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How to soften brown sugar and keep it from drying out

(Scott Suchman for The Washington Post/food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

Who among us hasn’t been ready to bake and pulled the brown sugar out only to find it has turned into a brick? We’re used to many pantry staples lasting months and months with very little or even no loss in quality. That isn’t true of brown sugar unless you store it right.

The reason that brown sugar hardens is fairly mundane. It contains molasses, which is what lends the sugar its color and damp texture. When exposed to air, its moisture evaporates, America’s Test Kitchen says.

Staving off the process is as simple as making sure the sugar is stored airtight and providing an additional source of moisture as insurance. (See more below.)

While prevention is the best medicine, no one’s perfect. So, yes, you can fix hard brown sugar!

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To help you figure out the best ways to soften it, I put a few oft-recommended methods to the test. I decided to skip those that suggested using food items (sandwich bread, apples, etc.) to avoid waste.


Advice: Bake hard brown sugar in a dish at 250 degrees for 5 minutes.

Effort: Low

Did it work: No

Granted, I was working with particularly desiccated brown sugar, but the oven made no dent in the small or large chunks. All I ended up with was even drier sugar and a dirty pie plate.

Food processor

Advice: Grind hard brown sugar in a blender, spice grinder or food processor. Or grate.

Effort: Low

Did it work: Sort of

I wondered if this is what would ultimately break my old reliable food processor. The racket the chunk of sugar made as it ricocheted off the blade and bowl was anxiety-inducing. Eventually, the processor broke down the sugar. What I got was more like brown granulated sugar bordering on brown confectioners’ sugar — suitable for stirring into oatmeal and the like, or perhaps subbing in for granulated or superfine sugar, but not when you’re counting on the moistness of the brown sugar to carry over into a baked good.

Microwave + water

Advice: Place the brown sugar in an open microwave-safe container next to 1/2 cup of water in another vessel and heat for a few minutes.

Effort: Low

Did it work: No

I liked the idea, as there’s no waste of food or supplies. But the sugar didn’t really budge. The result was a very hot bowl and water boiling in a liquid measuring cup.

Microwave + damp paper towel

Advice: Microwave the brown sugar covered with a damp paper towel in 20-second bursts.

Effort: Low

Did it work: Sort of

I never achieved truly soft brown sugar, and there were still plenty of hard nuggets even after multiple rounds of microwaving and re-soaking the paper towel. It might be all right in a pinch, but other methods are better.

Microwave + zip-top bag and water

Advice: Microwave the brown sugar in a sealed zip-top bag combined with a little water (3/4 teaspoon for every 8 ounces of sugar) for 15 seconds, then massage it into submission.

Effort: Medium

Did it work: Yes

Cookbook author and pastry maven Stella Parks never lets me down, so I got a little nervous when I followed her advice and not much happened after several minutes of squeezing the sugar to the point that my hands hurt. I figured “what the heck,” added a splash more water and did another 15 seconds in the microwave. This restored the brown sugar beautifully (bonus: even the next morning, it still seemed perfect).

Brown Sugar Bear

Advice: Place a soaked terra cotta piece in with the sugar in an airtight container.

Effort: Low

Did it work: Yes

These clay pieces, such as the popular Brown Sugar Bear (which also comes in other shapes), are designed to keep brown sugar soft, but they can also reverse the damage. I soaked my gingerbread person in water for about 20 minutes, patted it dry and set it in an airtight container with a block of brown sugar. In about 30 minutes, the bear had started to work its magic, allowing me to begin breaking the sugar into smaller pieces. By around 90 minutes, its work was done. It’s not the quickest method, and it does require the initial investment (about $5), but it’s foolproof and simple. If you check your sugar the morning you want to bake or the night before, the time issue doesn’t really matter.

How to keep brown sugar soft from the start

The fastest way to turn your brown sugar into a brick is to leave it in the cardboard box its often sold in. Even if you think you’ve sealed the plastic insert enough, trust me, you haven’t. Instead, transfer the brown sugar to an airtight container for safekeeping, or you can leave the sugar in the plastic but place it inside a zip-top bag. I tend to buy 2-pound plastic bags of brown sugar because it’s more economical. Once I open that, I press out all the air, secure the bag with a rubber band or painter’s tape and then transfer the whole shebang to a resealable bag. This is the same strategy I’ve been using for years — even with the same bag — and I’ve had zero problems.

If you live in a particularly dry climate or want to be extra-safe, go with the Brown Sugar Bear (follow the same soaking procedure as above). It will provide sufficient moisture for 2 to 3 months, at which point you can repeat the process. You’ll find similar strategies recommended using bread slices or marshmallows, but I prefer something more stable that does not need to be replaced (or composted).