What happens if sugar gets wet?

Sugar is a common ingredient used extensively in cooking and baking. It adds sweetness to foods and helps provide structure in baking. But what happens if this dry, granulated sugar gets wet? Here are some common questions and answers:

Does wet sugar dissolve? Yes, sugar will begin to dissolve when it comes into contact with a liquid. The water molecules interact with the sucrose molecules in the sugar, breaking the crystalline structure apart.

Can you use wet sugar? Yes, you can still use sugar that has gotten a bit damp or wet. It may be slightly clumped together, but it will still provide sweetness.

Is wet sugar bad? Wet sugar is not necessarily bad, but it can change the texture and functionality in recipes. Dissolved sugar won’t provide the same bulk or crisp texture when baked. Extremely wet sugar may grow mold over time.

What causes sugar to get wet? There are a few common ways sugar can become wet: humidity/moisture in the air, getting spilled on, or contact with juices from fruit. Store sugar in a sealed container to prevent absorbing excess moisture.

How can you dry wet sugar? Spread damp sugar out on a baking sheet and allow to air dry, stirring periodically. Or, place lumps in a food processor to break up clumps. Use dried sugar promptly before it re-hardens.

What Is Sugar?

Sugar is a soluble carbohydrate that is naturally present in many foods and is added to countless others in the standard American diet. The most common type of sugar is the disaccharide sucrose, which is composed of one glucose molecule bonded to one fructose molecule.

Table sugar (sucrose) comes from sugar beets or sugarcane plants. The manufacturing process involves extracting and purifying the sucrose from the plants. Granulated white sugar has a crystalline structure which makes it dry, free-flowing, and allows it to dissolve easily.

Other common types of sugars include:

  • Fructose – found naturally in fruits
  • Glucose – found in plants, less sweet than sucrose
  • Lactose – found in dairy products
  • Maltose – found in grains

These are all carbohydrates that are used by the body for energy. The simplest sugars – glucose and fructose – are called monosaccharides. Disaccharides like sucrose and lactose are made up of two monosaccharides bonded together.

Sugar as an Ingredient

Table sugar and other sweeteners are very commonly used as ingredients in cooking and baking. The primary purposes of sugar in recipes include:

  • Sweetening – Sugar provides a sweet flavor which enhances the taste of foods.
  • Texture – Sugar helps provide a smooth, uniform texture in products like candy.
  • Moisture retention – Sugar attracts and retains moisture in baked goods.
  • Browning – Caramelization of sugar contributes to desirable browning during baking and frying.
  • Preservation – Sugar acts as a preservative by binding water molecules.
  • Leavening agent – When blended with baking soda, sugar helps doughs rise.
  • Fermentation – Sugar provides food for yeast in bread making.

As you can see, sugar takes on many important roles beyond just making things sweet!

What Happens When Sugar Gets Wet?

Granulated sugar has a dry, free-flowing texture because of its crystalline structure. The individual sucrose molecules are arranged in a rigid pattern that does not readily absorb ambient moisture. However, when sugar comes into direct contact with a liquid, the crystalline structure begins to break down as the water penetrates the sugar crystals.

Dissolving Process

When water molecules come in contact with table sugar, they are attracted to the sucrose molecules and interact with the oxygen and hydrogen atoms. The water molecules effectively wedge themselves between individual sucrose molecules, breaking the rigid bonds that give sugar its crystalline structure.

Once enough water has infiltrated the crystalline lattice, the sugar crystals completely dissociate into a liquid sugar solution. The sucrose molecules are still present, just completely surrounded by water molecules.

Absorption Process

Sugar can also absorb ambient moisture from the air without fully dissolving. This is because tiny amounts of water vapor can condense on the surface of sugar crystals in humid conditions.

The moisture is enough to make the sugar damp or clumpy, but not wet enough for full dissolution. The absorption of water makes the sugar grains stick together through capillary action.

Table sugar is considered hygroscopic – meaning it readily absorbs water molecules from its surroundings. Proper storage is important to keep it dry and free-flowing.

What Are the Effects of Wet Sugar?

