Single scattering albedo (SSA) and absorption angstrom exponent (AAE) are two critical parameters in determining the impact of absorbing aerosol on the Earth's radiative balance. Aerosol emitted by biomass burning represent a significant fraction of absorbing aerosol globally, but it remains difficult to accurately predict SSA and AAE for biomass burning aerosol. Black carbon (BC), brown carbon (BrC), and non-absorbing coatings all make significant contributions to the absorption coefficient of biomass burning aerosol. SSA and AAE cannot be directly inferred based on fuel type because they depend strongly on burn conditions. It has been suggested that SSA can be effectively parameterized via the modified combustion efficiency (MCE) of a biomass-burning event and that this would be useful because emission factors for the MCE of a large number of fuels are available. Here we demonstrate, with data from the FLAME-4 experiment, that for a wide variety of globally relevant biomass fuels, over a range of combustion conditions, parameterizations of SSA and AAE based on the elemental carbon (EC) to organic carbon (OC) mass ratio are quantitatively superior to parameterizations based on MCE. We show that the EC/OC ratio and the ratio of EC/(EC + OC) both have significantly better correlations with SSA than MCE. Furthermore, the relationship of EC/(EC + OC) with SSA is linear. These improved parameterizations are significant because, similar to MCE, emission factors for EC (or black carbon) and OC are available for a wide range of biomass fuels. Fitting SSA with MCE yields correlation coefficients (Pearson's r) of ~ 0.65 at the visible wavelengths of 405, 532, and 660 nm while fitting SSA with EC/OC or EC/(EC + OC) yields a Pearson's r of 0.94–0.97 at these same wavelengths. The strong correlation coefficient at 405 nm (r = 0.97) suggests that parameterizations based on EC/OC or EC/(EC + OC) have good predictive capabilities even for fuels in which brown carbon absorption is significant. Notably, these parameterizations are effective for emissions from Indonesian peat, which have very little black carbon but significant brown carbon (SSA = 0.99 ± 0.07 at 532 and 660 nm, SSA = 0.93 ± 0.06 at 405 nm). Finally, we demonstrate that our parameterization based on EC/(EC + OC) accurately predicts SSA during the first few hours of plume aging with data from Yokelson et al. (2009) gathered during a biomass burning event in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.