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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell; Design: The Kitchn

We Tried 5 Methods for Softening Brown Sugar and the Winner was Shockingly Simple

published Dec 22, 2020
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We’ve all been there. Your oven is preheated and you’re ready to mix up a batch of cookies, when you reach into the pantry only to discover that your brown sugar is rock hard. There’s a moment of panic, because you were really hoping to have warm cookies, like right now. If you look online, you’ll find tons of advice about what to do in this situation, but what actually works — and, more importantly, what works the quickest?

To solve this dilemma once and for all, we put five methods for softening brown sugar to the test. While every method worked to some extent, one clear winner emerged. Here’s what we learned.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell; Design: The Kitchn

How We Tested Each of These Methods 

Air is the enemy of soft, moist brown sugar. In order to conduct this highly scientific experiment, we opened five one-pound boxes of dark brown sugar and left them open in the pantry for 10 days. These brown sugar bricks were then all softened using five popular methods. All methods were tested on the same day and our ratings were based on timing, ease, and softening results.

Credit: Meghan Splawn

Brown Sugar Softening Method: With a Slice of Bread

  • Timing: 24 hours
  • Rating: 1/10

This ubiquitous method for saving hardened brown sugar is all over the web (Kitchn has even written about it here and also here). The idea is simple: Add a slice of sandwich bread to your brown sugar and close the container tightly. The brown sugar sucks up the bread’s moisture via osmosis, leaving you with soft brown sugar and hard bread!

Unfortunately this method takes 24 hours or more to work, so it won’t save you if you want to bake right away. But don’t dismiss this technique altogether: Bread can be used as a preventative measure against hardening (more on that below).

Credit: Meghan Splawn

Brown Sugar Softening Method Method: With an Apple Half

  • Timing: 12 to 24 hours
  • Rating: 3/10

Like bread, an apple added to a container of dry, hard brown sugar will lend its moisture to the sugar to soften it. Because apples vary in size and moisture level, it is hard to estimate how long this will take, but we can tell you that it’s not fast.

To try this method, put the sugar in an airtight container and put the halved apple on top, cut-side down. Within 12 hours, some of the brown sugar that’s in direct contact with the apple will soften — enough for a batch of cookies! But it will take up to a day to soften the rest of the brown sugar in the container. This is another method best used for storing your sugar, not saving it.

Credit: Meghan Splawn

Brown Sugar Softening Method: In a Low Oven

  • Timing: 15 minutes
  • Rating: 3/10

When you type “how to soften brown sugar” in a search bar, Google autofills “in the oven” as one of the options, which piqued our curiosity. This method has you transfer the sugar to an oven-safe dish and warm it in a low oven (250°F, to be exact). As the sugar bakes, you check in on it every 2 to 3 minutes and break up the brick with a fork or spatula.

We assumed that such a low oven temperature would keep the sugar from melting in the oven, but that wasn’t the case. Pockets of sugar that were close to the edge of the pan melted, making that portion of the sugar even harder after it cooled. This is a bit of a risky method that works best for softening large batches of brown sugar at once.

Credit: Meghan Splawn

Brown Sugar Softening Method: In the Microwave with a Paper Towel

  • Timing: 2 to 3 minutes (including microwave time)
  • Rating: 9/10

As we’ve established, softening hardened brown sugar is all about adding moisture back in, which is where a quick microwave steam comes in. All you do is transfer your brown sugar to a bowl, cover with a damp paper towel or kitchen towel, and microwave it for 20 seconds.

We were surprised by how effective and efficient this method was. Using the microwave lets you soften a little sugar or a lot whenever you need it. Also, brown sugar softened this way stays soft when stored properly in the pantry (aka in an airtight container). You do have to dirty a bowl and you’ve got to have access to a microwave to pull off this method.

Credit: Meghan Splawn

Brown Sugar Softening Method: With Water in a Plastic Bag

  • Timing: 10 minutes
  • Rating: 10/10

Leave it to pastry pro Stella Parks to introduce the world to the easiest method for reviving brown sugar. Parks cuts out the middlemen (bread, apples, damp towels, microwaves) and adds water directly to the brown sugar, proving that things are sometimes as simple as they seem. She has you transfer the brown sugar to a large plastic bag, add 3/4 tsp of water for every 8 ounces of brown sugar, and then let the sugar sit for 10 minutes. After the wait, you massage the bag, which moistens every single granule of brown sugar. In a rush? You can microwave the bag for 15 seconds to speed things up.

There’s a lot to love about this method: It’s obvious, low-effort, doesn’t dirty a pan or bowl, makes almost no mess, and you can use the resealable bag to store your revived brown sugar, which should prevent you from having to go through all of this rigmarole again. It is as near perfect a solution for softening brown sugar as you can get.

How to Keep Brown Sugar Soft

When you do encounter hardened brown sugar (maybe in your parents’ pantry over vacation), you should absolutely reach for a zip-top bag and a few teaspoons of water. But in your own pantry, you can be proactive and avoid the problem all together. Store new or revived brown sugar in an airtight container with as little air between the lid and the sugar as possible. Using a zip-top bag? Squeeze the air out of the bag before sealing it. If you live in particularly dry climate, cover the surface of your brown sugar with plastic wrap or add a slice of bread before sealing your container.

Do you have any trick for keep pantry ingredients fresh? Tell us below in the comments!