Bake

Yes, There's a Right Way to Measure Brown Sugar

Once and for all, how packed is a cup of "packed" brown sugar?

October 11, 2018
Photo by James Ransom

Measuring a cup of brown sugar makes me crazy. We’re supposed to “pack” the cup. But how hard?

Sometimes a recipe will call for “1 cup brown sugar, packed” or “1 cup packed brown sugar.” Sometimes “firmly packed” or even “lightly” or “gently packed” is specified. Yikes! I’ve seen cooks lean their entire weight into the cup of sugar. You could get 10 ounces of sugar into a cup that way. Others pat the sugar in daintily. Their cup of sugar might weigh only 5 or 6 ounces.

Do I exaggerate? Sure, but I’m trying to make a point here. What cup is the right cup? The problem is compounded if you want to swap “regular” brown sugar for a more flavorful and interesting type of brown sugar, like grated or granulated jaggery or piloncillo, or light or dark muscovado sugar. These yummy choices vary in softness and moisture and may pack into a cup quite differently than commonplace name brand brown sugars.

I’m not saying that a little more or less brown sugar will do critical harm to a recipe—usually it won’t—but a lot more or less sugar than was intended could wreck the structure of a cake or change the spread of a cookie, or at least make them too sweet or not quite sweet enough. When I follow a recipe, I like to know how much sugar was intended; when I create a recipe, I want to communicate an accurate measure to my readers.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“It would be so nice! Then we wouldn't even have to waste time discussing how gently or hard to pack that cup of brown sugar, and other things would be more carefree as well! ”
— Alice M.
Comment

Weight is the simplest way to communicate the amount of brown sugar (and of course everything else) required. It takes away the uncertainty of how firmly to pack the sugar and how to deal with different types of brown sugar.

Lest you think I’m stepping on your freedom or creativity, a precise measure in a recipe doesn’t stop anyone from using more or less if they so desire—I just want the original intention to be clear. There’s a bonus if you are an inveterate recipe tinkerer, because weight is also the easiest way to keep track of your variations and experiments. If you know that you used 200 grams of sugar the first time you made the recipe, you can easily make it a little sweeter or less sweet next time by increasing or decreasing the sugar by 5 or 10 or 15 or any percent to make a recipe to your taste. (Whether or not your variation is successful, you’ll at least know exactly how much sugar you used).

So then, how much should a packed, lightly packed, or firmly packed cup of brown sugar weigh? In addition to my own recipes, I looked at those from Rose Levy Berenbaum, Stella Parks, and America’s Test Kitchen. I would love to say we all agree, but at least we don’t disagree by much.

  • In my kitchen and in America’s Test Kitchen, a “packed” cup of brown sugar is 7 ounces/200 grams. I occasionally ask for a lightly packed cup, which weighs 6 1/2 ounces/185 grams.
  • Stella’s packed cup is a little heavier, at 8 ounces/225 grams.
  • Rose specifically calls for "firmly packed” cups, and her firmly packed cup of light brown sugar weighs 7.5 ounces/216 grams while her firmly packed cup of dark brown sugar weighs 8.5 ounces/240 grams per cup.

It makes sense that a firmly packed cup weighs more than a packed cup—and the firmer you pack the more discrepancy you will get between light and dark brown sugars because the dark sugars are moister and will pack more tightly.

Don’t panic. When using recipes from trusted sources who give both weight and volume, just use their weights and ignore the cups and adjectives. For recipes that don’t give weights, I’d use Rose’s weights when firmly packed cups are called for, and use my 7 or Stella’s 8 ounces per cup when packed cups are called for. Life is not perfect, but weighing brown sugar makes it just a little less stressful.

Now that we are clear on all measuring, here’s the information that you probably came to this post for in the first place: how to prevent lovely soft brown sugar from becoming hard lumpy brown sugar and what to do if that boat has already sailed.

Brown sugar will remain soft and moist if you store it in an airtight container or the zipper locked plastic bag it came in. It should always be lump free before it is added to a batter or dough—as lumps are unlikely to smooth out in the course of mixing. And soft lumps can be pinched with your fingers or mashed with a fork.


How to Save Hard, Dry Brown Sugar

If your brown sugar is hard and dry or laced with hard lumps, sprinkle with a little water, put in a tightly covered oven proof container (or wrap it in foil) and put in a 250-degree oven for a few minutes to rehydrate and soften. Or, put in a covered microwavable container and microwave on low, or defrost for a few seconds until warm and soft. Let it cool before using in a recipe, such as this one.

Have you ever ended up with a hard lump of unusable brown sugar? How do you revive it back to life?

4 Comments

Ann W. November 9, 2018
When I saw the headline of this article I clicked on it for the sole purpose of exhorting all readers to weigh their sugar! Great to see you've already covered it. I'm American but live in the UK where all baking recipes are expressed in weights not volumes, and I'm so much more confident now as a baker than I used to be. I applaud all efforts to persuade Americans to switch to weighing their ingredients and I'm so happy to see that lots of quality US baking websites and blogs are moving in this direction.
 
Bronya S. October 15, 2018
In the U.K. we measure everything by weighing. Baking has science behind it and too much or too less sugar will change the consistency and caramelisation. Why make it guess work? I’d always invest in a decent set of kitchen scales (less to wash up too).
 
Paul October 11, 2018
The entire point of "packing" brown sugar is that it tends to clump and thus leaves spaces where white sugar would consistently fill the cup so the emphasis is on consistency, not effort, filling the cup not gaming the measurement. I hate to say how many decades I've been baking, where sugars are almost always in one or two cup measurements, and the corporate box or the artisanal bag is listed at one pound, and how many times I used my scale to measure a partial bag from which I remembered removing one cup and discovered that the remaining sugar was nearly always 8 ounces... and it still took almost two years with a scale to finally notice---hey, one cup is 8 ounces.<br /><br />But wouldn't it be nice if we could get rid of all volume measurements to begin with? I so much prefer weighing out the ingredients, yet most American recipes still come by volume. It's like our smartphones, nobody remembers phone numbers any more---yet evocative area codes are disappearing under the onslaught of new phones because we're running out of 7 digit phone numbers even though we could easily go to 8 or 9 as we no longer have to remember them at any length, and keep our 415s and 212s, and ditch the measuring cups.
 
Author Comment
Alice M. November 1, 2018
It would be so nice! Then we wouldn't even have to waste time discussing how gently or hard to pack that cup of brown sugar, and other things would be more carefree as well!