Picture this: you’re measuring out your ingredients before embarking on a cooking or baking adventure, but when you get to the bag of brown sugar, it appears to have hardened into a solid, rock-like substance. Chances are, if you’re a frequent baker, you’ve found yourself in this situation. But can this problem be remedied? Happily, the answer is yes–there are a few tried and true tricks to bring brown sugar back to life.
To understand these methods, it’s first important to understand why brown sugar hardens. Unlike regular granulated sugar, brown sugar is enriched with molasses, which lends a unique flavor but also gives brown sugar that unique moist quality. According to the Domino Sugar Web site, “Brown sugar becomes hard when moisture in the sugar evaporates. Therefore, the various methods used for softening brown sugar are intended to return moisture to the sugar.”
Knowing this helps make the sometimes unusual methods make a little more sense: basically, the function is to re-introduce moisture into the mixture. Here are several ways to do it, depending on how much time you have.
If you have 2 to 3 days:
Place the hardened brown sugar in an airtight container. Before putting on the lid, cover the sugar with a sheet of plastic wrap (to form a slight barrier). On top of this, place a piece of damp (but not dripping), wet paper towel. Place the lid on container and seal tightly. After two to three days, the sugar ought to have absorbed the moisture, and you should be able to stir it with a fork and separate it. Keep in the airtight container; the sugar should remain soft.
Repeat the above steps, but instead of wet paper towel, insert either a slice of bread or an apple slice (it’s ok to have up to half an apple, cut in slices so they’ll fit). Why white bread? Because it’s moist, it will add some humidity to the mixture which will re-moisten the sugar; also, because white bread is fairly bland, it will not impart a strong flavor on the sugar. Why apple? Like the bread, the moisture in the apple will re-moisten the sugar, and the flavor imparted is generally harmonious with brown sugar (as opposed to, say, a slice of lemon!).
Advantage to this method:
The moisture added in these ways is more even, and will soften your brown sugar for as long as it stays in an airtight container.
If you have about 20 minutes:
If you need to use your hardened brown sugar fairly soon, preheat your oven to 250 degrees F. Remove the brown sugar from the package and transfer it to an oven-safe baking dish that has a little room so the sugar won’t fly when you break it up. Watch the sugar carefully–you will start to notice its texture beginning to soften. Remove from the oven and test breaking up the brown sugar with a spoon. If it is soft enough, measure the amount you need right away. Be extremely careful while measuring because the sugar can get quite hot. But do not wait for the sugar to cool, because unlike the 2-3 day method, the sugar will re-harden rather rapidly after this method.
If you need it right now:
Remove the brown sugar from the package and place it in a microwave safe bowl (you may want to consider using a sharp object to break off a portion if it is a large brick in the bag). Once again use a dish that has ample room so that that has a little room so the sugar won’t fly when you break it up. Cover the sugar with two pieces of wet (not dripping) paper towels. On top of the paper towels, cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Heat on high in the microwave for 1 to 2 minutes (this may vary depending on the strength of your microwave). Remove from the microwave and stir with a fork, but be careful, because the sugar may be rather hot. Like the oven method, take care with the hot sugar but measure it as quickly as possible, as the sugar re-moistened in this method will re-harden rapidly as the sugar cools.
Illustration via CakeSpy
Although hardened brown sugar is a fairly common kitchen complaint, it really need not be a problem. There are some preventative measures you can take to keep it moist longer.
First, consider keeping brown sugar in an airtight container. This will help seal in the moisture and make it last longer.
Another method is to store brown sugar in the freezer and let it thaw overnight or several hours before baking. If you decide you need some of the chilled sugar right away, you can heat it in the microwave (no paper towels or plastic wrap needed) to thaw it out quickly.
Or, you could always make your own brown sugar to order by mixing regular granulated sugar with a few teaspoons of molasses in a food processor. Easy, and won’t your friends be impressed?