How to soften brown sugar quickly:
Depending on when you want to use the brown sugar, you can choose one of a few easy softening methods, none of which require running out for a fresh bag.
If you need soft brown sugar ASAP: Place the hardened brown sugar in a microwave-safe bowl, cover it in a damp (not sopping) paper towel, and microwave it in 10-second intervals. A couple of blasts of heat will turn it into the pliable stuff you know and love but don’t go too far or it could melt. You can also blitz hard brown sugar in a high-speed blender or food processor, but be careful: Too hard and it could damage the blade.
If you have time to plan ahead: Place a piece of white sandwich bread on top of the brown sugar in an airtight container and seal it tight. In about 24 hours, it’ll be soft. (This method also works with a few apple slices or marshmallows.)
To prevent the problem in the first place: The best way to please the brown sugar gods? The store opened brown sugar in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. A sturdy Ziploc storage bag wrapped securely with a rubber band will work, but we’re partial to the OXO Good Grips POP containers which have a tight seal and can be decked out with a ceramic brown sugar keeper to maintain moisture (if you’re fancy).
HOW TO SOFTEN BROWN SUGAR WITHOUT A MICROWAVE
We’ve all been there. It’s 9 o’clock at night, dinner is over, and suddenly you and your loved ones are craving cookies. All eyes turn to you and you stand up–ready to do the dirty deed–and as you march into the kitchen, confident that you can churn out cookies lickety-split, you grab a box of brown sugar only to discover…
…that you can’t make cookies with it, but you can build a house with it. It’s as hard as a brick.
Many of you who have microwaves (I don’t have one (see here)) know the simple solution: you can nuke it next to a dish of water, or with a damp paper towel on it, 30 seconds at a time until it’s soft. That wasn’t an option for me.
So I turned to Twitter: I polled the Twitterverse, “How do I soften brown sugar without a microwave?”
The first suggestion, which I tried, was to put the brown sugar in a food processor:
The sound that this made was deeply unpleasant, to say the least. And while it sanded a little of the sugar at the bottom, the brick remained almost entirely intact. I decided to add a splash of hot water to see if that’d help things along….
But that just created a pool of brown water at the bottom of my food processor.
I was ready for more suggestions, but most of them were suggestions for how to soften the sugar overnight: “put it in a container with a slice of bread” was a popular one. But I needed softened sugar right now!
Finally, I took it upon myself to heat the regular old oven (350 degrees) and to lay a damp paper on the brown sugar before it went in:
I monitored things carefully through the open window and then got nervous about having a paper product in a hot oven; so I removed the paper towel and added a splash of hot water to the bottom of the pan.
This did the trick:
As you can see, the sugar softened to the point where I could mash it easily with a fork. (It took just a few minutes.)
So the answer to the question “how do you soften brown sugar without a microwave?” is: in the oven with a splash of hot water.