Brown sugar hardened into a brick? Here's how to soften it up again

Brown sugar hardens when the moisture in it evaporates.
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Brown sugar is used to make baked goods taste better, adding a boost of flavor as well as textural complexity to meats, vegetables, and other savory dishes. But one challenge of using brown sugar is the ingredient's tendency to clump or harden in the box before you're able to use it. Restoring moisture to hardened brown sugar is the easy solution to this common cooking challenge, says Courtney Gaine , president and CEO of the Sugar Association.

"Brown sugar hardens because the molasses that gives it its brown color and rich flavor loses its moisture. Hard brown sugar needs more than to simply be broken up - it needs to have moisture added back into it," says Gaine.

There are a few easy ways to restore moisture to brown sugar. You can use a microwave, an oven, or a piece of terracotta, along with water, to transfer or restore moisture to hardened brown sugar. Alternatively, you can use piece of bread or apple to soften brown sugar overnight. The method you choose will be based on the amount of time you have, as well as the materials and appliances you have available to you.

Remember: Use the softened brown sugar right away after performing any of the below quick-softening methods. The sugar will re-harden quickly.

Method 1: In the microwave

"Using a microwave is the quickest way to soften brown sugar," says Gaine. To do so, she recommends a simple three-step process.

  1. Place a lump of hardened brown sugar in a small microwave-safe bowl.
  2. Cover the bowl with a moist paper towel and place in a microwave. This step helps to transfer moisture from the damp paper towel to the hardened brown sugar,
  3. Microwave on high in 20-second increments, breaking up any large clumps with a fork as you go. Working in short intervals will help you to closely monitor progress and prevent burning. When no clumps remain, the process is complete.

Method 2: With steam

If you are wary of handling hot brown sugar, consider this method, which also makes use of a microwave to restore moisture to hardened brown sugar, without raising the temperature of the sugar significantly.

  1. Place hardened brown sugar in a small microwave-safe bowl.
  2. Fill another microwave-safe bowl with ¼ to ⅓ cup of water. You can also place the water in a microwave-safe mug.
  3. Place both containers in the microwave, side by side. Microwave on high in 20-second increments, breaking up any large clumps as you go until sugar crystals are well separated. As the water heats and turns to steam it will help soften the sugar. Crystals will have a sandy, easy-to-sift appearance.

Method 3: In the oven
Warming the sugar allows the crystals to separate.

If you don't have a microwave, you can use an oven to soften brown sugar. This method is just as effective as the microwave method and requires just a few minutes more time.

  1. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Wrap the hardened brown sugar in aluminum foil and place it in the oven. This will trap heat, causing the sugar crystals to separate.
  3. Check it every five minutes until softened, breaking up any remaining clumps with a fork. When no clumps remain, the process is complete.
  4. Let the brown sugar cool before using.

Method 4: Plan ahead

If you know you're going to be baking or cooking with brown sugar, take these plan-ahead softening steps, as recommended by the AnswerLine educators at the Iowa State University Extension Service. This method allows for the transfer of moisture from a moist food item to the hardened sugar, resulting in soft brown sugar by the following day.

Add brown sugar into a jar and top with a slice of bread or apple. Seal it and let it sit overnight. Remove the bread or apple slice before using the brown sugar.

The apple method is particularly great if you're looking for a gluten-free option, say the AnswerLine educators.

Quick tip: If you're out of brown sugar, you can make your own with granulated sugar and molasses, says Gaine. "Add 1 tablespoon molasses to 1 cup of sugar, and mix well until blended. Add more molasses for a darker brown sugar."

How to keep brown sugar soft
Transfer brown sugar to an airtight container rather than storing it in the bag it came in.

"To prevent brown sugar from getting hard in the first place, store it properly in an airtight container," says Gaine. To further improve this method - which Gaine says is her favorite - is to add a piece of damp terra cotta inside the container.

The porous nature of the terracotta allows it to absorb water, which is then transferred to the hardened brown sugar.

"Even one from a broken pot works," says Gaine. "Simply soak the terra cotta in water for about 30 minutes, dry the excess water thoroughly, and place it with your brown sugar in an airtight container. You'll need to repeat the soaking process for the terracotta every couple of months, but doing this regularly will keep your brown sugar from hardening."

You can also use a brown sugar saver , which is a commercially manufactured terracotta disc, designed specifically for the purpose of keeping brown sugar soft. Another option is to purchase an all-in-one container . This handy kitchen saver combines an airtight dry ingredient storage container with a built-in terracotta brown sugar saver disc.

Brown Sugar Saver and Softener (small) Brown Sugar Container (small)

Insider's takeaway

Brown sugar's tendency to harden and clump in the box presents a challenge for the home cook. The quickest way to soften hardened brown sugar is by microwaving it with a damp paper towel. You can also soften brown sugar in the oven, or over a longer period of time letting it sit overnight with a slice of bread or apple. To prevent brown sugar from getting hard in the first place, store it properly in an airtight container, and add a piece of soaked terracotta to keep it moist.

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