Candy - Sugar Cooking Techniques

Candy making
 begins when the sugar solution, made from crystalline (table) sugar (sucrose), sometimes along with its close relative such as glucose or corn syrup (invert sugars), is dissolved in water, called the WET METHOD. Sugar can also be cooked on its own, called the DRY METHOD. Either type is then boiled or cooked to a codified temperature and density in order to caramelize. During the process, bear in mind that the various degrees of heat produce differing results in the syrup or candies, and that the real trick in candy making is to remove the heat at the exact moment when the desired result is reached.

Depending upon the recipe, melting the sugar can happen in one of three different ways:
The two classic methods, being wet or dry cooked on the stovetop; or, a third modern wet method, using the microwave to cook. 
SARAH SAYS: When checking the color of the caramel, test with a drop on a clean white plate. It's easier to see it that way.

NEW!: (9-13-2012) "That's what I've thought for many years, along with most cooks and confectioners and carbohydrate chemists: heat melts sugar, and then begins to break it apart and create the delicious mixture we call caramel.
And we've all been wrong.
It turns out that, strictly speaking, sugar doesn't actually melt.  And it can caramelize while it's still solid. So proved chemist Shelly Schmidt and her colleagues at the University of Illinois in studies published last year:
        'When we make caramel standing at the stove, we use high heat to liquefy and then brown the sugar in a few minutes, and the liquefying temperature can be upwards of 380°F/190°C. But Professor Schmidt's group found that when they ramped up the heat slowly, over the course of an hour, so that significant chemical breakdown takes place before the solid structure gives way, the sugar liquefied at 290°F/145°C.' (Schmidt, S.J. Exploring the sucrose-water state diagram. Manufacturing Confectioner, January 2012, 79-89).

In a follow-up to her initial scientific reports, Professor Schmidt wrote in Manufacturing Confectioner that:
         'from a practical point of view, caramelization can be thought of as browning of sucrose by applying heat for a length of time. Thus it may be possible to better control the caramelization reaction by identifying the time-temperature conditions that optimize the production of desirable caramel flavors compounds, while minimizing undesirable ones. Confectionery manufacturers and sugar artisans, armed with this new scientific knowledge, may be able to push their craft in unforeseeable directions.'

In an article by Harold McGee

Best when making light to medium-colored caramels; this method gives more control. This involves moistening the sugar with a little water. This method tends to take a bit longer -- which can be a good thing. Once the caramelization process starts, it happens so quickly you're only a few seconds away from having a pot full of burnt sugar, and you'll have to start again.

The disadvantage of the wet method, however, is the tendency of the sugar to crystallize, which can give caramel a grainy texture and cause it to cook unevenly. For that reason, it's best not to stir during the caramelization process, instead, shake or swirl the pot for more even browning. Instead, I recommend simply adding a pinch of an acidic ingredient, such as cream of tartar or lemon juice, which inhibits the sugar from crystallizing.

  1. If making a sugar syrup (sugar mixed with water or liquid), first pour the sugar into the bottom of a 1- or 2-quart heavy-bottomed pan, taking care not to sprinkle it on the sides. Pour the water around the inside edge of the pan or if using small amounts, pour in the center.  
  2. Then with a clean wooden spoon, mix the sugar and water together, being careful not to touch the sides of the pot until the mixture reaches the consistency of wet sand. To help it along, rub the sugar in between your fingers until the water is fully incorporated. Don't wipe spoon on the sides after stirring. 
  3. Stir the sugar constantly over LOW HEAT until the sugar is COMPLETELY DISSOLVED or your candy will crystallize or be grainy. Clean off the insides of the pan with a damp paper towel or moistened pastry brush to remove all sugar crystals. Be careful when using a pastry brush as a few bristles can get lost in the hot caramel.  
  4. All sugar crystals must be dissolved and the inside sides of the pan clean before the mixture comes to a boil. 
  5. After the syrup comes to a simmer, skim off any gray foam, which are impurities from the sugar.
  6. Suspend a Candy Thermometer in the pot. 
  7. Increase the heat to medium-high or high heat, making sure it does not shoot around the sides of the pan. 
  8. Cook WITHOUT STIRRING until light golden brown or 320 degrees F or the temperature the recipe indicates. Lower the flames as you get close. 
  9. Quickly remove the pan from the heat and shock it in ice-water bath by immersing pan half way for 5 seconds. Wipe off the bottom of the pot with paper towels. 
  10. Then, remove the caramel to either a greased marble slab, silpat mat or a heat-proof bowl.
  11. Proceed with the recipe.

The dry method is to take plain sugar alone and melt it at very high temperatures in a heavy, wide-bottomed pot, until it reaches the right color.  As you slowly heat the sugar, the edges and bottom will melt first, then you stir gently to promote even melting or tilt and swirl the pan.

Some peanut brittles, for example, are made by melting dry sugar alone. The brittle does not  crystallize because the lack of water during the cooling period causes it to take the form of a non-crystalline, glassy solid. Use it when making darker caramels, as it's nearly impossible to make a medium to light-colored caramel with this method. The Wet Method is best.  

  1. When making candy, place a 1- or 2-quart saucepan over medium-high heat until the pan is warm, not hot. 
  2. Add the sugar and cook, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until all of it has melted.
  3. Clamp on a Candy Thermometer.
  4. The sugar syrup will take on a light golden brown at 320 degrees F or whatever the recipe indicates.  
  5. Quickly remove the pan from the heat and shock it in ice-water bath by immersing pan half way for 5 seconds.
  6. Remove the caramel to either a greased marble slab, silpat mat or a heat-proof bowl.
  7. Proceed with the recipe.

The microwave method uses it as a heat source and is a quick and fail-safe method.  

  • Place 1/2 cup sugar in a 2-cup Pyrex glass measuring cup.
  • Add 1/4 cup corn syrup or 4 to 5 drops of lemon juice. Stir until all combined.
  • Add 1 tablespoon water, if necessary. 
  • Place in a microwave and microwave on high until bubbles start piling up on top of one another. Watch mixture very carefully.
  • As soon as you see a color change, watch carefully, as the mixture will quickly go from light to dark in color.   

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