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Brown sugar (Recipe: Irish soda bread)


We have an elementary school science teacher in the family, so there is no excuse for the ignorance I am about to confess to you.

A few months ago, Ted and I found a jar of hard-as-a-rock brown sugar on the shelves of The Perfect Pantry. (This is not the embarrassing part. Well, okay, it is embarrassing, but not from a science point of view.)

How could we get that solid sugar out of the jar? Chip away at it with a knife? Dangerous. Melt it in the microwave? Hot sugar — very dangerous.

And then I remembered that there was something which, when placed in a jar of hardened sugar, would restore the sugar's moisture and fluffiness.

Eureka! I put a slice of whole wheat bread into the jar, sealed the top, and left it overnight. In the morning, the bread was hard as a rock, but the brown sugar was light and fluffy, completely restored to health. To me, this was a miracle. How did the moisture pass from the bread to the sugar? Would something else (an apple? a damp paper towel?) do just as well? I can't explain how or why, but I can tell you that the bread trick really works. (Science teachers and other readers, please help!)

Brown sugar — the type we buy in the supermarket — is nothing more than granulated, usually refined, white sugar with molasses added (or containing residual molasses from the refining process). Light brown sugar contains 3.5 percent molasses; dark brown has up to 6.5 percent. The darker the color, the stronger the taste. You can substitute one cup of firmly packed brown sugar for one cup of granulated sugar in most recipes.

In my pantry I keep three types of brown sugar: light and dark (Domino or no-name store brand), from my local market, and turbinado, a chunkier raw sugar which has been partially processed, where only the surface molasses has been washed off. It has a blond color and mild brown sugar flavor, and is often used in tea and other beverages, and as a crunchy topping for cookies. In England we've been served demerara sugar, a light brown crystal, with tea and on oatmeal.

Use the light brown for s'mores cupcakes and flourless banana cake; dark brown for balsamic fudge drops and fruitcake; and whatever you've got for glazed fish, barbecue sauce, and muffins. And do keep a slice of bread handy, just in case your carefully stored leftover brown sugar decides to turn to stone.

Irish soda bread

My cooking friend Pauline, a faithful Pantry reader, came to visit last week and brought The Book Club Cook Book, by Judy Gelman and Vicki Levy Krupp. Each suggested book group reading is matched with a recipe. This one accompanied Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, a powerful book about growing up poor in Ireland. Add half a cup of currants, if you wish. Makes 2 loaves.


3 cups all-purpose unbleached flour (we like King Arthur flour)
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 Tbsp baking powder
2 tsp baking soda
4 tsp light brown sugar, mixed with 1 Tbsp water
2-1/4 cups buttermilk


Adjust oven rack to center position and preheat to 325°F. Place flours, baking powder, baking soda and sugar in a large bowl and mix well. Add the buttermilk and stir until a soft dough is formed. Knead the dough in the bowl, then empty onto a countertop and knead a bit longer. If the dough seems wet, use extra whole-wheat flour. Knead until dough comes together.

Divide the dough into two portions and shape each into a round loaf. Press down just to flatten a bit. Place the loaves on an ungreased baking sheet. Sprinkle some additional flour on top of each loaf. Using a sharp knife, make an "x" on the top of each. Allow to rest for 10 minutes, covered with a cloth, then bake for 40 minutes or until the loaves are golden brown and done to taste. Allow to cool, then serve with butter and jam.

[Printer-friendly recipe.]

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This was serendipity - I too had a jar of rock hard brown sugar lingering in my pantry. Your tip worked for us too.

On another note entirely, can we ask whether you have ever ever come across recipes for dandelions?
My son and I ( from London) are blogging our way through the Great Big Veg Challenge, trying out every veg in the alphabet with at least 3 recipes per veg - all recommended by visits to our blog. Freddie, who was a firm veg phobic, is gradually changing his stance. But we are stuck on D - a dearth of D vegetables...any ideas?

Thank you so much for this tip! My brown sugar is ALWAYS going hard and it stays that way in baking. I will always use this tip!

