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. The 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 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 Thermapen until it’s the temperature you are looking for. Caveat: when using a Thermapen, 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.
**Safety First: 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 ice 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. 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 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. Nope. 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.
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.
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.
Stages of Sugar In Action: Gluten-Free Chocolate Orange Truffle Cake
At the first restaurant I worked in, a version of Chocolate Truffle Cake was always on the menu. The batter stayed the same, but the garnishes changed: sometimes we served it with coconut “confit,” other times we baked a wee scoop of dulce de leche inside each cake or maybe a little frozen puck of raspberry jam. Nobody ever told me why the cake was called truffle cake, but I choose to believe it’s because when chilled, the batter is pretty much the consistency of ganache truffle centers. We would make a huge vat of batter, refrigerate it and then use an ice cream scoop to scoop it into molds for baking.
I have played around with the idea of a truffle cake for awhile and have come up with my own version and added some of my favorite flavors to the batter itself rather than introducing them in the form of garnishes. The resulting cake is rich, decadent and full of flavor and I’m calling it exactly what it is: Gluten-Free Chocolate Orange Truffle Cake. There is no real crumb to speak of because there’s no flour of any kind in the batter. Serve it cold for a fudgy texture or heat it up a bit for a warm pudding-like texture that will make you weak in the knees. Never has “you can’t judge a book by its cover” been a more apt statement. Take one bite of this plain–even boring-looking–cake, and you will not want to stop eating.
In this cake, you cook the sugar to the threshold between the firm ball and hard ball stages, or 248F. You may ask why? What purpose could this possibly serve? For one thing, cooking the sugar gets rid of all the crystals so when you do introduce the sugar, the batter ends up being fluid and completely smooth. This helps to create the dense texture we want. Another reason to cook the sugar is so the batter will set up to the proper consistency in the fridge. Cook it too high, and the batter will be too firm and hard to scoop. Cooking the sugar also “pre-cooks” your eggs. Once eggs are cooked, they don’t recook. When you bake a batter with raw eggs in it, the eggs assist in crumb formation and rise–you may even see your cheesecake rise thanks to the leavening power of eggs. Think of a soufflé, too. That’s an extreme case of course, but soufflés rise to great heights thanks to the power of whipped egg whites. Even when you don’t whip your eggs or whites, they still aid in rising, and that’s not what we want in this cake. We just want the cake to bake with minimal rise and therefore minimal crumb. I kept an eye on the cake as it baked, and it rose less than 1/4″.
If my reasoning sounds a bit hinky to you, let me tell you the story of The Crème Brûlée That Refused To Set: Once upon a time, a baker who shall remain nameless made some crème brûlée batter. She tempered the cream/sugar into the egg yolks and then cooked the whole thing on the stove until it thickened. Then she chilled it and left it for the next day. When the next day arrived, the baker poured the mixture into her ramekins, placed them in a water bath in a low oven and baked them. And baked them. And baked them. And baked them some more. They never set up–all that happened was that an Unappealing skin formed on the tops. And this is why: since she cooked the eggs on the stove to the point where they thickened the batter, they were done thickening. They had nothing left to give and couldn’t set up properly in the oven as a still custard because they already gave their all as a stirred custard. What the baker girl was doing was trying to bake a crème Anglaise into a crème brûlée. And it did not work at all. Lesson learned. (When you make crème brûlée batter, just temper some of the hot cream into the yolks and then stir the yolks back in off the heat. That’s it. All that’s left to do is pour in molds and bake in a water bath.)
There really are very few times when you will need to cook a sugar syrup to make a cake, but this is one of those times. And you will want to make this cake. Trust me. I love this unassuming-looking cake so much, I’m entering in the Dixie Crystals Chocolate Dessert Recipe Contest. Dixie Crystals is one of the sponsors for The Food and Wine Conference taking place in Orlando, FL in July of this year. Last year, I was thrilled and honored that my Bittersweet Balsamic Strawberry Swirl Brownies took home the Grand Prize. I am hoping that, with this Orange Chocolate Truffle Cake that lightning will strike twice!
This year, I’m a brand ambassador for the Food and Wine Conference, and I am looking forward to being paired up with one of our amazing sponsoring brands like Dixie Crystals. If you’re a food blogger and are interested in attending a fun and educational conference in a beautiful venue, I recommend this conference. The opportunities for growth as a blogger and business person along with the chance to hang out with friends you may never have met in person before and network with representatives for some of your favorite brands are just too good to pass up. Use code FWC15fieldJ to get $50 off the cost of your three day ticket to the conference.
Okay, back to the cake. Ready?
- 12 oz bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
- 8 oz unsalted butter
- zest of one orange
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 7 oz (1 cup) Dixie Crystals sugar
- 2-3 Tablespoons water, (enough to moisten all the sugar)
- 2 Tablespoons instant coffee, (you can use instant espresso, but you may have to cut back on the amount)
- 1 Tablespoon orange liqueur
- 5 large eggs
- Chop the chocolate fairly finely (you can also use "buttons" or high quality chocolate chips). Place it in the mixer bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.
- Place the butter in a small saucepan and zest an orange into the pan. Melt the butter over medium heat until almost completely melted. Swirl the pan to melt the butter completely.
- Pour the warm butter onto the chocolate in the bowl. Add the salt and put the mixer on low speed.
- Stir the sugar and water together in a heavy-bottomed sauce pan until the sugar is evenly wet. Bring the sugar and water to a boil over medium heat. Slap the lid on and let boil for a minute or two to wash the sugar crystals off the sides of the pan.
- Remove the lid and let the sugar cook until it reaches 248F. You can use a candy thermometer that stays in the pan or use your Thermapen to frequently check the temperature.
- When the sugar has reached temperature, immediately pour it into your mixer bowl (still on low speed). Mix for a few seconds then add the instant coffee and orange liqueur.
- Mix another couple of minutes and then add the eggs all at once. Mix until well combined, smooth and glossy, scraping the bowl as necessary.
- Mix until the mixture has cooled to room temperature.
- At this point, you can put it in a container in the fridge to bake sometime over the next week or so. You can also just keep right on going.
- Preheat the oven to 350F.
- Line the bottom and sides of a 9" spring form pan with non-stick foil (you can use parchment, but do spray it with pan spray.
- Pour all the batter into the pan and bake in the center of the oven until the entire cake is just slightly puffed. The puffing will start around the edges, and the center will be somewhat sunken looking. Keep baking until the center rises to the same height as the edges, about 40-50 minutes, d.epending on your oven and if you're baking from refrigerated or from room temperature (It will take somewhat longer if you're starting with refrigerated batter.)
- Remove the cake to a rack to cool to warm.
- Remove the sides of the spring form pan. Carefully work a large spatula under the foil on the bottom and slide the cake off the base of the pan and just onto the rack.
- Serve slightly warm topped with the garnishes of your choice.
- Refrigerate leftover cake and let come to room temperature before serving. You can also warm it up slightly in the microwave or in a low oven. The texture of this cake is lovely either way, but it is particularly dreamy when room temperature or warmer.
Would you just look at that?! You will love it. I promise. Go make one now. Go!
Thanks for taking the time to read today. I hope you learned a bit about working with sugar syrups, about the Food and Wine Conference, and that you are inspired to make some of this fantastic cake.
Have a lovely day.
Oh, if you have any questions you’d like me to address for What Can I Do For You Wednesday or if you have a topic you’d like me to cover for Fundamental Fridays, please let me know by filling out this short questionnaire.