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Brown sugar is a mixture of refined white sugar and molasses. If not stored properly, the moisture in the molasses will evaporate, resulting in a hard unusable lump. Storing brown sugar in an airtight, sealed container is critical to preventing this from happening.
Once hardened, there are a variety of methods to soften brown sugar. If the solidified sugar needs to be used immediately, it can be put in a covered container and placed in the microwave together with an uncovered bowl of water. Microwave both hardened sugar and water for 30 seconds at a time until sugar softens. Take care with this method, and any other method, using heat to be careful not to melt the sugar.
Another technique to soften brown sugar for use right away, is to place a half sheet of damp paper towel on top of a box of hardened brown sugar. Put the box and the wet paper towel in a sealed plastic bag and heat in a microwave for about 15 to 20 seconds until the sugar is softened. Hardened chunks of brown sugar can also be chopped up in a blender or food processor for instant use.
If not immediately needed, you can soften brown sugar by moving it to an airtight container with a piece of bread. The moisture from the bread will be absorbed by the sugar, returning it to a workable condition in about 24 hours. This method also works with apple slices, or an orange peel. Storing brown sugar in a container with an apple slice or a slice of bread will ensure that it does not harden over time.
Soaking a shard of pottery in water for at least 15 minutes and including it in an airtight container will soften brown sugar that has hardened, as well as help prevent sugar from solidifying over time. Clay disks can be purchased for this purpose as well. Commercially designed clay pieces can be found for this particular use in a variety of figures including smiley faces and teddy bear shapes.
Special clay storage containers designed to keep brown sugar soft and pliable are available for purchase. Using these types of containers should prevent the need to soften brown sugar. Storing brown sugar in an airtight container in the freezer can also prevent it from hardening. Sugar stored in this way will require about 15 minutes to thaw before it can be used. Freezing and refrigeration will not soften brown sugar that has already hardened.
My mother used to use the apple slice technique. It worked well. I also have tried using bread. The important thing is to remember to change the slices of apple or bread out occasionally if you notice they are starting to harden; eventually they will lose their moisture to the sugar, and when that happens, both the apple and the sugar could harden again.
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