Once table sugar gets wet, its properties begin to change:

  • Clumping – Sugar absorbs moisture and clumps together in small clumps or larger solid masses.
  • Crystal breakdown – The rigid crystalline structure is compromised as sugar dissolves.
  • Reduced shelf life – Wet sugar is more prone to growth of yeast, mold and bacteria over time.
  • Texture changes – Dissolving sugar has a syrupy texture rather than crystalline crunch.
  • Impaired function – Sugar may not perform the same role in recipes once wet.

The severity of these effects depends on the amount of moisture sugar has absorbed or dissolved in. A few clumps or damp powder is not as big an issue as completely soaked, liquefied sugar.


One of the first signs moisture has been absorbed by sugar is small clumps and clusters forming, where the grains stick together. This occurs as the sugar draws in ambient water vapor from humid air. The individual grains may still feel dry, but capillary forces cause them to clump together as the moisture acts like a glue.

Sugar that has been exposed to steam, excessive moisture in a container, or direct contact with liquids may form much larger hardened clumps. These solid masses can be difficult to break apart to regain a free-flowing powder.

Loss of Crystalline Structure

The crystalline structure gives table sugar its desirable properties in cooking and baking. Intact sugar crystals help provide bulk and texture in recipes. But when sugar is dissolved in significant amounts of liquid, the rigid crystalline bonds are broken down as the sucrose molecules are hydrated.

Wet sugar takes on a thick, syrupy consistency rather than dry and crystalline. Even after drying, the sugar may recrystallize in a different form with larger grain size.

Microbial Growth

Food safety is a concern with sugar that has gotten excessively wet. The higher moisture content creates an environment where microbes can thrive. Yeasts, molds and bacteria require a certain level of moisture in order to grow and reproduce.

Prolonged storage of damp or wet sugar can lead to visible mold growth. Consuming moldy sugar could cause illness, so it’s best to discard overly wet sugar. Using freshly dried sugar is safest.

Texture Changes

The texture of crystalline sugar helps provide desirable properties to recipes like cookies, cakes, and candies. Completely smooth dissolution changes the mouthfeel from crunchy grains to thick syrup. Baked goods may end up more dense rather than light and crisp.

The texture changes can alter the structure, moisture levels, leavening, and caramelization effects during cooking. While wet sugar can still be used in some applications, the ideal free-flowing granules are best for most recipes.

Loss of Functionality

Some of sugars’ roles, like adding bulk structure and caramelization, are diminished when the sugar is wet. The changed crystalline structure means moisture levels and reactions with other ingredients while cooking and baking may be affected.

Wet sugar will still provide basic sweetness to a dish. However, for optimal results in recipes, dry granulated sugar is best. The moisture content should be minimized so the sugar can take on all its intended roles.

What Causes Sugar to Become Wet?

There are a few common ways table sugar can come into contact with moisture and become wet:

1. Humidity and Moisture in the Air

Granulated sugar readily absorbs water vapor from humid air. Storage containers may allow atmospheric moisture to be absorbed over time if not properly sealed. Cupboards, pantries, or canisters that are not airtight expose sugar to humidity.

Wet, rainy, or otherwise moist weather conditions can increase the ambient moisture sugar is exposed to. Simple condensation of water vapor is enough for sugar to clump together weakly.

2. Direct Contact with Liquids

Once sugar actually makes contact with water or other liquids, the moisture is readily absorbed through capillary action. Even small amounts of liquid splashed on sugar can spread and lead to clumping. Sugar spilled near sinks or liquids is more likely to become wet.

Using measuring cups and tools that contain remnants of milk, juices, eggs, etc. can transfer over moisture when used to measure dry sugar. Any time sugar meets liquid, moisture is readily transferred.

3. Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits, vegetables, and even fresh produce bags contain moisture that can be passed to sugar. Produce may sweat or weep small amounts of water that dampen any sugar it touches. Cutting produce on the same surface as dry ingredients can transfer over moisture.

Wet or dewy fruits can leave enough moisture behind on countertops, cutting boards, or in containers to partially dissolve sugar. Produce juices contain sugars as well, further encouraging dissolution.

4. Steam and High Moisture Cooking

Exposing sugar to steam or high moisture while cooking is an easy way for it to become wet. Boiling, simmering, or baking goods at length allows moisture in the air to condense on particles. Close proximity to liquids causes absorption.

