We’ve all hit this wall, right?
You’re creating some wonderful dessert and pull out the brown sugar to find it is hard as a rock – literally. And it’s absolutely useless, impossible to break up or to measure.
Or is it? Could it possibly be salvaged?
Why yes, with a little knowhow it can function as a sweetener again!
Join us as we cover the best tips to soften hardened brown sugar, and how to store it so it remains moist and malleable until you need it again.
How Did This Lumpy Mess Happen?
Ever wonder why brown sugar goes hard and lumpy, but the white stuff doesn’t?
It’s because the darker versions have more moisture, thanks to the presence of sticky molasses.
The outside of each individual crystal is coated in a thin layer of molasses, which has been completely removed from the white crystals in the refining process.
Molasses itself has a hygroscopic nature, meaning it will attract moisture from within its environment. This moisture is what keeps the dark (and light) brown varieties soft and pliable.
When exposed to air, the moisture in the molasses begins to evaporate. Each crystal dehydrates, and as it dries it becomes tacky, gluing itself to its neighbors in a hard, dense mass. And it will stay this way until moisture is reintroduced.
Like It or Lump It? No, Soften It!
As mentioned, the molasses coating is hygroscopic in nature, meaning that it readily absorbs moisture from its surroundings – and moisture is exactly what all of our solutions provide.
The following four solutions should help you out, no matter the circumstances. Depending on what you have on hand and how quickly you need your sweetener, there’s a tip for you!
1. Our Daily Bread
To reconstitute hardened crystals, a slice of bread will often do the trick.
Pour the hardened lumps into a bowl or canister, and lay a slice of bread on top – any type of bread will work. Cover with a plate or lid, and leave it alone at room temperature for 24 hours.
The molasses will absorb the moisture from the bread, and the individual granules will soften and separate.
When using bread, the top layer of sugar may lighten in color since the bread will absorb some of the molasses coating. It’s still fine to use, though it won’t have quite the same rich flavor.
2. Apples and Carrots
Using sliced apples or carrots is essentially the same idea as the bread concept – their close proximity will supply the necessary moisture required for the crystals to rehydrate.
Plus, this easy fix is gluten free!
Place a few apple slices or carrot wedges alongside the hard lumps in a covered bowl for a day or two, or until that soft texture is restored.
3. The Old Damp Tea Towel Trick
Like the first and second options, this method needs 24-48 hours to work effectively.
If you have the time (like when company is coming on the weekend and you’re planning ahead to make that gorgeous cake, batch of sticky buns, or sweet and savory chicken marinade), rehydrate with a damp tea towel laid over the rim of a bowl, with the hardened crystals inside.
Leave it to sit overnight, and when breakfast comes around, the lumpy granules should be moist and separate again.
Remember, the tea towel should be damp, not sopping wet.
4. Soften It Fast in the Microwave
Using bread, apples, or a damp kitchen towel is a gentle and natural method to soften crystals, which is great if you have the luxury of time. But if you’re mid-recipe and need that crucial ingredient right now, the microwave’s the way to go.
Pour the hardened sugar into a glass or ceramic bowl, and top with a damp paper towel. Make sure to wring out all excess water so it’s only damp, not wet.
Microwave on low power in short bursts of 10-15 seconds. Watch closely – it will melt into a syrup if the power is too high, or left on for too long!
Storage for Soft, Fluffy Crystals
Air is what causes the sweet molasses-coated crystals to dry out, so airtight containers are what’s needed for effective storage.
Some folks find that the addition of a moistened terra cotta sugar saver will help to keep it soft for a few months, as will a couple of saltine crackers, a slice of bread, or some carrot peels placed on top.
But for long term storage, the best method is to double up on an airtight environment.
Pour the sugar into an appropriately sized zip-top bag, roll it up tightly to squeeze out excess air, then seal the bag. Store in a tight-lidded container for up to 12 months.
Though they’re great for storing many types of grains, dehydrated vegetables, and other dry goods, avoid using oxygen absorbers to store your sugar. Rather than enabling you to avoid the dreaded rock solid block, adding one of these to your bag or storage container will speed up the process.
Brown sugar can also be frozen, which is great for taking advantage of sales.
For any amount that won’t be used for a while, pour into a resealable freezer bag, roll up tightly to squeeze out the excess air, and seal. When needed, remove from the freezer and thaw at room temperature for 2-3 hours before using in your cooking or baking.
The Sweet Lowdown
Hard brown sugar can be saved and restored to its soft, fluffy texture by simply adding some moisture to its environment.
Do so slowly with a slice of bread or some apple slices, or fast-track it in the microwave for quick results.
And remember to stash it in an airtight container for long-lasting storage, and soft sugar whenever you need it.
If you would like to know more about brown sugar, and many more different types of sweet granular goodness, take a look at our guide to sugar varieties!
Readers, do you any other savvy ideas for softening or storing brown sugar? Tell us your favorite tips in the comments below!
Photo of brown sugar with apple and bread by Lorna Kring, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock.
About Lorna Kring
Recently retired as a costume specialist in the TV and film industry, Lorna now enjoys blogging on contemporary lifestyle themes. A bit daft about the garden, she’s particularly obsessed with organic tomatoes and herbs, and delights in breaking bread with family and friends.