Cookies at the Ready: Never (Ever!) Deal With Rock-Hard Brown Sugar Again

It never fails: You get an urge to bake a batch of chocolate chunk cookies, preheat the oven, plug in the mixer, and gather your ingredients only to find out that the brown sugar has gone rock hard. Yet again. We don’t want to speculate, but after years of clumpy brown sugar we’re pretty sure there’s an evil gremlin hiding in our cabinets, turning the sugar into one solid, impenetrable mass.

Must it always be like this? No! You deserve the most supple brown sugar ever. Here’s how to soften brown sugar, how to do it quickly, what to use when your stash is unsalvageable, and how to properly store it so it doesn’t get all clumpy and awful in the first place.

Before joining the Bon Appétit team, recipe developer Rick Martinez worked on the set of cooking competition shows like Beat Bobby Flay and Worst Cooks In America. On his list of tasks? Keeping the pantry’s stash of brown sugar soft and ready to go at a moment’s notice. “You really can bring brown sugar back from the dead,” he says. To resurrect your hard brown sugar, grab a slice of bread. Any old piece will do, but Martinez says the crustier the bread, the better. Pour the sugar into a canister, and place the slice (cut-side up, if it’s an artisan or bakery loaf) on top of the sugar then cover it with a lid. Check back in 24 hours—overnight, minimum, according to Martinez—and the moisture in the bread will have turned the granules soft and separate. The bread will have absorbed some of the molasses, turning the top layer of sugar lighter brown or white, but you can just discard that and proceed with your regularly scheduled programming. (Keeping the bread cut-side up will minimize the discoloration.)

Don’t have the luxury of 24 hours before the bake sale? Digital food editor Dawn Perry has had luck giving clumpy brown sugar a whirl in the food processor or high-powered blender. Proceed with caution—too hard sugar might damage the machine. Recipe developer Jesse Damuck zaps it in the microwave in 10-second intervals. Just keep a close eye on it, so it doesn’t begin to melt and caramelize.

If your brown sugar has turned a corner and is truly past the point of no return, you don’t have to forget about your baking project. Keeping a few brown sugar-adjacent sweeteners on hand will allow you to proceed with the recipe (of course, know that the end result won’t be exactly the same as if you used brown sugar, so experiment with an open mind). Demerara and muscovado sugars are known for their nutty taste and crunchy texture, thanks to larger-sized granules. Turbinado, also known as “raw” sugar is another fine substitute. All are minimally-refined, meaning they’re not bleached. They are made by partially evaporating cane juice to the point of granules. This is in opposition to brown sugar, which is given its dark color and bold flavor by adding molasses back into fully refined white sugar—however the texture is similar across the map. Maple sugar, which is made from evaporated syrup, is another fine fill-in.

Two words: Air-tight. Air is the enemy of moist brown sugar, so you’ll want to store it in a container that’s completely cut off from air flow. Roll up the bag tightly, squeezing out any air, and wrap it securely with a rubber band. For extra precaution, store the original bag in a sealed plastic zip-top bag. Or, do as Martinez did in the television biz: Keep it in an air-tight (there’s that word again) canister with a piece of bread on top. Just be sure to swap out the bread every couple of days, or else it will become moldy.

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