Does brown sugar go bad? Deterioration, useful life and softening

Brown sugar doesn’t really go bad if you store it tightly closed in a cool, dry place.

It may start to clump after a while, but that’s not a sign of spoilage, and you can easily fix hardened brown sugar.

Of course, the flavor and overall quality of brown sugar changes gradually, but it is usually safe to use beyond the “use by” date.

Interested in learning more about storage, shelf life, signs of spoilage, and softening of clumped brown sugar?

Keep reading.

brown sugar in hand

Does brown sugar go bad?

Brown sugar does not spoil because it does not support microbial growth. As long as your brown sugar doesn’t come into contact with a lot of moisture and you keep it safe from pantry pests, it should still be safe to use.

The same goes for other types of sugar: white and powdered.

With that being said, there are some situations where you should throw out your brown sugar and open a new bag. Let’s talk about them.

How do you know if brown sugar is bad?

  • Dead (or live) insects, larvae or eggs in the container. Sometimes they get into the container or bag, and that means the product is no longer safe to eat.
  • Mold or any other organic growth. If water has entered the container and there is mold or other organic growth, the sugar is finished.

These are the typical signs of brown sugar spoilage, and if any of them are present, throw that sugar away.

Add brown sugar to the pancake batter

But there are also other signs that may worry you. Things like

  • The sugar is clumped. Brown sugar contains more moisture than white sugar, and if that moisture evaporates, the sugar hardens. It is a natural reaction, and that sugar can continue to be used. In the next section I list several ways to soften brown sugar.
  • sugar smells bad. Sugar absorbs other odors, so if yours smells like one of the items you store nearby, chances are your brown sugar has absorbed that odor. That also means that the bag or container is not closed tightly. If the aroma it gives off is too strong, it is best to get rid of it. Otherwise your baked goods will give off some of that smell, and that’s not good.
If you don’t have brown sugar, you can make your own by mixing a tablespoon of molasses with 1 cup of white granulated sugar. Stir this combination well and your homemade brown sugar is ready to be used.

How to soften hard brown sugar?

Brown sugar tends to dry out and clump if stored for a long period of time or if it is not sealed tightly.

Although hardened brown sugar does not spoil in any way, it is almost impossible to use. And that’s the reason you want to soften it up.

Fortunately, softening clumped brown sugar isn’t that difficult. There are two ways to do it.

brown sugar close up

Manually loosen brown sugar

There are many methods for manually softening clumped brown sugar. Some of the most popular are

  • break it with a fork
  • put the clods in a bag and flatten it against a wall or counter
  • use an electric mixer or blender

The idea is the same for all of them: you use brute force to break up the clumps. The main advantage is that they work instantly: you have the brown sugar granules available to use immediately.

Restore moisture to packed brown sugar

It’s all about providing a new source of moisture to the molasses in brown sugar. Here are two options:

  • Put a piece of apple, a slice of fresh bread, an orange peel or a few marshmallows in the container. Brown sugar will slowly absorb moisture from any of these products and soften as it goes. You need at least a couple of hours for the process to give you results (i.e. not a quick fix).
  • Cover the sugar with a slightly damp paper towel, microwave on high power, checking every 30 seconds. If you don’t have a microwave, the oven works fine too. Keep in mind that the sugar will harden again when it cools, so take as much as you need right away.

Softening by giving the sugar a new source of moisture is the best option, as it addresses the underlying problem. Its main drawback is that it takes a bit of time, and it’s not ideal if you need the brown sugar right now.

Brown sugar in a measuring spoon

How long does brown sugar last?

Brown sugar has a shelf life of about two years, but it lasts indefinitely if you keep bugs and water out of the container.

Those two years are a rough estimate of how long brown sugar retains its optimum quality. And the end of that period is marked by the date printed on the label, which is often labeled “use by” or “best before” date.

That date is not a “use by” date, and it has to do with quality, not food safety. In other words, brown sugar lasts much longer than the date printed on the label.

If your brown sugar has been in storage for a few years, it may not be the best (quality-wise), but the difference in flavor will be minimal at best.

Brown sugar (unopened or opened) It keeps well indefinitely

How to store brown sugar

Store brown sugar in a cool, dry place, tightly closed. A pantry cabinet is perfect, but a kitchen cabinet works well too. You just have to make sure that it is kept away from any heat source, such as ovens or heaters, and that it is not in the fridge.

As long as the package is unopened, you can leave the brown sugar in its original container.

Once opened, be sure to seal the sugar well. You can do this by using an airtight container or by placing the package in a plastic bag. If neither option is possible, a sealing pliers can also do the job.

If you want to put your brown sugar in plain sight so you always have it on hand, you can buy one of those fancy sugar containers.

In addition to keeping moisture out, a good seal prevents pantry bugs and strong odors from reaching the sugar. Of course, you don’t want to store sugar near strong odors, but an extra layer of protection doesn’t hurt.

Add a tablespoon of brown sugar to a cup of coffee

How to prevent brown sugar from hardening

If you use brown sugar fairly often, caking will probably never be an issue for you. But if you don’t, and every time you pick up the bag you find it clumped, there is a way to fix it.

It’s called sugar saver.

A sugar saver is a gadget that helps you keep the moisture content of your brown sugar at the correct level and therefore prevents it from clumping.

The only drawback is that you have to soak it before you put it in the container and re-soak it every time it dries out. That is usually every 3-6 months.

You can also use a sugar protectant to keep cookies or marshmallows moist. Or absorb moisture from the spices if you leave the saver dry.

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