Does Brown Sugar Go Bad? Spoilage, Shelf Life, and Softening

Brown sugar doesn’t really go bad if you store it sealed tight in a cool and dry place.

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

Of course, the taste and overall quality of brown sugar gradually change, but it’s typically safe to use way past the “expiration” date.

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

Read on.

Brown sugar in hand

Does Brown Sugar Go Bad?

Brown sugar doesn’t go bad because it doesn’t support microbial growth. As long as your brown sugar doesn’t come in contact with lots of moisture and you keep it safe from pantry pests, it should stay safe to use.

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

That said, there are a few situations in which you should toss your brown sugar and open a new bag. Let’s talk about those.

How To Tell If Brown Sugar Is Bad

When checking if your brown sugar is safe to use, look for the following:

  • Dead (or alive) insects, larvae, or eggs in the package. Sometimes they find their way into the container or bag, and that mean’s the product is no longer safe to eat.
  • Mold or any other organic growth. If water got into the package and there’s mold or any other organic growth, the sugar is done for.

Those are the typical signs of brown sugar spoilage, and if either is present, discard that sugar.

Adding brown sugar to pancake batter
Adding brown sugar to pancake batter

But there are also other signs that you might find concerning. Things like:

  • Sugar is clumped. Brown sugar contains more moisture than white sugar, and if that moisture evaporates, the sugar hardens. It’s a natural reaction, and that sugar is still okay to use. I list various ways to soften brown sugar in the next section.
  • Sugar smells off. Sugar absorbs other smells, so if yours smells like one of the products that you store nearby, chances are your brown sugar absorbed that smell. That also means that the bag or container isn’t sealed well. If the aroma it gives off is too strong, it’s best to get rid of it. Otherwise, your baked goods will give off some of that odor, and that’s no good.
Tip

If you’re out of brown sugar, you can make it yourself by mixing one tablespoon of molasses with 1 cup white granulated sugar. Give this combo a good stir, and your homemade brown sugar is ready to use.

How To Soften Hard Brown Sugar?

Brown sugar tends to dry out and form clumps if stored for a prolonged period or not sealed tightly enough.

While hardened brown sugar isn’t spoiled by any means, it’s almost impossible to use. And that’s the reason you want to soften it.

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

Brown sugar closeup
Brown sugar up close

Manually Loosening Brown Sugar

There are many approaches to soften clumped brown sugar manually. Some of the more popular ones include:

  • breaking it down with a fork
  • putting the clumps into a bag and smashing it against a wall or counter
  • using an electric mixer or a blender

The idea is the same for all of them: you use brute force to break the clumps apart. The main benefit is that these work instantaneously – you have the brown sugar granules available to use right away.

Restoring Moisture to Clumped Brown Sugar

This one is about providing a new source of moisture for the molasses that’s in brown sugar. There are two options here:

  • Put an apple wedge, slice of fresh bread, orange peel, or a few marshmallows into the container. Brown sugar will slowly absorb the moisture from either of these products and gradually soften. You need at least a couple of hours for the process to get you results (i.e., it’s not a quick fix).
  • Cover the sugar with a slightly damp paper towel, microwave it on high, and check every 30 seconds. If you don’t have a microwave, an oven works well too. Please note that the sugar will harden again when it cools down, so grab as much as you need right away.

Softening by giving the sugar a new source of moisture is the better option, as it addresses the underlying issue. Its main downside 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
Brown sugar in a measuring spoon

How Long Does Brown Sugar Last?

Brown sugar comes with a shelf life of about two years, but it lasts indefinitely if you keep any insects and water out of the container.

Those two years are a rough estimate of how long brown sugar retains optimal quality. And the end of that period is marked by the date printed on the label, most often labeled “best-by” or “best-if-used-by” date.

That date isn’t an “expiration date,” and it’s about quality, not food safety. In other words, brown sugar lasts way past the date printed on the label.

Info

If your brown sugar sits in storage for a few years already, it might not be the best (quality-wise), but the taste difference will be minimal at best.

 Pantry
Brown sugar (unopened or opened)Stays fine indefinitely

How To Store Brown Sugar

Store brown sugar in a cool and dry place, sealed tightly. A cupboard in the pantry is perfect, but a kitchen cabinet works well too. Just make sure it stays away from any heat sources like ovens or heaters, and that it doesn’t sit in the fridge.

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

Once you open it up, make sure you seal the sugar tightly. You can do that by using an airtight container or by placing the package in a plastic bag. If neither is an option, a sealing clip should get the job done too.

Tip

If you’d like to put brown sugar on display so that it’s always on hand, you can buy one of those fancy sugar containers.

Besides keeping moisture away, a good seal prevents pantry bugs and strong odors from getting to the sugar. Of course, you don’t want to store the sugar near any strong smells, but an additional layer of protection doesn’t hurt.

Adding a spoonful of brown sugar into a cup of coffee
Adding a spoonful of brown sugar into a cup of coffee

Preventing Brown Sugar Hardening

If you use brown sugar fairly frequently, hardening is probably never a problem for you. But if you don’t, and every time you reach for the bag you find it all clumped up, there’s a way to fix that.

It’s called a sugar saver.

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

The only downside is that you need to soak it before putting it into the container and resoak it every time it dries out. That usually means every 3 to 6 months.

Tip

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