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If you’re new to baking, you’ve probably had at least one minor freakout when revisiting an opened package of brown sugar and finding a hard, rock-like mass instead of the soft, sandy squish you expected. Don’t worry! It happens to the best of us—from beginner bakers to pastry chefs. Luckily, there are lots of solutions to this minor problem that can have you back and ready to get baking (think soft chocolate chip cookies, caramel-y pull apart breads, or sticky cinnamon rolls) in little to no time at all.
What is Brown Sugar?
For a bit of background, commercial brown sugar (the stuff most of us are picking up in the super market) is made from just two ingredients: refined white (granulated) sugar and molasses. When white sugar is processed, the natural molasses is completely removed. If some of this natural molasses is left in, you are left with natural brown sugar.
What is Brown Sugar?
Brown sugar consists of sugar crystals and leftover molasses content from the sugar refining process, giving it that distinct caramel brown color. It can also be made from adding molasses to white sugar.
Most brown sugars contain between 3.5% (light) and 10% (dark) molasses, and maintain their soft texture due to their hygroscopic (the phenomenon of attracting and holding water) nature.
Three Easy Ways to Store Brown Sugar
Brown sugar dries out and takes on a sandstone-like texture when the water in the sugar evaporates. To prevent this, it’s important to store opened packages of brown sugar properly. Here are some methods you can use for storing your brown sugar:
- Transfer the brown sugar to the smallest airtight container you can find, so there’s as little space between the sugar and the lid as possible. For even more protection, transfer the brown sugar to a resealable plastic bag, remove as much air as you can while sealing, and store the bag in the air-tight container.
- Transfer the brown sugar to an airtight container, then add a damp so-called “brown sugar saver” made of terra cotta before sealing. The terra cotta holds moisture, allowing it to give off that moisture and keep the environment right for soft, scoop-able brown sugar.
- Transfer the brown sugar to an airtight container or resealable plastic bag and add a few marshmallows before sealing. The marshmallows act in a similar way that the terra cotta brown sugar saver does, keeping a moist environment for the brown sugar and allowing it stay soft, longer.
If you have some brown sugar that you want to store for longer periods of time, you can keep it in an a resealable plastic freezer bag in the freezer. Let it thaw overnight at room temperature before using.
How to Soften Brown Sugar Four Ways
Even if you store brown sugar properly, the potential for it to go hard is always there. Maybe you forget to soak your brown sugar saver or air snuck its way into your resealable plastic bag—it happens to the best of us. Here are four methods to soften your rock of brown sugar, plus their pros and cons.
The Bread or Apple Method
Stick a slice of white sandwich bread or a few slices of apple in the container with the brown sugar. Seal the container and let it sit overnight. Remove and discard the bread or apple slices and use your reanimated sugar!
Pros and Cons: This is a super easy, hands-off method, but unfortunately, it wastes food (however small an amount of bread and apple it is) and takes quite a bit of time. If the urge to bake strikes, this might not be the best option for quick, waste-free results.
The Microwave Method
Transfer the hardened brown sugar to a microwave-safe bowl and cover with a damp (not soaking wet!) paper towel. Microwave it on medium power in 20 second increments (you’ll need two, maybe three), stirring through with a fork until the sugar is completely softened. Let cool before using.
Pros and Cons: This method is quick and reliable, but relies on the microwave, which not all of us (myself included) have at home. A few other small cons? It needs to cool completely before being used and unnecessarily wastes a paper towel.
The Water Massage Method
For this method, you’ve got to dig out your digital kitchen scale. Transfer the hardened brown sugar to a resealable plastic bag on the scale to weigh it out. Add 1/8 oz of water to the bag for every 8 ounces of brown sugar. Seal the bag well, and let it sit for about 30 minutes. Massage the brown sugar to incorporate the water, and it’s ready for use.
Pros and Cons: No waste here! A pro in my book. However, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows with this method, it requires a small, little, tiny bit of math (maybe a pro for some of us?), a kitchen scale (which not all of us have at home), and 30 minutes of waiting, waiting, waiting. Not a lot if you plan ahead or compare to the bread and apple method, but not as quick as the microwave or food processor methods.
The Food Processor Method
Transfer your lumpy, dried our brown sugar to a food processor. Gently pulse it to break it up, making sure to go easy on the button to truly pulse it into smaller and smaller pieces until it’s softened back up.
Pros and Cons: This is by far the quickest method, with no waiting periods, no additional ingredients, and no waste. Many of us have food processors at home, but not all, so that would be the only real downside to this method.
If All Else Fails, Make Homemade Brown Sugar
As you’ve already seen, there are plenty of options for storing your brown sugar properly—therefore preventing hardening, and softening it up again for use. These are great, fine, perfectly useful tips and tricks, but there’s one last option that might be worth thinking about it if you don’t use brown sugar very often or are interested in making it “from scratch.” Here’s how to make it at home in less than five minutes:
Measure out 1 cup of white granulated sugar into a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer. Add 1 tablespoon of molasses to the bowl and mix in with a fork, hand mixer, or use the stand mixer whisk. Once the sugar takes on that soft, sandy consistency of brown sugar and the molasses is all incorporated and there are no large clumps—you’ve done it! It’s that simple.