People who have successfully made candy are an enigma. They hold secrets of the universe: Anyone who can make lollipops in any way more complicated than going out and purchasing lollipops is definitely privy to the inner workings of life.
Prepare yourself, reader – it’s time for you to join the ranks of the candy-making literate. With the secrets of confection creation laid bare before you, nothing can stop you from making caramels, marshmallows, toffees and jawbreakers. Temperature will be a mystery no longer. Consider this your initiation:
Demystifying the Stages
The different stages of heating sugar all define how your final mixture will come out. You can figure out which stage your mixture is in by scooping up a spoonful and dripping it into ice water. Put simply, whatever form your heated mixture takes when plunged into the water is going to be the form it takes when it’s cooled slowly. So, if the drippings in your water are malleable and squishy, the sugar will make a gooey, chewy candy. If they’re brittle and hard, it will make a hard candy. Here’s a more detailed breakdown of how each stage looks after the water test:
Thread: When dripped into ice water, it holds its stringy shape, but will not form into a ball when you attempt to squish it together.
Soft-Ball: The mixture will collect on the bottom of the container, and you can peel it up and form it into a ball with your fingers. The ball will not hold its shape, however, when left to sit on your hand.
Firm-Ball: Like soft-ball, but it won’t flatten in your hand. You can easily squish and mold it with pressure.
Hard-Ball: Thick and less malleable than its squishier relatives, mixtures at the hard-ball stage will retain their shape well. However, they can still be squished with harder pressure.
Soft-Crack: When you drop this mixture into water, it forms separate threads. These threads will bend before they break.
Hard-Crack: Note: At this stage, the mixture takes a while to cool. Give it time in the ice water, because you will burn yourself if you try to check it too early. Like at the soft-crack stage, hard-crack mixtures will form separate threads in water, however, these threads are brittle and break when bent.
Caramelized: If you continue cooking the sugar past the hard-crack stage, it will become a clear liquid and then a brown liquid. Once you’ve reached a golden-brown color, you’ve made caramelized sugar. You can use this to decorate desserts, make caramel corn, or mix with butter to make caramel sauce.
Temperatures: Straight and Simple
|Thread||215° – 235°||Syrups, some icings|
|Fudge, fondant, buttercreams|
|Firm-Ball||240° – 250°||Caramel|
|Hard-Ball||250° – 270°||Marshmallows, gummies, nougat|
|Soft-Crack||270° – 290°||Taffy, butterscotch|
|Hard-Crack||300° – 310°||Lollipops, hard candy, brittles|
|Clear-Liquid||320°||N/A – on the way to caramelization|
|Caramelized sugar, great addition to many desserts|
|A big mess and a bad odor|
Experimentation is Key
Here’s the real secret: Candy making takes practice. It’s a science, which means you’ll need to heat your mixtures to very specific temperatures to achieve the desired result. As you may have noticed, however, most of those categories don’t have very specific temperatures – they have ranges. The exact right heat for your candy is going to depend on everything from your sugar-to-water ratio to the evenness with which your pan heats.
Most candy recipes are going to include an exact temperature, and odds are good that’s going to work perfectly well. However, you might find that you need to tweak the recipe a little bit, or heat your mixture a little more or a little less to get it just right. That’s fine! Science calls for experimentation. However, focus on making small adjustments, and only change one thing each time, so you know exactly what works and what doesn’t.
- Crystallization will destroy your candy, so keep an eye out for any forming crystals. Avoid stirring your mixture once it’s boiling, and use a pastry brush dipped in warm water to dissolve any crystals that form around the side of your pan.
- Don’t let your candy thermometer rest on the bottom of the pan – this will get hotter than the mixture itself and will skew your results.
- Candy needs to be taken off of the heat as soon as it reaches the desired temperature. Even a little bit more time warming up can upset the mixture’s state.
- Don’t multitask while making candy – at least while you’re getting started, the task demands your full attention.
- Prepare all of your ingredients before you start cooking, so you don’t have to measure while you work.
- Humidity can make the candy break down before it’s supposed to – make candy in a dehumidified room or on a dry day.
- If you get any hot sugar on your hand, run it under cool – not cold – water. Cold water and ice will restrict blood flow and prevent healing.
- Don’t use ingredient substitutions unless they’re specifically tailored to the recipe. Everything must be exact for successful candy making, and each ingredient serves a specific purpose.