Are you making a recipe, but your brown sugar is hard as a rock? Don’t worry! Here are several methods to soften it, so it’s easy to measure.
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Brown sugar is a must-have for home cooks, especially when making chocolate chip cookies during the baking season. The common problem is that the texture can change if not stored properly in your cabinets for an extended period. Exposure to warm air causes it to dry and harden, or the moisture in the sweetener can create sticky, solid clumps or blocks. No need to throw it away and waste a perfectly good ingredient or run to the store to buy a new box.
Instead, I’ll show you easy ways how to soften hard brown sugar. From quick methods when you need it in a pinch, having more time overnight, and essential methods to keep this type of sugar soft. From grating, food processor, microwave, oven, terra cotta sugar savers, apples, and even grabbing a slice of bread.
Why does brown sugar harden?
Brown sugar is simply granulated white sugar combined with molasses. The dark brown syrup adds a brown color, caramel-like flavor, and moisture. When exposed to air for a long time, the water in the molasses evaporates. The sticky sugar granules pack together and harden, but it’s still usable.
Methods to Soften Brown Sugar (from slowest to fastest)
1) Brown sugar saver
Terra cotta is a very porous material, most often used for potted plants. The ability of the material to soak and hold water is a clever way to release moisture to brown sugar slowly. The small pieces are sold in discs, cute bears, or you could use a small cleaned piece from a pot.
Soak it in cold water for 20 minutes. Blot with a paper towel to prevent the sugar from getting wet. Place directly in the sugar in an airtight container. It takes about a day to revive hardened brown sugar. It will prevent clumping for about 3 to 6 months. Simply resoak when needed to maintain the moistness of the sugar.
Softening Time: About 24 hours
Grab a slice of fresh bread and place it in the airtight container with the hardened sugar. The bread contains moisture, which will be gradually soaked up from the sugar in about a day. Make sure to remove to bread shortly after, as it can mold. This is not a long-term strategy.
Softening Time: About 24 hours
3) Apple slices
Apple contains a lot of moisture for the sugar to wick up. It’s best to transfer approximately how much-hardened sugar you need for a recipe to an airtight container, a bowl tightly covered with plastic wrap or a plastic bag.
Add one slice or two for larger clumps or amounts directly on top of the sugar. It will take about 8 hours to soften. Do not leave the apple in for longer than 24 hours. Discard the slices after using them. The brown sugar will infuse some of the apple flavor and aroma.
Softening Time: About 8 to 24 hours
4) Plastic bag
Add the clumping sugar to a large plastic bag with a small amount of water. For every 8 ounces of brown sugar (about 1 ¼ cups), sprinkle ¾ teaspoons of water on top. Press out the air, seal, and wait 10 minutes. After the time has passed, massage the sugar to distribute the moisture and break up the clumps evenly.
Softening Time: About 10 minutes
Gently heat the hardened brown sugar in a 250ºF (121ºC) oven. This method works best with big clumps and more significant amounts. Place the sugar on a pie plate or baking dish, ensuring it does not touch the edges.
Warm the sugar in the oven for up to 5 minutes, checking every minute and using a fork to break up the pieces. Do not overheat, or the sugar will melt once it reaches 340ºF (171ºC). The brown sugar will be hot! Let it cool down, then use it right away in the recipe.
Softening Time: About 3 to 5 minutes
For hardened sugar bricks or large clumps, use a handheld grater or box grater to break up the sugar. Place it on top of a sturdy bowl or plate. Use the largest holes to grate the sugar. Take your time, and be careful when grating the hardened block or clump.
Softening Time: About 2 to 5 minutes
7) Food processor
Add the hardened brown sugar clumps or break up the brick into smaller pieces to fit in your food processor. Pulse until the sugar is in smaller granules. A coffee grinder could also be used, adding a few tablespoons and up to ¼ cup of sugar at a time. A blender can hold up to ½ cup of sugar. Work in batches as needed.
Softening Time: About 1 to 3 minutes
Add the clumps or blocks of sugar to a microwave-safe bowl. Add damp paper towels on top of the bowl. Microwave in 10-second intervals on the high setting until softened, breaking up with a fork in between. Do not warm past 340ºF (171ºC), or the sugar will melt! It will be hot. Let cool before using immediately.
Softening Time: About 1 to 2 minutes
How to keep brown sugar soft
To be proactive and prevent the hardening of brown sugar, the key is to eliminate as much air exposure as possible. Follow these handy food storage tips:
- Store in an airtight container: After opening, place the sugar in an airtight container. A glass storage jar with a rubber seal around the lid makes an effective seal to keep unwanted air out. A plastic container also works well.
- Store in a plastic bag: A large heavy-duty resealable bag is a good choice if an airtight container isn’t available. Press out any air after using, then seal it back up.
