Does Brown Sugar Go Bad? [Shelf Life, Expiration, Hardening]

Here’s all you need to know about the shelf life and expiration of brown sugar. Learn if brown sugar ever goes bad, how long it retains quality, and what to do when it hardens.

Got a half-open bag of brown sugar that expired a couple of months ago? If so, you’re probably wondering: does brown sugar ever go bad?

Or maybe your demerara sugar has hardened, and you want to know if brown sugar is still good when hard, and if so, how to go about softening it.

Sounds familiar?

If so, you’re in the right place. Let’s jump right in.

Brown sugar in hand

Table of Contents

Does Brown Sugar Go Bad?

No. Brown sugar doesn’t support microbial growth, so it can last indefinitely as long as you keep away pantry bugs and it’s not exposed to moisture. That said, brown sugar retains best quality for about two years, and after that period, you might notice a slight change in flavor.

In other words, the bag sitting in your pantry for who knows how long is most likely still fine to use.

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

Now, what if your brown sugar hasn’t been sealed tightly, and it’s all clumped up?

Is Brown Sugar Still Good When Hard?

Yes. Brown sugar hardens when its moisture evaporates, so if you don’t seal it tightly, it will form clumps. To fix that, you can either separate the sugar crystals manually (e.g., by smashing it against the counter) or reintroduce a little moisture to the dried-out molasses.

If you’re in a hurry, loosening the sugar by brute force is probably your best bet, as it doesn’t take that much time. If the clumps aren’t super firm, simply breaking them apart using a fork might be enough.

Moisture reintroduction is a much better long-term solution, but in most cases, you need at least a day or so to allow the sugar to absorb the water it needs.

Let’s talk about both options in more detail.

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 up 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 brown sugar right now.

Now that you know how to deal with hard brown sugar, it’s time to talk about situations in which you should toss your brown sugar and open a new bag.

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

How To Tell If Brown Sugar Is Bad?

Discard your brown sugar if you notice bugs or insects, any wet clumps or mold inside, or if it smells off. As already mentioned, dry lumps are perfectly safe, and you can get rid of them manually or by reintroducing a bit of moisture to the molasses that has dried out.

As with almost all dry products, the first thing to look for is pantry bugs. If you notice insects, larvae, or eggs in the bag, that sugar is no longer safe to use.

(Unless you really need some protein from a less-than-stellar source…)

If moisture gets to the sugar, there will be wet clumps and, quite likely, mold or any other organic growth. That’s no good.

Finally, let’s talk about what to do if your brown sugar smells weird.

Sugar absorbs other smells, so if yours smells like one of the products that sat next to it, chances are it soaked up that odor.

That doesn’t make the sugar unsafe, but if its aroma is too strong, it’s best to get rid of it. You don’t want your baked goods to smell like smoked salmon or Italian sausage.

Tip

If you’re out of brown sugar or just found your demerara sugar infested, 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.

Brown sugar in a measuring spoon
Brown sugar in a measuring spoon

How Long Does Brown Sugar Last?

 Pantry
Brown sugar (unopened or opened)Best for about 2 years, but stays safe indefinitely

While brown sugar can last indefinitely if you keep insects and moisture out of the container, it maintains best quality for about two years. After that period, its flavor might decline slightly, but it’ll stay safe to use and work well in all sorts of dishes.

Those two years, or however long the manufacturer assumes the sugar will taste best, are already reflected in the date printed on the label.

Yup, that date isn’t an “expiration” date. It’s usually labeled as “best-by” or “best-before,” which means it’s about food quality, not safety. In other words, brown sugar lasts way past the date printed on the label.

Having that out of the way, let’s wrap up with storage practices you should follow.

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 From 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.