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Pantry Ponderings: Brown Sugar

Crystal Futrell

K-State Health & Food Safety Extension Agent - Johnson County

Recently, I was helping a relative clean out her pantry. This relative only cooks once a year—a massive Thanksgiving feast in which she purchases a mountain of ingredients but only uses a small portion from each package. Once Thanksgiving is over, these nearly full packages sit undisturbed until the following Thanksgiving when they are shoved back a little further into the cabinets to make room for the same, newly purchased ingredients to make the annual feast all over again. This process continues year after year until all the cabinet space is used up thus initiating a thorough cleaning and purging.

Brown Sugar with white dots

This sounds like an exaggerated scenario. I wish it was. One might expect to come across some “interesting” specimens when doing this kind of decluttering—and indeed I did. The one that really took me by surprise was the brown sugar (see photo). It was, of course, rock solid despite the well-intended but unmanaged addition of a softening stone, and it had white striations throughout. While I’ve certainly experienced the solidification process of brown sugars, I’d never seen it change colors before. This specimen sent me on a deep dive into the world of brown sugar.

What is Brown Sugar?

Contrary to some beliefs, brown sugar is not raw or unprocessed sugar. It is actually the standard, granulated white sugar that undergoes a processing step where molasses is added and mixed into the refined sugar thus turning it brown. This addition of molasses gives the sugar more moisture, more acidity, and a rich toffee-like flavor. Brown sugar comes in two types: light and dark. The difference between light and dark brown sugar is the amount of molasses that has been added to it. While both “light” and “dark” versions are interchangeable, light brown sugar does have a lighter toffee flavor and is commonly used in cakes and cookies while dark brown sugar has a richer almost bitter caramel profile and is reserved for more intensely flavored dishes like gingerbread confectionaries and baked beans. And while light and dark brown sugars are interchangeable, it’s important to note that neither light nor dark brown is interchangeable with white granulated sugar. The added moisture and molasses flavor makes brown sugar a different ingredient both chemically and culinarily.

Is Brown Sugar Healthier than White Sugar?

It’s almost instinctual to assume brown things will naturally be healthier than their paler counterparts, and while the added molasses does contribute some minerals, the amounts are barely traceable and thus barely beneficial. Therefore, nutrition experts recommend that brown sugar be treated like an added sugar and used sparingly.

Why Does Brown Sugar Harden?

Brown sugar contains more moisture than granulated white sugar, and if not stored properly, most of this moisture will eventually evaporate away. The remaining moisture acts like a glue that binds all the sugar crystals together to form hard lumps.  The best way to prevent this is to store brown sugar in an air-type container that traps the evaporated moisture and returns it to the sugar.

How to Fix Hard Brown Sugar

Of course, most containers are not 100% air-tight and trapped moisture will eventually evaporate out. This does not mean your brown sugar is bad—just inconvenient. But there are some fixes:

  • Add a piece of bread. Since your brown sugar is hard because it lacks moisture, putting a moisture-rich food like a slice of soft bread can help soften it. Sugar is hygroscopic which means it likes to absorb moisture from its environment. If the sugar senses that a moisture-rich food is present, it will actually pull the moisture out of that food and absorb it. You can even store a slice of bread with your brown sugar and just replace it when it gets hard.
  • Microwave it. Place a dampened (but not dripping wet) paper towel over a microwave-safe bowl full of hard brown sugar. Microwave for 30 seconds then fluff with a fork. If the sugar is still hard, zap it for 10-second intervals, fluffing in-between, until the desired softness is reached.

How to Use Brown Sugar

The most universal application of brown sugar is in baked goods. The added moisture and acidity in brown sugar gives these foods a succulent and tender chewiness that’s not produced by using granulated sugar alone. Also, the molasses in brown sugar provides a unique taste that turns sugar’s sharp sweetness into something deeper and more complex. It’s important when measuring brown sugar to make sure it’s packed tightly into the measuring cups. This sugar tends to form air pockets which can give you an inaccurate measure if not packed firmly down. Here are some other ways to utilize this pantry staple:

  • use a tablespoon or two to tone down spicy notes in chilis and stews
  • use it in glazes for vegetables and proteins
  • sprinkle over bacon then bake in the oven to create candied bacon
  • add a pinch to vinaigrettes

What’s the White Stuff in My Relative’s Brown Sugar?

Well, it might be mold. While sugar is anti-microbial, brown sugar’s added moisture makes it more susceptible to mold growth, but this container didn’t smell moldy. Some food blogging sites suggest that the molasses in brown sugar can settle over time especially if it wasn’t incorporated thoroughly during manufacturing. But in truth, I have no idea. I’d love to know your suggestions.

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