It's happened to all of us (unless you are the kind of person who diligently decants your baking supplies into airtight containers, in which case we have very little in common): We've reached into the pantry for cookie ingredients only to discover that our brown sugar is no longer scoopable and siftable, but rather depressingly rock solid. Half-heartedly scratching at the outer edges of the mass only shaves off a few grains at a time, so we're forced to face the music: for cookie o'clock to proceed as scheduled, we have to buy another bag.
Brown sugar dries out when exposed to air for too long, losing all of the moisture that its molasses content provides and transforming from wet sand to a sweet, unusable brick. The phenomenon is so ubiquitous-the result of plastic bags that aren't fully sealed and cardboard boxes left cracked open at the corners-that googling "how to soften hard brown sugar" yields pages of results. But from the numerous tips and techniques presented, it's tough to pick a way to proceed; confusing instructions and long estimated times (I have to wait three days for cookies?!) have led me to throw away more than a few dumb heavy blocks of sugar.
To put the "how to soften hard brown sugar" issue to rest and curb my sugar waste, I tried five of the most commonly recommended methods, using easy to find tools and common kitchen ingredients. One technique clearly came out on top, and armed with this information (plus a small terracotta round, spoiler alert!), I'm never going to have to postpone cookie-making again.
Three of the most commonly suggested methods to revitalize rock-hard brown sugar rely on an airtight container, so you'll need one in order to bring the ingredient back to life. Why weren't we storing our brown sugar in an airtight container this whole time, which would have saved us from ever getting into this dilemma in the first place? Listen, I don't know, sometimes life gets in the way. We're not dwelling on the past. Instead, we're looking forward: at a large resealable bag or tightly-lidded food storage container that will help us bring our dried out sweetener back to life. At Epi, we love a Stasher bag (the 52-ounce version that sits up on its own is a good long-term sugar storage solution) and the Snapware boxes, which won the glass category in our container product review.
The two other techniques don't require a container, but do depend on an appliance. Keep in mind, though: while the microwave and oven methods are often written about as the speediest ways to rectify a hard sugar situation, they are much more hands-on than the alternatives-and too much heat can reduce your ingredient to glop. Before you embark on your journey, consider how much helicopter parenting you want to be doing while bringing your sugar rock child back to life, and what kind of machinery you're working with in your kitchen.
What it is: Adding a few apple slices to a container of hardened brown sugar adds moisture to the environment, reviving the sugar. The more cut surface area in the bag, the more moisture it imparts, so you'll need more pieces for a lot of sugar and just one or two for a cup. To eight ounces of solid brown sugar, I added ¼ apple, cut into three slices.
How it worked: I saw results in my apple bag after just two hours; because I added a few slices, which could be dispersed on all sides of the hardened sugar, the sugar softened evenly. The moisture from the apples also managed to seep deeper into larger chunks of sugar than other methods, breaking them down all the way through in less time. The apples did get brown, mushy, and coated in sugar in time, which made me eager to fish them out of the bag. I'd read that brown sugar treated this way takes on a subtle apple flavor and found that to be true, so I was hesitant to combine this apple-y sugar with the rest of my brown sugar once soft again.
Overall rating: 7/10
What it is: A slice of bread emits moisture as it goes stale, which can soften a sealed container of hardened brown sugar. To eight ounces of solid brown sugar, I added one slice of basic whole wheat sandwich bread.
How it worked: The bread method worked about as quickly as the apple method, softening my brown sugar through in just about two hours. Because there was just the one slice, I found that all the sugar nearest to it softened first, so I moved the bread around a few times to give all of the sugar access to its moisture. It did not penetrate into the more stubborn chunks of sugar as deeply as the apples did, but by shaking the bag to move the bread around, it did evenly soften. The biggest drawback with the bread test was that it was the quickest to create condensation on the inside of the bag, like it was steaming up from the inside. There were even some golden brown droplets where the grains of sugar and that moisture interacted, which I didn't love. But the bread slice itself was much easier to remove from the bag in one piece, and didn't alter the flavor of the sugar.
Overall rating: 8/10
What it is: Terracotta retains moisture very well. To use it to soften hard brown sugar, soak a piece-either one made specifically for this purpose or a small, clean planter drip tray-in water for 30 minutes, then wipe away the excess water and stick it in an airtight container with the sugar. To eight ounces of solid brown sugar, I added one three-inch terracotta round.
How it worked: This was by far the fastest "set it and forget it" brown sugar rehabilitation process-in just about one hour, my hardened sugar was completely softened. Even though there was just the one piece of earthenware, the sugar reverted back to its damp, sandy self evenly and throughly, with no dry sections at the far edges of the bag. And even after eight hours without cracking the airtight seal, there was no condensation or dampness on the inside of the bag. This is why "brown sugar savers" and other terracotta pieces can be used successfully to keep sugar soft long-term; sealed up in the same airtight container (and resoaked on occasion), they'll keep your ingredient ready to be used at all times.
What it is: Touted as the fastest way to bring hardened brown sugar back to life, the wet towel method involves putting your hardened brown sugar into a bowl, covering it with a damp paper or kitchen towel, and microwaving it in 20 second intervals until the sugar is softened. I covered a glass bowl of eight ounces of solid brown sugar with a damp paper towel and microwaved it for two minutes total, stopping every 20 seconds to check.
How it worked: This method worked very slowly, softening just the tip-top layer of hardened sugar with every 20 second burst. I found that I needed to scrape the softened granules off the top to reveal the still-firm sugar in order for the technique to work its way through the layers. After two minutes, the hardened sugar at the bottom of the bowl was still completely solid. I was afraid to keep heating the sugar for fear it would get melty and goopy, but with regular tossing, leaving the bowl out on the counter covered with the damp paper towel for about an hour, it did soften all the way through. For the same amount of time, I'd prefer the hands-off terracotta method.
Overall rating: 5/10
What it is: Also referred to as a speedy brown sugar saving technique, the oven method involves transferring your hardened sugar to a baking dish and placing it in a 250°F oven. Ideally the process takes just a few minutes, checking periodically and mixing with a fork.
How it worked: It…didn't. After 10 minutes in the oven, scraping and crushing the edges of the hardened sugar with a fork periodically, barely anything had happened at all. The lumps were still firm all the way though, with even the outer edges not softened. Brown sugar melts at 320°F, so increasing temperature felt like a dangerous game, and leaving it in the oven at a lower temperature for longer felt like it was just drying the sugar out further.
Overall rating: 0/10
Terracotta is the move all the way-provided you have an hour and a half to spare including soak time. For a longer-term solution, you can even prevent sugar hardening by keeping a piece of terracotta in with your brown sugar at all times; simply resoak the earthenware every so often to keep your ingredient in a soft, usable state.