We’ve all been there. It’s a snowy winter night. You’re enjoying a cozy night at home when the idea strikes you: this moment would be absolutely perfect with some fresh homemade cookies.
You dash to the pantry and reach for your sugars, only to find your organic brown sugar is less granulated and more one big solid block of unusable sugar.
Suddenly, fresh homemade cookies have gotten complicated. If your brown sugar is such a hard block, does that mean it’s gone bad? Does brown sugar go bad? If not, how do you even use sugar packed into a brick like this?
Luckily, brown sugar woes are not new. With a few tips and tricks, everyone’s favorite confectionery ingredient will be back to soft and sweet in no time.
Does Brown Sugar Go Bad?
Short answer: no. Like granulated sugar, cane sugar, and maple syrup, brown sugar has an indefinitely long shelf life if stored properly to protect against bug contamination. Older brown sugar may start to harden and become more difficult to work with, but that does not mean it has “gone bad.” Brown sugar hardens when its natural moisture is exposed to, and evaporated by, the air. Without moisture, the molasses inside brown sugar causes it to stick to itself. Then, after a few days, you are greeted by that big chunk of brown sugar mentioned early.
How to tell if your brown sugar is bad, for real
While brown sugar doesn’t “go bad” in the traditional sense, there are two situations in which you are going to want to replace your brown sugar ASAP.
The first example of bad sugar is bugs. Like all sugars, the sugary deliciousness of brown sugar can attract ants and other bugs. If you see any signs of bug life, alive or dead, you should dispose of and replace your brown sugar.
The second instance is mold. Although rare, brown sugar can grow mold if left in a humid environment for a long period of time. If you open your brown sugar and it smells funky, musty, mushroomy, or like old cheese, that is a sign you should replace it.
Is it safe to eat expired brown sugar?
You may be wondering, “Well, how long does brown sugar last?” If bereft of mold, bugs, and other nasties, expired brown sugar is totally safe to eat. Companies usually put an expiration date of about two years on most sugars. Your four-year-old brown sugar might look a bit different than when you first bought it, but it is still absolutely safe to eat.
3 Tips for Storing Brown Sugar and Maximizing Its Shelf Life
Although brown sugar can, on paper, last forever, keeping it soft is another story altogether. With a couple of tips and tricks, we can make sure our brown sugar remains accessible, tasty, and easy to use for years to come.
1. Seal in an airtight container
The key to keeping brown sugar from hardening is avoiding exposure to the air. Although many brown sugars come in a “resealable bag,” these bags are often flimsy, coming open during handling, or not forming a strong enough seal in the first place.
By storing our brown sugar in a stronger, air-tight container in a dry place, we can prevent exposure to the outside air, meaning no hard sugar clumps. This works for white sugar, too! Try pouring your brown sugar into an entirely new, airtight container, like a mason jar or food storage container. When you need it, it’ll be perfectly sprinklable for your homemade kettle corn.
2. Store brown sugar with a slice of bread
You have probably heard from a parent or grandparent to always put a slice of bread in your sugar bags. It may seem silly, but that slice of bread is actually doing a lot to keep your brown sugar fresh. The brown sugar inside the bag can actually absorb moisture from the slice of bread, meaning the bread hardens up instead of the sugar. This trick also works with apple wedges!
If you notice after a few weeks that your slice of bread is hard as a rock, that means all the moisture has been absorbed, and you need to swap it for a fresh slice.
3. Store with terra cotta
If the idea of using tons of bread or apples to keep for softening seems wasteful, try using small terra cotta disks. Sometimes called “brown sugar savers,” terra cotta essentially does the same thing bread does, only it’s reusable.
Simply soak the terra cotta in water for twenty minutes, pat it dry, then place it inside your container. The terra cotta will gradually release the water moisture into the sugar, meaning no hard blocks. Then, when it dries out after a few months, you can simply resoak it and use it again!
How to Soften Hard Brown Sugar
If, like most people, you already have a lump of brown sugar somewhere in your pantry – fear not. There are tons of different ways to soften hardened brown sugar.
1. The microwave
The quickest way to soften any clump of brown sugar is in the microwave. Grab a hard lump and place it in a microwave-safe bowl. Grab a damp paper towel and place it over the bowl, covering it. Try microwaving for 20 seconds, followed by 10-second intervals; the moisture from the paper towel should soften the sugar pretty quickly.
2. The oven
If you don’t mind the heat, you can use the oven to soften brown sugar. Place your sugar in an oven-safe bowl, then place it in an oven set to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Check the oven every few minutes, poking the sugar with a fork until it has thoroughly soften
These are quick-fix solutions for hard sugar problems. Proper storage is still the best way to avoid dealing with bricks of sugar.
For Your Next Bake, Try Brown Sugar
Once you employ some anti-hardening practices, brown sugar is just as easy to work with as any other baking ingredient. Its rich molasses flavor and naturally nutty color make for wonderful baked goods and work perfectly in breakfast classics like oatmeal cups. A simple, delicious cookie recipe I always come back to is this infinitely variable recipe by Mark Bittman. Grab some natural, unrefined brown sugar and get cooking!
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