The Best Way to Soften Brown Sugar (and why!) post image

The Best Way to Soften Brown Sugar (and why!)

There’s lots of advice about softening brown sugar that has gone hard.  I tested the different ways, and I’ll tell you what I found works best. 

I’ll answer three questions:
1. How do I soften brown sugar that I don’t need to use for a few hours (or a day or more)?
2. How do I soften brown sugar that I need to use immediately?
3. How do I store the sugar so that it won’t get hard as a rock?

Most brown sugar is refined white sugar with molasses added.  The darker the sugar, the more molasses, and thus the stronger the flavour.  The molasses also add moisture.

Brown sugar gets hard when it loses moisture, and it loses moisture when exposed to air.  And for those of us who live in a dry climate, without much moisture in the air, this can be a real problem.  But don’t throw the sugar out, as you can get it soft again.

How do I soften brown sugar that I don’t need to use for a few hours (or a day or more)?

Brown sugar will reabsorb moisture and become soft again.  So, you need to put something in the sugar container that will give moisture to the brown sugar.  Some people will put bread in, some people put apple in.  There is no magic product – it just has to be something with moisture in it.  As the sugar gets moist, the product in with it will get dryer as the sugar will absorbs its moisture.

I tested out 4 methods of softening really hard brown sugar:
1. Adding bread
2. Adding apple
3. Adding a little container of water
4. Adding a moist paper towel – with water well squeezed out (not photographed)

10:30 am – hard sugar put in containers with bread, apple, water and moist paper towel (no photo), then the lids were put on.


2:00 pm – containers were opened, and pressing fork on sugar shows that all sugar was soft and moist (including the one with the moist paper towel).

So what worked best?  The bread and moist paper towel worked the fastest.  No odour, and the sugar was moist.  I have always been a little uncomfortable with the idea of bread going in with the sugar, given that I felt the bread could get moldy; numerous sources state this does not happen.  The moist paper towel was just as effective.

The apple moistened the sugar, but the sugar smelled strongly of apple, and the sugar immediately surrounding the apple was a little damp and white.  The container of water worked well, but it took slightly longer for the sugar to get as soft.  In retrospect, the surface area of the water was not as great as that of the bread, paper towel or apple, so less water may have been absorbed within the time of the experiment.

Conclusion? Take your container or airtight bag of hardened sugar, and add something to it that has a large surface area with moisture, like bread or a moist paper towel.  Give it at least a half day, depending on the amount of sugar, and you should end up with soft, moist sugar.

Now here’s the thing.  Once you add moisture, seal it in an airtight container, or once again, your sugar will dry out.  If you don’t have a good, airtight container, a well-sealed Ziploc® bag will do.  A soaked terra cotta disk that has been dried off and added to the container will help keep the sugar moist, as the sugar draws moisture from it; however, if the container is not airtight, you’ll end up with dried sugar and a dried terra cotta disk very quickly.

What if I need sugar immediately and it’s hardened?

Here’s the first thing you should know: anything that you do immediately results in sugar that must be used immediately, because the effects do not last.  Why?  Because basically you need to heat the sugar to break it apart, and by doing this you are not adding moisture that will stay, you are adding heat energy which will cause the clumps of sugar to break apart (heat energy means the molecules will vibrate faster).  So, just use this method for the amount of sugar that you need for the one time, and add something with moisture to an airtight container with the rest of the sugar to make it usable for the next time.

The best way that we found, for immediate results, is to put a damp paper towel (well squeezed-out) with a clump of hard sugar in a container in the microwave. Heat for 30 seconds, check if you can break it apart with a fork, then try it again for another 30 seconds. Monitor it, you do not want to bake the sugar, and be careful, because it will be hot.  Some people do this with a plastic bag; however, to avoid plastic in the microwave, you can use a microwave safe (e.g., glass) container that has a lid, or simply put the brown sugar in a bowl with the damp paper towel over the top. 

Some people recommend placing the sugar in an open bowl in the microwave with a cup of water beside it, but we found this took much longer.  Why?  Presumably because you are not trapping either the heat or the moisture in a smaller container, so it takes longer to build up the heat that you need.

After it breaks apart, you can use it; but remember, it will harden again.  Yes, it had water with it, but that was to speed the process.  Mostly, it broke apart due to heat.

Note: I also tested the method whereby you put the clump of sugar in an oven-safe container at 250°F for a few minutes and monitor it until it gets soft.  It worked fine; however, I’ll be honest here – if I walk away from that sugar, I’m going to forget about it unless I have a timer.  It was just a little less convenient in the oven.

How do I store the sugar so that it won’t get hard as a rock?

Broken record here.  The key is making the storage airtight so that the sugar does not dry out.  Many pretty stainless steel or ceramic containers will cause you endless grief with brown sugar.  You can use Tupperware® or even a Ziploc® bag (good, heavy duty freezer bags are more airtight than the lightweight ones).  Even the bags that the sugar comes in will not keep it from drying out.  Transfer it, or seal the sugar bag inside a freezer bag.  If the sugar eventually dries out, you will have to add in moisture as per the first part of the article – damp paper towel or bread.

You’ve likely also heard about (or own) the terra cotta disks that you can put in with the sugar.  The idea is that you soak the disk for 15 minutes, dry it off, put it in with the sugar, and presto, the sugar stays soft.  Being a science geek, I’ll go back to the science of it – terra cotta absorbs water well, so the disk will absorb water as it soaks.  You dry off the surface, so that it is not getting the sugar wet, and as the sugar dries out, it absorbs the moisture that is still contained in the disk.  Hence, every once in a while you must resoak the terra cotta disk to put the moisture back into it.  They’re a good idea, and will work in an airtight container.  If it’s not airtight, you’ll have dry sugar and a dry disk.

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