Pantry Lessons: Hardheaded Brown Sugar

It’s nighttime. Dinner and homework are done. It’s time to bake the cookies you’ve signed up to bring to one of the countless class parties at school. You’ve softened the butter. You’re about to add the brown sugar. You open the bag and…it’s a rock. Your first grader, who is learning about geology, thinks it’s cool. You, not so much. It means an unplanned late night trip to the store and less sleep.

Over ten years ago, I learned a trick to keep brown sugar from morphing into a stubborn, resistant block that can’t be coaxed back to its svelte, fluffy, younger self with any amount of effort. It’s kept me and my pantry happy ever since.

I was working in the natural foods industry, and one of my company’s clients was Wholesome Sweeteners. Baking chocolate chip cookies, trying out new recipes, and sharing them with the office crew was my favorite past time. It’s funny how having kids cures you of those urges. When I complained that I couldn’t keep my brown sugar from petrifying, someone at Wholesome gave me this invaluable tip.

Tip #1: Moisten a paper towel, fold it up, place it on top of the brown sugar, remove all the air, and reseal the bag.

I remember thinking, “That’s it?” A damp paper towel could have saved all those bags of brown sugar I’d tossed.

It works. It works extremely well. The only modification I made was to add another layer of protection by stuffing the sugar bag into a Ziploc bag. You have to swap out the paper towel every few weeks, but it’s a pretty small push up to save bag after bag of sugar from a garbage dump fate.

Tip #2: Or store your brown sugar in an airtight container like a mason jar. Add the moist paper towel if you notice any drying.

Then, six months ago, I discovered the mason jar. For sanity’s sake, I had begun moving all my baking regulars (sugar, brown sugar, flour, cornmeal) into mason jars. I was tired of bags being left open, vulnerable to spillage and spoil. Mason jars in my house equal no more ruined kumbaya baking moments and a happy mama.

Tip #3: When you make chocolate chip cookies, use Ghirardelli 60% cacao bittersweet chocolate chips, cane sugar (instead of refined white sugar) and unrefined brown sugar (get crazy and try dark). You’ll taste the difference.

It sounds like a small thing, but when I open the pantry, and all the ingredients I need to make chocolate chip cookies are there waiting for me, ready to go (no ice pick required), it makes me happy. I waste too many minutes during the day repeatedly telling my kids what to do: get your shoes on, brush your teeth, put your dishes in the sink, get yer grubby hands out of yer pants, and quit picking your nose. I like knowing my pantry won’t let me down. It’s like the gift of twenty extra minutes in the midst of a chaotic day. Or, even better, like a dishwasher mysteriously emptied and a tidy kitchen.


still as fluffy and soft as it was on day one


Little-known fact: Most brown sugar is made by adding molasses to refined white sugar. While a lot of nutritionists claim that sugar is sugar, and the health benefits of brown versus white are debatable, it’s worth it to me to pay a little more for unrefined sugar. There’s a chance that it’s slightly healthier because the minerals weren’t removed, and it has a better flavor profile (read: better chocolate chip cookies).

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