- Add terra cotta disks or bears: Inexpensive brown sugar savers are great for long-term sugar softening. Soak the terra cotta, blot excess moisture, then add to the storage container.
- Store in a dark and dry cabinet: Exposure to heat and sunlight speeds up hardening. Keep it away from a cabinet near the stove. It gets too warm and will dry out.
- Storage time: Brown sugar is good to use indefinitely. However, for the best taste and texture, use within two years. Store in the freezer for extended storage, then defrost before using.
Frequently asked questions
Yes! As long as it has not picked up so much moisture that it melted and then hardened to a big, dark brown sugar mass. If you can still see the granules, but it’s just solid, it can be used in a recipe. It needs to be softened and broken down to make it easy to measure this ingredient.
When improperly stored, the sweetener dries out when exposed to air for too long. This happens quicker when the kitchen is hot and not very humid. Brown sugar sold in paper boxes has fewer protective barriers than those sold in plastic bags. It’s best to transfer the brown sugar to an airtight container for long-term storage to keep it soft.
If you don’t plan to use brown sugar immediately, freezing for long-term storage is an option. The water in the sugar from the molasses will harden. However, it will be soft and easy to scoop once it comes to room temperature. Make sure to plan for the extra time to defrost when making your recipe.
Why can’t you store brown sugar in the refrigerator?
Brown sugar is hygroscopic, meaning it likes to absorb moisture from its environment. This water attraction is what keeps it soft during storage and why baked goods stay tender for several days. However, too much can be a bad thing. Refrigerators have a humid environment. When the sugar crystals get oversaturated with water, they will liquefy. It’s best to store it in a dark, cool place.
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How to Soften Brown Sugar
- 8 ounces hardened brown sugar, or as needed
- cold water, as needed for plastic bag method
- 1 bread slice, any type, for bread method
- 1 apple slice, ½" thick, for apple method
Terra Cotta Brown Sugar Saver (24 hours)
- Soak the terra cotta in cold water for 20 minutes. Blot with a paper towel to remove any surface moisture. Place directly in the sugar in an airtight container. The sugar will soften in about 24 hours. Break up with a fork. Keep terra cotta in the container. It will prevent clumping for about 3 to 6 months. Resoak when needed to maintain the moistness of the sugar.
Bread Slice (24 hours)
- Place a slice of fresh bread in an airtight container with the hardened sugar. After about 24 hours, break up the sugar with a fork. Remove to bread shortly after, as it can mold.
Apple Slice (8 hours)
- Add one apple slice or two for larger amounts directly on top of the sugar. It will take about 8 hours to soften. Break up with a fork. Do not leave the apple in for longer than 24 hours. Discard the slice after using it.
Plastic Bag (10 mins.)
- Add the hardened sugar to a large resealable plastic bag. For every 8 ounces (about 1 ¼ cup) of sugar, sprinkle ¾ teaspoon of water on top. Press out the air, seal, and wait 10 minutes. After the time has passed, massage the sugar to evenly distribute the moisture and further break up the clumps.
Oven (5 mins.)
- Place the sugar on a pie plate or baking dish, ensuring it does not touch the edges. Heat the hardened brown sugar in a 250ºF (121ºC) oven, checking every minute, using a fork to break it down, for up to 5 minutes. Do not overheat, or the sugar will melt once it reaches 340ºF (171ºC). The brown sugar will be hot! Let it cool down, then use it immediately.
Grater (5 mins.)
- Use a handheld grater or box grater to break the hardened bricks or large clumps. Place the grater on top of a sturdy bowl or plate. Use the largest holes to grate the sugar. Take your time, and be careful when grating the hardened block or clump.
Food Processor (3 mins.)
- Add the sugar clumps or break the brick into smaller pieces to fit in the food processor. Pulse until the sugar is in smaller granules. Alternatively, add up to ¼ cup at a time in a coffee grinder or ½ cup to a blender. Work in batches as needed.
Microwave (2 mins.)
- Add the sugar to a microwave-safe bowl. Dampen a few layers of paper towel with water, then place them on top of the bowl. Microwave in 10-second intervals on the high setting until softened, breaking up with a fork in between. Do not warm past 340ºF (171ºC), or the sugar will melt! It will be hot. Cool before using immediately.
- Recipe Yield: About 1 ¼ cups softened brown sugar, about 8 ounces packed.
- Serving Size: 1 tablespoon packed brown sugar
- Brown Sugar Amounts: The plastic bag technique is the only method that requires a certain amount of hardened brown sugar.
- Storing: Transfer unused softened brown sugar to an airtight container or resealable plastic bag. Store in a dark and dry area in the pantry, away from hot areas of the kitchen. Alternatively, freeze and defrost before using.
Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000-calorie diet. All nutritional information is based on estimated third-party calculations. Each recipe and nutritional value will vary depending on the brands you use, measuring methods, and portion sizes per household.
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