An air-tight container is a must, but a few tricks can help crack apart stubborn chunks.

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So you wanted to start baking, but when you grabbed the brown sugar it was hard as a rock. You can thank molasses, in part, for that. Once brown sugar is exposed to air, that thin coating of molasses evaporates and the sugar crystals stick together and turn hard.

Once a bag of brown sugar is opened, it is important to seal shut the plastic packaging (use a chip clip) and store it in an air-tight container. But in case it’s too late, rest assured: There are several ways to soften hardened brown sugar.

One of the most popular ways is to soften it up in the microwave. To soften it, follow this method from www.dominosugar.com: Place about 1/2 pound of the hardened brown sugar in a microwave-safe bowl. Cover sugar with two pieces of wet (but not dripping) white paper towel. Tightly cover bowl with plastic wrap. Heat in microwave on high for 11/2-2 minutes. Remove from the microwave and use a fork to stir and break up the sugar. (Caution: the sugar will be hot.) Domino’s recommends microwaving only the amount of sugar you need because it will harden as it cools.

Here are other ways to soften brown sugar:

You can place brown sugar clumps in a paper bag and add a couple of apple wedges or a slice of bread. Close the bag tightly and leave for one to two days.

Take clumps of hardened brown sugar and run it across a grater to break it up.

Use a gadget called a Brown Sugar Bear, which is made of clay. Placing the Brown Sugar Bear in with the brown sugar will help keep it soft for 3 to 6 months depending on the climate. You can also use the Brown Sugar Bear to keep cookies and raisins soft.

Reader Linda Nagle reminded me of this one: Place 3 to 4 medium marshmallows in the bag.

The difference between light and dark brown sugar is that the dark has twice as much molasses. Dark brown sugar, of course, in turn has a stronger molasses flavor. In recipes, light and dark brown sugar are interchangeable, unless specified.

Both white sugar and packed brown sugar have about the same nutritional values: 1 teaspoon has 4 to 4.5 grams of carbohydrates and 16-17 calories.

Finally, don’t confuse brown sugar with sugar labeled “raw” or “turbinado.” Although slightly blondish in color and similar in flavor to brown sugar, raw sugar is “the residue left after sugarcane has been processed to remove the molasses and refine the sugar crystals,” according to the “Food Lover’s Companion” by Sharon Tyler Herbst (Barron’s, $12.95). Turbinado sugar is sugar that’s been steam-cleaned and is more the color of light brown sugar.

Ultimate Heart Smart Chocolate Chip Cookies

Makes: 24

Preparation time: 15 minutes

Total time: 35 minutes

Parchment paper or nonstick cooking spray

1/4 cup trans fat-free margarine

1/4 cup (2 ounces) reduced-fat cream cheese

3/4 cup packed brown sugar

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1 egg

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

13/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/8 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup miniature chocolate chips

1/2 cup walnuts, chopped

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper or coat with cooking spray; set aside.

In a medium bowl, beat together margarine, cream cheese, brown sugar, granulated sugar, egg and vanilla. In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking soda and salt and stir into sugar mixture. Stir in chocolate chips and walnuts.

Drop by rounded tablespoon onto prepared baking sheet. Bake 10 to 12 minutes, or until edges begin to brown. Cool on wire rack.

Created by Kelli Gibbs, dietetic intern, for Heart Smart and tested by Susan Selasky for the Free Press Test Kitchen.

Nutrition info: 145 calories (31 percent from fat), 5 g fat (2 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat), 24 g carbohydrates, 2 g protein, 91 mg sodium, 10 mg cholesterol, 14 mg calcium, 1 g fiber. Food exchanges: 11/2 starch, 1 fat.

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