It’s happened to the best of us: you’re all set to bake a batch of chocolate chip cookies, but when you head to the pantry to gather ingredients you’re greeted to brown sugar that’s as solid as a rock.
Rather than panic or grab your coat to head out to the store, take a big breath and realize you have options. Hardened brown sugar is a common problem with an easy solution.
Here’s everything you need to know about why brown sugar hardens, how to soften it, and how to prevent it from become an unyielding brick in the first place.
Why Does Brown Sugar Dry Out?
Brown sugar is made by taking refined white sugar, also known as granulated sugar, and adding back the molasses that was removed from it during the refining process. When combined, the white sugar granules become coated with a thin layer of the molasses.
Since molasses is a liquid, this causes the hard white sugar to become soft and moist. And because it’s brown, it also changes the color of the white sugar to brown.
The simple difference between light and dark brown sugar is the amount of molasses it contains. Light brown sugar contains about 3.5% molasses, while dark brown sugar contains about 6.5% molasses.
When exposed to air, the moisture in brown sugar that comes from the molasses naturally evaporates. The sugar granules then become stuck together and harden into a solid mass.
Though the moisture in molasses easily evaporates, molasses is very hygroscopic, meaning it can just as easily absorb moisture. That’s good news if you want to keep brown sugar soft or if you’re trying to resoften it.
How To Keep Brown Sugar Soft
Air in the enemy of brown sugar. If you can prevent exposure to it, you can prevent brown sugar from drying out and hardening. There are multiple ways to do this.
The most low-tech method that works for me is to remove the plastic bag of brown sugar from its carboard box as soon as I open it. After using what I need, I press out the air from the plastic bag of brown sugar and tightly wrap it with an elastic band. I then place it in a small airtight container with a tight lid.
There are also brown sugar keepers that are created for this very reason, like this container that our contributor Sally swears by. The airtight lid keeps air out while a terracotta disk soaked in water attaches to the inside of the lid and gives the brown sugar a moist environment to live in.
The Slow Way to Soften Brown Sugar
If, despite your best efforts, your brown sugar does harden, it’s fairly easy to resoften it.
The slow way is to tuck something moist inside your container of brown sugar. A slice of bread, a few apple slices, or a couple of damp, used tea bags all work well. These will return moisture to the dried out brown sugar in as little as a day.
You can also purchase a terracotta brown sugar saver, which is soaked in water and acts in the same way.
For all of these methods, it will take a day or two for the brown sugar to absorb the moisture and resoften.
The Fast Way to Soften Brown Sugar
If you don’t have a day or two to spare, you can quickly soften brown sugar by microwaving it.
Place the amount of brown sugar you need in a microwave-safe bowl, cover the bowl with a damp paper towel, and microwave it on high power in 20-second bursts until the brown sugar is soft and moist.
Use a fork to break up any large lumps of brown sugar as you go.