Improperly sealed bags, containers, or packaging may allow steam or moisture to permeate sugar while cooking. Any type of hot, moist environment puts dry sugar at risk of clumping or absorbing excess moisture.

How to Dry Out Wet Sugar

If your sugar has gotten mildly damp or started clumping from humidity, don’t discard it just yet! There are a few methods that can effectively dry out mildly wet sugar:

Spread Out on a Baking Sheet

A thin layer of sugar spread across a baking sheet allows moisture to easily evaporate. Break up any clumps and spread sugar evenly across the pan. Allow to sit out uncovered at room temperature, stirring periodically.

The increased surface area and air circulation helps moisture dissipate. Just a few hours should be enough to dry mildly damp sugar.

Bake at Low Temperature

For quicker drying, place the baking sheet of sugar into a 200°F oven for 15-30 minutes. Keep sugar spread in an even thin layer. The low heat helps drive off moisture without melting the sugar.

Stir halfway through and continue baking until the sugar flows freely. Remove from oven and allow to cool before using in recipes or transferring to an airtight container.

Break Up Lumps

Larger solid clumps of sugar can be broken up using a food processor. Place chunks in the bowl and pulse to chop and break apart chunks into smaller grains.

You can also place sugar lumps in a resealable plastic bag and crush using a heavy pan or rolling pin. Breaking up clumps increases surface area.

Use Immediately

For quickest results, use freshly dried sugar right away. Moisture will be reabsorbed from the air over time. Drying mildly damp sugar and baking immediately after yields best results.

You can dry more severely wet sugar this way, but it may recrystallize with a larger grain size that doesn’t perform the exact same way in recipes. Light moisture absorption is easiest to reverse.

Proper Sugar Storage

Storing sugar correctly helps prevent moisture absorption in the first place:

  • Use airtight containers – Plastic, glass, or metal with an airtight seal prevents humidity from getting in.
  • Keep away from moisture and steam – Avoid placing sugar near sinks or oven fronts where it can absorb condensation.
  • Cool, dark place – Storing sugar in a pantry or cupboard away from heat minimizes moisture.
  • Keep dry tools – Ensure measuring cups/spoons are dry before using for sugar.
  • Clean up spills – Immediately wipe up any spilled liquids near sugar.
  • Separate from fresh produce – Store fruits and vegetables separately to avoid transfer of moisture.

Following proper storage methods lessens the chances of sugar absorbing excess moisture from the surrounding environment.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you use damp or wet sugar in recipes?

Yes, damp or wet sugar can still be used in most recipes. It will still provide sweetness and some bulk. However, the texture and behavior of the sugar will be affected, so results may not be the same as when using dry sugar.

Should you bake wet sugar to dry it out?

Baking damp sugar at around 200°F for 15-30 minutes can help drive off some moisture, especially if spread thinly on a baking sheet. However, baking cannot reverse the process once sugar is completely dissolved.

Does wet sugar expire faster?

Yes, wet or damp sugar has a shorter shelf life compared to dry sugar. The moisture provides an environment conducive to microbial growth. Mold can begin growing after a few weeks in damp conditions.

Can melted sugar be re-hardened?

Once table sugar is completely dissolved into a liquid, it cannot return to its original dry, crystalline form. As it re-crystallizes, the molecules form a larger crystal size. It will harden into sugar lumps instead of free-flowing powder.

Is it possible to get moisture out of a bag of sugar without opening it?

Unfortunately, there is no effective way to remove moisture from a bag of clumpy sugar without opening it. Allowing air exposure is necessary for the moisture to evaporate. Kneading or microwaving a sealed bag will not dry the sugar inside.

The Bottom Line

Granulated sugar readily absorbs moisture from the environment, resulting in clumping and eventual crystal breakdown. Mild absorption can often be reversed by thoroughly drying the sugar. Completely wet sugar fundamentally changes in its behavior.

While damp sugar can be used with somewhat altered results, proper storage is key to maintaining the free-flowing crystalline structure that makes it such a versatile ingredient. With care to limit moisture, you can ensure sugar stays dry and ready to sweeten your recipes.

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