in the kitchen. This form of raw sugar is milder than the untamed, smoky piloncillo, but it's a worthy addition to your sugar collection and a potent spice in its own right.
Turbinado* sugar is made from the first pressing of sugar cane. It's something like the first pressing of olives for extra virgin olive oil, in which the sugar retains more of the original plant's flavor. The syrup is then boiled until crystals form, which are then spun in a centrifuge to rid them of excess moisture. It's this turbine-like centrifuge process that gives turbinado sugar its name.
What Americans call turbinado sugar is demerara in the UK. In the US, demerara is sold alongside turbinado sugar and usually refers to a darker, moister form of raw sugar, very similar to muscavado.
The result is a sugar with notes of honey, light molasses, and caramel alongside mild earthy notes. It's light but with substantial body, deep in flavor without overwhelming intensity. With such a well-rounded flavor profile, turbinado sugar's uses are pretty much endless, both in sweet and savory dishes.
Common brown sugar can't compare. Turbinado sugar is balanced with a suggestion of terroir. Brown sugar, nothing more than plain white sugar mixed with molasses, is heavy and coarse-flavored by comparison. It's less aromatic and, since it's just molasses-light, it's not a great expression of sugar's varied flavors. I'm increasingly replacing brown sugar with turbinado in recipes, which has led to lighter, more balanced dishes that speak of quiet complexity more than blunt flavor.
In baking, where sugar plays a textural as well as flavor component, the two aren't always interchangeable. Brown sugar holds more moisture, so swapping it out completely for turbinado sugar may lead to dryer cookies and cakes. But in dessert sauces, spice rubs, and nearly anything fruit-based, turbinado sugar excels. I've used it to make the best butterscotch I've ever eaten, to balance out floral spices on gamey duck, and in jammy plum cobbler topped with buttery biscuits. So go ahead and try some outside your morning coffee. The mysterious flavors of sugar cane, and their enormous potential, await you.