The Quickest Way to Soften Brown Sugar

Save your apple slices and bread for a cheese plate.

A large, hardened lump of brown sugar in a zip-top bag, the opening of which has been rolled back and propped open.

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Dried-out, rock-hard brown sugar happens to the best of us, and we're all familiar with the classic tricks recommended to get it soft again: stick a slice of bread or an apple wedge in the bag, and osmosis will kick in overnight. But seriously, in what universe is that practical? I want cookies now! 

But, why waste food when you can return a brick of brown sugar to its former glory in less than a minute? Below, I share an easy trick I perfected in my restaurant days, when harried line cooks would occasionally raid the brown sugar bin and leave the lid cracked open. Let’s take a closer look at the most popular methods for softening brown sugar. 

Common Methods for Softening Brown Sugar

Search the internet for “the best way to soften brown sugar” and you’re bound to have your hands full with suggestions. Although these methods are widely used, they’re impractical when you need to soften brown sugar fast.

  • Using bread or apple slices: While this method is popular, it’s a waste of food and can take anywhere between eight to 24 hours—both pretty big drawbacks. Plus, you have to remember to remove the bread or apple afterwards to prevent mold. My recommendation: save your apple slices and bread for a cheese plate.
  • Using an oven: This method calls for heating brown sugar in a low oven and stirring it every few minutes until softened. Once soft, the brown sugar must be cooled completely before you use it. Preheating my oven, warming the sugar, then letting it cool is a longer process than I have time for.   
  • Using a food processor: Simply pulse brown sugar in a food processor until the hardened clumps break apart. The downside? You’ll have to wash all the parts once you’re done. Oh, and you’ll need a food processor. 
  • Using a box grater: I am quite fond of my fingertips so this method is a pass for me. 
  • Using a brown sugar saver or terracotta: This one requires advance planning: you need to soak the tools in water first, then add it to the brown sugar. The terracotta will soften the brown sugar in about an hour, and you can store the two together to keep things moist. Besides it being a single-use kitchen tool, you must remember to soak the terracotta occasionally to keep the sugar continually soft.

Our Method: Add Water and Knead in a Bag

All you need is 1/8 of an ounce (i.e., 3/4 teaspoon, or 3.5 grams) of water for every eight ounces of dried-out brown sugar. (Just one more reason everyone should own a digital kitchen scale; without one, the best you can do is guess.)

Adding water to a large, hardened lump of brown sugar in a zip-top bag.

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Combine the sugar and water in a zip-top bag, press out the air, seal, and zap for 15 seconds in the microwave. A portion of the sugar will look completely melted, and that's just perfect. Working through the bag, press on that melty spot with your fingers to start breaking up the lumps, then knead the brown sugar until it's homogeneous. It's a strangely soothing process, squishing the warm sugar around the bag, which will help reduce the stress you probably felt upon discovering that your brown sugar was hard as a rock.

The moistened and heated brown sugar is massaged to rehydrate.

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

No microwave? No problem. Just seal the bag and let the water stand with the sugar for about 30 minutes before you get to work.

The softened brown sugar, granular and ready to use.

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

By kneading water directly into the sugar, you're instantly replacing (and distributing) what was lost, a vastly more precise and effective route to rehydrating brown sugar than indirect methods such as sliced fruit, bread, or even a damp paper towel placed over the sugar in a bowl. Plus, no food waste or dirty dishes. The brown sugar can be stored directly in the zip-top bag.

How to Store Brown Sugar

Brown sugar, including rehydrated brown sugar, should be stored in an airtight container. As long as it's not exposed to air and moisture, brown sugar will last indefinitely.

April 2017