So that's how you do it. I always thought you were supposed to store the bread in with the sugar, and wondered what kept it from getting all moldy. Needless to say, I have several packages of rock hard sugar in my pantry. Learn something new...

Thank you for reminding me. I never could remember exactly what to use to make it soft again! :):) I love brown sugar and the way it seems to attract more moisture in baked goods. Cook's had some kind of explanation for this, as I remember. Whatever...I love it.

I love brown sugar and will use it in place of white any time I think I can get away with it. And Irish soda bread is fantastic!

Charlotte, welcome to The Perfect Pantry. I'd go straight to Alanna's wonderful blog, A Veggie Venture (http://aveggieventuresrecipebox.blogspot.com/2005/03/alphabet-of-vegetables_6295.html) where she has an Alphabet of Vegetables with recipes for everything you can imagine -- including dandelions!

Freya, glad to know I'm not the only one who neglects my sugar jar!

Christine, it's still a miracle to me, but the bread trick really works.

Sher, I'm hoping someone can remember why this works -- but it does!

Tanna, I love Irish soda bread. A friend who grew up in Ireland told me that "real" soda bread never has caraway seeds, so that's the way I make it -- no seeds.

I don't know how many times I've ended up with "the rock." And I really never knew how to differentiate light and dark brown sugar until now!

I'm glad you found a recipe to share in the book. I have another hint for storing brown sugar. Use a square plastic container with a tight fitting lid and cut an old coffee can lid to fit the inside of the container. Put in the sugar and place the cut lid touching the sugar and close with the tight lid. As you use the sugar the inner lid is always in contact with the sugar and air cannot dry it out.

Ingenious! Now, that's a tip that will really come in handy. Thanks, Lydia!

I hear you. I knew that a slice of bread helps to soften the sugar, but don't understand the 'science' behind it:)
And Charlotte - a dandelion 'honey' could be made from the yellow blossoms, or use the leaves for a dandelion salad. I've got a recipe for the latter on my blog, but Alanna has more ideas, I believe..

I don't "know" the science but I can take a guess. The slice of bread is exposed to the dry air in the jar, and slowly loses its water by evaporation. The sugar is hygroscopic (pulls away moisture from the air), so the water from the bread that is now in the air gets pulled into the sugar, making it soft. Meanwhile, the bread got all the water sucked out and is hard, just the way it would be if you left it outside on a very dry day.

I can't count the amount of times I've thrown out rock hard muscavado sugar, light and dark! The soda bread makes me feel all homey not only am I Irish but I live in Limerick too. The recipe looks very like the one my granny makes although hers is measured in handfuls!

The bread, or an apple slice, or a quick microwave zap, returns moisture to the sugar. But to be honest, this middle school science teacher probably has 3 rock hard clumps of sugar in her cabinet right now!

I love using natural cane sugar, you can really see the difference & it's so fragrant!
I've used brown sugar in baking cookies before but because it was hard, it tended to form lumps. I used it in bread baking like you then;)
Oh I should have thought about using a slice of bread like you! I used a sort of brick made of clay to absorb the moisture...

TW, now I'm not quite as embarrassed at the condition of my sugar jar. Seems "the rock" is more common than I'd thought!

Pauline, that is such a clever idea! Thank you for sharing your sugar strategy.

Susan, glad to help!

Pille, dandelion honey sounds wonderful.

Nupur, your explanation absolutely makes sense to me. Thank you.

Laura, I've throw out not only the sugar, but the jar it stuck to! No more, though -- now I keep a slice of bread right in the jar. I love any "recipe" that's measured in handfuls -- I'm sure your grandmother's soda bread is wonderful.

Kim, join the crowd. All of my leftover sugar hardens up, even though I think I'm putting it in an airtight container. Oh well!

Valentina, I've never heard of using a clay brick to soften the sugar. That's a great tip -- thank you for sharing it.

