You've found all my candy recipes posts, friends! If you're interested in learning tips about working with sugar and the stages of sugar, read on.
If you'd like to skip straight to the recipes, simply click below.
If you're just here for the recipes, here are a couple of my favorites.
The old fashioned creamy cocoa fudge is near and dear to my heart because it is someone's family recipe.
All they had from their grandmother was the list of ingredients with no idea how to make it. I was honored to give them their family recipe back so all can enjoy it.
Here's my easy recipe for butter mints that doesn't require cooking sugar. It's a good "entry level" candy recipe.
For old fashioned goodness, not much beats my butterscotch hard candy recipe.
And one of my most tested recipe (9 test batches) yields dead on perfect crunchy Butterfinger bars. I'm really proud of this one too!
HOW TO COOK SUGAR
Sugar is such a versatile ingredient. Cream it with butter as a start to most American-style cakes and cupcakes. Add it to bread dough. Toss a small handful into your beef stew or tomato-based pasta sauce.
Sugar has found a place in so many processed foods in part because it’s cheap (hello, subsidies) and also because it tenderizes, moistens, aids in browning and just plain makes things taste from a little to a lot sweet.
Most of us use sugar in our cooking and baking without really thinking about it. Until a recipe calls for sugar to be cooked above the boiling point of water before using. Then, folks tend to seize up.
I get it. Sugar syrup is hot, so it can be a little scary to deal with.
But the process for dealing with it is straightforward, and if you take just a few precautions and arm yourself with a little bit of equipment and knowledge, you can fearlessly approach sugar. Honest.
SUGAR IS A CRYSTAL AND THAT’S HOW IT LIKES IT
When we buy sugar, it arrives in wee crystals. That’s the way sugar likes it. Crystals are very stable structures, so it’s easy to be in crystalline form.
In fact, sugar likes being in its crystalline form so much that it always wants to get back to it.
It doesn’t take much–an errant crystal falling into a vat of boiling sugar–for the rest of the sugar to say, “Oh, yeah! Being a crystal is our favorite!” And then they all revert to crystals again right in your pot.
Still, we are smarter than sugar, and there are some precautions we can take to guard against crystallization (or, more accurately, recrystallization).
HOW TO KEEP SUGAR FROM CRYSTALLIZING IN THE PAN
Sugar finds it easier to recrystallize when it’s a pure mixture–nothing but table sugar (sucrose).
When cooked sugar starts to cool and recrystallize, it hooks up with its friends.
If you add a different kind of sugar to the mix, say some honey or corn syrup, the sucrose molecules mill about looking for their friends who are now harder to find.
So you end up with hopefully no (or minimal) crystallization.
Adding a splash of corn syrup or honey to your sugar mixture gives you some insurance.
You can also achieve the same thing–more than one kind of sugar in the pan–by adding a touch of lemon juice or even apple cider vinegar (if the flavor will work with what you’re making).
You can even use a bit of cream of tartar if you want.
Any acid starts to break down some of the sucrose into its component sugars, fructose and glucose, so now magically instead of one sugar in a pot, you have three.
Still, here’s how I deal with a straight sugar syrup to keep it from recrystallizing in the pan:
- Add just enough water to get the sugar wet and stir thoroughly.
- Bring the sugar/water mixture to a boil and then slap on the lid.
- Let boil for 2 minutes. Steam will build up inside the pan and wash any errant sugar crystals off the sides of the pan and down into the mixture where they can melt in with the rest.
- Remove the lid and check the temperature either with a leave-in candy thermometer or frequently with your instant read until it’s the temperature you are looking for. Caveat: when using an instant read thermometer, make sure you wash the probe off completely between each reading or you may end up with exactly what we’re trying to avoid: crystallization.
- Don’t stir the sugar syrup at all, but you can swirl the pan a bit. Agitation can increase the likelihood of crystallization.
- If you’re cooking the sugar until it caramelizes, you can stir gently once it gets to be the color of honey.
Whether you are cooking to the thread stage or making caramel, that sugar will be hot, so make sure to have a bowl of ice water nearby.
If you end up with some sugar syrup on your finger or hand, immediately submerge your hand in the cold water.
What’s the first thing many of us do when we burn our finger?
Yup, we put it in our mouth.
If you put your burned finger with 300F sugar syrup clinging to it in your mouth, you will end up with a burned finger and a burned mouth.
WHAT ABOUT USING A PASTRY BRUSH DIPPED IN WATER?
Almost all the rules out there say to brush the sides of the pan with a wet brush to get rid of any crystals on the side of the pan, but I don’t like this method because it slows down the process.
Introducing more water increases the cooking time since the whole point of this endeavor is to cook off a certain amount of water.
Another issue: you can accidentally drag some of the bristles through your syrup and end up with crystallization anyway. Thanks a lot, you stupid brush.
Just use the pan lid and let condensation do all the work. Much less futzing about, and one less Item to wash.
WHAT IN THE HECK IS SOFT BALL STAGE AND WHY DO I CARE?
I’m sure you’ve all read instructions, especially in older cookbooks, to cook the sugar to the soft ball or soft crack or thread stage before performing another step in the recipe. What’s that all about?
Those stages are all descriptive names for how a sugar syrup will behave when dropped into ice water.
If it forms a ball that you can smoosh easily between your fingers, you’re at soft ball stage.
If it forms a ball that is a bit harder to smoosh, you’re at hard ball stage.
Soft crack? That’s when the blob of sugar is a bit bendy before cracking in two. (Astro-Pops are cooked to the soft crack stage.)
Hard crack means that the blob won’t bend at all. It will just snap in two like a lollipop.
What Do Those Terms Describe?
What the stage descriptors are describing is the concentration of sugar in a solution.
The higher the concentration of sugar when finished, the harder the sugar will set up when cooled down.
What we’re doing when we cook sugar is boiling off water–any water that you may have added to the mixture, but also the water in the sugar itself.
After all, the chemical composition of sucrose is C12H22O11. And that means there’s water bound up in that there sugar!
God love our grandmothers who used a glass of ice water to test their sugar, but I don’t trust myself to work quickly enough for that method to be a viable one.
I recommend you use a candy thermometer.
Because each stage of sugar equates to a narrow range of temperatures, and the temperature of sugar can rise pretty quickly, your readings will be more accurate with a thermometer that is very responsive or with one that you just leave in the mixture.
Low End of the Temperature Range of Each Sugar Stage
There are many, many guides out there that explain all the stages of sugar, so I am just going to link to one I find very useful.
For the shorthand version and for ease of memorizing (if you want to), here are the stages and the lowest corresponding temperature in the range from Exploratorium.edu.
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I also have a downloadable stages of sugar chart you may find helpful. It displays the range for each of the stages.
ARE THERE EVER TIMES WHEN YOU WANT TO ENCOURAGE SUGAR CRYSTALLIZATION?
The short answer to that question is yes.
Being able to control the size of the sugar crystals that form once a sugar syrup cools back down makes the difference between grainy fudge or pralines and creamy fudge and pralines.
You also really want super big crystals to form when you make rock candy. If you’d like an in-depth discussion of how to encourage crystallization, just let me know.
I'm also available to answer questions, so just shoot me an email!