There are so many ways to soften that hardened brick of brown sugar that has been lingering in your cupboard. There are also ways to prevent that. Learn them all here, plus, get some fast and fantastic sweet and savory recipes using beautiful brown sugar. (Also, learn what brown sugar actually is. The answer may surprise you.)
brown sugar
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Brown sugar, whether light or dark, is an essential ingredient for baking and cooking. But what if you grab that bag or jar to find a solid hard lump of sugar instead of that soft, fluffy, sandy pile you expected? There are many ways to get that sugar back to a usable state, and everyone has their favorite. Even Ina Garten has her own foolproof method. We have several choices for softening up your brown sugar, so choose the one that makes the most sense for you!

What is brown sugar?

Brown sugar is simply granulated sugar that has had molasses introduced. Light brown sugar has less molasses than dark brown sugar. The addition of molasses gives both extra moisture to the sugar and a caramel flavor that is wonderful, but also makes it prone to hardening if not stored properly.

How can you store brown sugar so it doesn't harden?

As soon as you bring your brown sugar home, remove it from the original packaging and put into an airtight container. Store it in a cool, dry spot in your pantry. If you have a terra cotta sugar saver, you can put it in there to help maintain moisture. Re-soak the tile according to the directions that came with it.

Why does brown sugar harden?

Essentially, brown sugar hardens when moisture evaporates due to aging or improper storage. But hardened sugar is still safe to eat and use, you just have to soften it back up to a usable texture. If your recipe has the sugar dissolving or melting into a liquid, you can actually use the hardened stuff without issue. But if your recipe calls for creaming (like with these cookies) or blending the sugar into a batter, you want to re-soften it before using.

How can you soften brown sugar fast?

There are a couple methods that work best if you need your sugar softened quickly: with a microwave or without a microwave. Microwaving is fastest, but also the most prone to complications like melting or burning. Doing it without a microwave takes a little longer, but you have better control over your final product. 

How to soften brown sugar with a microwave

Place the hardened brown sugar in a microwave-safe container. Soak a paper towel in water and wring it out, then lay it over the sugar. Microwave in 10-second increments, stirring with a fork between bursts, until it is fully softened. Be careful not to melt or burn the sugar.

How to soften brown sugar without a microwave

Preheat oven to 250°F. Place the hardened brown sugar in a baking dish or heatproof bowl. Bake, stirring with a fork every two to three minutes, until softened to your desired texture.

How to soften brown sugar with an apple

Cut an apple in half. Place the hardened brown sugar in a container with a tightly fitting lid; nestle the apple halves into the sugar or place them on top. Seal the container and let it sit until the sugar has softened, 24 to 48 hours. Remove and discard the apple.

How to soften brown sugar with bread

Similar to the apple method, place a slice of fresh bread on top of the hardened brown sugar and seal in a container until softened, 24 to 48 hours, then discard the bread.

How to soften brown sugar with terra cotta 

Brown sugar savers, often in the shape of disks or bears, are small terra cotta tiles that can be soaked in water and stored with your brown sugar to soften it. Follow the manufacturer's instructions.  

How can you tell brown sugar is bad?

Brown sugar essentially does not go bad (unless contaminants have gotten mixed in), making it ideal for buying in bulk, if you do a lot of baking. Hardened sugar isn't bad. It's just in need of moisture. However, brown sugar will perform best if used within two years of purchase.

What are some alternatives to brown sugar?

You can make your own brown sugar by adding some liquid molasses to regular white sugar. Some other alternatives to brown sugar that will bring caramel flavor to your cooking include date sugar, maple sugar and palm sugar. But these may not perform identically in baking, so be careful where you swap them in.

Bottom line

Brown sugar is a pantry staple that adds flavor and texture to many wonderful dishes, such as Garlic-Brown Sugar Chicken Thighs, Brown Sugar Salmon or a simple Brown Sugar Broiled Grapefruit. When stored properly, brown sugar can last years in your pantry. But, if your sugar has lost its oomph, you have plenty of ways to bring it back to life without losing any of its delicious properties. Whether you are glazing beets for a fabulous side dish or making a brown sugar apple cake, keeping your brown sugar soft will make your cooking and baking easy!