That trick is really useful, Lydia, thank you!
Plus you reminded me I need to buy some brown sugar.
Oh, and I've been meaning to try Irish Soda Bread forever, tks for that too! ;)

That's a really cool tip! Thank you.

I love the tapas spread on ninecooks, but I couldn't comment there.

Cool, I always heard about the apple thing but not the bread. I am so glad to find a good solution other than slamming the sugar against the counter.

I am always amazed in front of the sugar selection at WholeFoods, trying also to translate the equivalent in French. And I ca tell you that my battle is not over. Such a wide topic, thanks for the tips!

And btw, I love the bread trick. I HAVE to leave some sugar get hard to try. So cool!

From what I've heard putting a piece of bread in there and sealing the jar just adds moisture to the enviornment. Because commercial brown sugar is really white sugar coated in molasses it dries out and hardens pretty easily. :)

Patricia, soda bread is something that I used to make in my early bread-baking days, because I was afraid to try yeast breads. It has a wonderful aroma and flavor.

Kelly-Jane, thanks for visiting the Ninecooks web site. We are definitely proud of our tapas "bar" creations!

Callipygia, sometimes slamming something against the counter has other benefits, especially at the end of a long day....

Bea, I really do get confused about sugar terminology. Superfine, confectioners -- many different names.

Ari, thanks -- I know there's a reason this works, and I'm glad to learn that I'm not the only one who can't keep my brown sugar from hardening!

that´s so cool. I must try it. My sugar doesn´t usually go rock hard, jut crumbly hard, but it´s a cool trick to know.
I love brown sugar with yogurt, it´s my all time favourite.

Ours is not to reason why....
(The rest of the quote doesn't really apply - I hope)

Lobstersquad, I've never tried brown sugar with yogurt--but it sounds great!

Katie, how about, "ours just to do or...end up with lumpy sugar!"

That is a great info. I never knew how to keep my brown sugar from turning to rock. Now I know. Thanks!

by the spoonful, thats how much i love brown sugar, yum!

All this makes you wonder if something is added to white sugar so it doesn't harden; or is it the nutrients (the "brown") that they've taken out? I actually have 2 brown sugars waiting for rescue, so I'll try both bread and apple...I've tried microwave: the solution is short term, so only use it if you'll finish what you start. Otherwise it hardens even more! My natural/vitamin store (not much food) accidently got 20 kilos of demerara sugar...try that as a good sub for brown that doesn't harden so much.

Susan, I think it's definitely what's not in the refined white sugar -- molasses -- that keeps it from hardening in the same way as brown sugar. Let us know the result of your experiment with bread and apple. 20 kilos of any kind of sugar sounds like a lot!

HI!!!!! I just came across your blog for the first time, & I'm wow-ed! Your write-ups on each pantry items are very interesting to read, especially because you write so beautifully! Puts my blog-writing to shame...!

Tamami, welcome to The Perfect Pantry! I just stopped by at your blog, too -- wish I lived in London so I could visit your stall at the market.

I try not to eat much sugar (apart from naturally occurring sugar in fruit, etc.), so I'm always subbing Splenda in for both granulated and brown sugar. I knew that molasses was the difference between the two, so I've tried adding a little bit of molasses when I used Splenda to sub for brown sugar, but I usually end up tasting the molasses, not tasting brown sugar. Does anyone have any idea how much molasses to use per cup of white sugar to emulate brown sugar?

Zoe, I'm going to ask the bakers in the pantry to help out here. I suspect the problem is the texture of the Splenda that, perhaps, is not holding its own against the molasses? But remember that molasses is only 3.5 percent in brown sugar, so in only one cup of granulated sugar, the amount of molasses would be tiny.

a damp paper towel put on the hardened brown sugar and put in the micro wave for a short time will also soften brown sugar.

Tamara, thanks for the tip!

Can't let the Splenda question pass (Zoe above). Splenda is not sugar, it is a processed sweetener which has serious questions about its safety. Far better to use natural sugar in moderation, or xylitol (which can be used by diabetics). So molasses is not the 'difference' -- it's a whole other compound.

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