How to Soften Brown Sugar and Keep It From Drying Out

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Who among us hasn’t been ready to cook and pulled out the brown sugar only to find it turned into a brick? We are used to many food staples that last for months and months with very little or even no loss in quality. This is not true for brown sugar unless you store it properly.

The reason brown sugar hardens is pretty mundane. It contains molasses, which gives sugar its color and moist texture. When exposed to air, its moisture evaporates, says America’s Test Kitchen.

Conjuring up the process is as simple as ensure sugar is stored tightly And providing an additional source of moisture as insurance. (See more below.)

Although prevention is the best medicine, no one is perfect. So, yes, you can fix hard brown sugar!

6 Baking Myths You Shouldn’t Believe

To help you figure out the best ways to soften it, I’ve tried out a few oft-recommended methods. I decided to skip the ones that suggested using food (sandwich bread, apples, etc.) to avoid waste.

Tip: Cook the hard brown sugar in a dish at 250 degrees for 5 minutes.

Granted, I was working with particularly dry brown sugar, but the oven didn’t nick any small or large chunks. I ended up with even drier sugar and a dirty pie plate.

Tip: Grind hard brown sugar in a blender, spice grinder or food processor. Or grate.

I wondered if this was what would end up breaking my old reliable food processor. The sound of the sugar cube ricocheting off the blade and the bowl was anxiety-inducing. Eventually, the processor broke down the sugar. What I got was more like brown granulated sugar bordering on confectioners’ brown sugar – suitable for mixing into oatmeal and the like, or perhaps replacing granulated or superfine sugar, but not when you rely on the moisture from the brown sugar to transfer into a baked good.

Tip: Place the brown sugar in an open microwave-safe container next to 1/2 cup of water in another container and heat for a few minutes.

I liked the idea, because there is no wasted food or supplies. But the sugar hasn’t really moved. The result was a very hot bowl and boiling water in a liquid measuring cup.

Microwave + damp paper towel

Tip: Microwave the brown sugar covered with a damp paper towel in 20-second increments.

I never got really soft brown sugar, and there were still lots of hard nuggets even after multiple cycles of microwave and paper towel soaking. It may be fine in a pinch, but other methods are better.

Microwave + zip bag and water

Tip: Microwave brown sugar in a sealed ziplock bag combined with a little water (3/4 teaspoon to 8 ounces of sugar) for 15 seconds, then massage until smooth submitted.

Stella Parks, cookbook author and pastry chef, never lets me down, so I got a little nervous when I took her advice and not much happened after several minutes of squeezing the sugar in the my hands hurt. I thought “what the hell”, added a little more water and microwaved for another 15 seconds. This restored the brown sugar beautifully (bonus: even the next morning it still looked perfect).

Tip: Place a piece of clay soaked in sugar in an airtight container.

These clay lumps, like the popular Brown Sugar Bear (which also comes in other forms), are designed to keep brown sugar soft, but they can also reverse damage. I soaked my gingerbread in water for about 20 minutes, wiped it off, and placed it in an airtight container with a block of brown sugar. Within about 30 minutes, the bear had started working its magic, allowing me to start breaking the sugar into smaller pieces. In about 90 minutes, his job was done. It’s not the fastest method and it requires the initial investment (about $5), but it’s foolproof and simple. If you check your sugar the morning you want to cook or the night before, the timing issue doesn’t really matter.

How to keep brown sugar sweet from the start

The fastest way to turn your brown sugar into a brick is to leave it in the cardboard box it’s often sold in. Even if you think you’ve sealed the plastic insert enough, trust me, you haven’t. Instead, transfer the brown sugar to an airtight container for custody, or you can leave the sugar in the plastic but place it in a zip lock bag. I tend to buy 2 pound plastic bags of brown sugar because it’s more economical. Once I open this I squeeze all the air out, secure the bag with a rubber band or painter’s tape, then transfer the whole thing to a resealable bag. It’s the same strategy I’ve been using for years – even with the same bag – and I’ve had no problems.

If you live in a particularly dry climate or want to be extra safe, go with the Brown Sugar Bear (follow the same soaking procedure as above). It will provide enough moisture for 2-3 months, after which you can repeat the process. You’ll find similar strategies recommended using slices of bread or marshmallows, but I prefer something more stable that doesn’t need to be replaced (or composted).

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