It’s happened to every cook – both experienced and amateur. We’ve gotten all our supplies and ingredients ready to make our favorite cookie recipe and behold! The brown sugar is as hard as a rock. How frustrating! First we curse at it. Then we try to chisel off as many pieces as possible using the nearest butter knife. If that doesn’t work, we place it in a plastic bag and pound it with a meat tenderizer. Still no luck?? Try dropping it on the floor or stomping on the bag with your best pair of work boots.
Seriously though, hard brown sugar is a common occurrence and something that happens more often than not, especially if the sugar is not stored properly.
Why Does Brown Sugar Get Hard?
Brown sugar contains a good amount of molasses syrup. Dark brown sugar has more molasses than light brown sugar. It’s molasses that gives these sugars their unique color and pleasant flavor.
Brown sugar differs from white sugar in that it contains more moisture – thanks to the molasses syrup. When the moisture evaporates, largely due to improper storage of the already-opened box of brown sugar, the sugar hardens and forms a large brick.
This will generally not happen to brown sugar which has not yet been open unless the container is not airtight. For example, a hole in the inside liner/bag may result in hardening of the sugar within the box.
How to Avoid Hardening
Whether or not your brown sugar gets hard will depend largely on how you store any open containers of this sweet treat. Different experts suggest different methods and most seem to work.
One of the best and most common ways to store brown sugar is to place it in an airtight container (like Tupperware® or another similar product) and put it into the refrigerator or freezer. If it’s in the freezer, of course, it will feel hard, but you’ll find that it will thaw in about an hour and return to its desired powdery form. If it’s in the refrigerator, allow it to sit for about 15 minutes and return to room temperature. It can also be stored in its original plastic bag, as long as it is sealed very tightly, or in a glass jar or canister with a gasket that seals the lid.
Another favored method of keeping sugar soft is to store a piece of bread with the brown sugar. Others use half an apple or an orange slice to keep the brown sugar at its correct consistency.
Kitchen specialty stores also sell small disks (or other shapes) of clay that you insert in the bag of brown sugar (with the sugar covering the disk). The disk is soaked in cold water before placing it into the bag. Once it’s in place, the sugar can be kept at room temperature.
Un-clumping Your Brown Sugar
If you’ve stored your sugar incorrectly and it’s hardened, but there’s no time to run out for a new box, there are a number of ways to remedy the situation. These various methods will help restore moisture to the sugar.
Your first line of defense is the microwave oven. Place about a ½ pound of the hardened sugar in a microwave-safe bowl. Cover the sugar with two wet paper towels (not dripping) and then cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap. Nuke for about 2 to 2 ½ minutes, depending on the wattage of your microwave. Divide the warmed sugar with a fork, stir, and use immediately. (Sugar will be very hot, so be careful!)
You can also place the open bag of sugar in the microwave with a cup of water beside it. Microwave on high for 2-3 minutes, turning the bag after each minute.
If you have the luxury of time, place the sugar in a bowl and place foil or plastic wrap directly onto the sugar. Put a crumpled, dampened paper towel on top of the wrap. The brown sugar will absorb the moisture. Remove once the paper towel has dried out.
It’s always best to use “re-softened” brown sugar immediately and not to re-store it.