Problems and Solutions

Candymaking is both an exact science and an art. Problems can occur. Controlling sugar crystallization is one of the most important aspects of its success. What determines the type of candy being made is contingent upon the type of ingredients used in the intial sugar solution (sugar dissolved in water); the temperature and concentration the sugar solution is cooked to, indicated on the CANDY - SYRUP TEMPERATURE CHART; then, the degree to which it cooled and if any kneading or beating takes place afterwards. Ingredients added to the recipe and any stirring done during the candymaking process also haa an influence.

If you have additional questions, please post them in our Forum, and we will be happy to answer them.

See also Candymaking Tips for Success   

Candy Mixture crystallizes:

  • Place the sugar in the bottom of the pot, taking care not to get it on the sides because it will crystallize after the sugar dissolves and approaches boiling.   
  • After the sugar is placed in the pan, pour in the water or liquid, if applicable, carefully around in the inside perimeter of the pan.  
  • If adding honey or liquid sugars, pour in the middle.  
  • Using your finger make an X in the pan to help the water gently mix with the sugar so it has the texture of wet sand. Check on whether all sugar grains are moistened.  
  • Wipe the sides with a damp, lint free towel to clean all sugar from it. A dampened pastry brush works well, too. Make sure the bristles are not loose.
  • The pot used needs to be spotless and dry, as well as the spoon used to stir. Any existing sugar crystals or a foreign object in the sugar syrup, such as old dried caramel, cause crystallization. Crystals will form and congregate on a foreign object.
  • Some grease the upper sides of the pan, above the liquid level, to prevent crystallization before adding ingredients, if the recipe calls for butter. If the recipe calls for melting the butter first, coat the sides of the pan before adding sugar and other ingredients. When mixture bubbles up, grains of sugar can't cling because of the greasy sides. 
    QUESTION: Some candy makers butter the sides of the pan right up to sugar syrup's water line before you begin cooking. Because the fat is slippery, the crystals won't cling to the sides of the pan.
    SARAH SAYS: I personally don't like to do that because the buttered coating high inside the pot is likely to burn, introducing an off flavor to the candies. If you do, it's *REALLY* important to keep the flame low. But even that is no guarantee, if the metal gets really hot, which is common. Basically it just makes the whole process more fragile.
  • Always stir until sugar is dissolved. One sugar crystal can cause whole mixture to be grainy.
  • Not washing the sides of the pot during cooking, where sugar crystals like to congregate. After the sugar dissolves and approaches boiling, make sure the inside sides of the pot are completely clean. If not, sugar crystals could fall into the batch, crystallize and ruin it. 
  • If necessary, take pot off the heat only for a moment and brush down the sides with a dampened pastry brush.  
  • Cover the mixture with a lid and boil for 2 to 3 minutes. With a lid, steam will form in the pot, washing down the sides the pot, preventing further crystals from forming. Always uncover pot away from you because the steam that collects inside is intense. 
    QUESTION: You can also leave the cover on the pan so steam forms, condenses and then washes off the side of the pan.
    SARAH SAYS: Some people may take that to mean that you can just leave the lid on the pot. I think this should be clarified to say that you can bring the pot to a boil with the lid on. But you must boil the syrup uncovered or else its temperature will never rise. (That is, the reason that the temperature of sugar syrup rises is *because* the water is boiled off, concentrating the sugar.)
  • Clean Candy Thermometer after each use. Store cleaned thermometer in a cup of warm water while using. Wipe the thermometer clean with a towel every time you dip it in the pot -- be careful, it's hot. If you put it under cold water when hot, it will shatter. Never put the thermometer in the pot when it's wet; it must be clean and dry EVERY TIME. 
  • Touching the ingredients with a spoon, moving or shaking the pot at the wrong time. Do not touch the pot during cooking, unless the recipe specifies otherwise. Even accidentally bumping into it will jar the mixture; I always place my pot on my stove's back burner to avoid having this happen.
  • Having a foreign object in the pan, like old, dried caramel or dirt. Crystals will form and congregate on a foreign object. Thoroughly clean AND dry any utensils used to make candy with.
  • Dipping an unclean or previously used wooden spoon into the syrup. The wooden spoon used for making candy has to be clean and dry EVERY TIME you use it -- do not wipe it on the sides of the pan to clean, after using. Grease it if the sugar solution sticks to the spoon.

Candy tastes gritty. Too many / too little and wrong-sized crystals:

  • Sugar syrup crystallized. Wrong crystal size caused by stirring the sugar syrup too soon or too much or not enough. Follow the recipe to the letter when it specifies when to stir; this is very important. Some recipes call for ABSOLUTELY NO STIRRING during the boil or subsequent cool down, others are the opposite.  Metal spoons conduct heat and get too hot to hold - so I don't recommend them. 
    Plastic spatula will melt since this solution is much hotter than boiling water. 
  • Scraping the sides of the pan: during the boil helps to prevent sugar crystallization on the sides of the saucepan. Scraping the sides during the cooling helps create sugar crystals. Follow the recipe's instructions.
  • Not boiling the sugar enough or too much. Boiling the sugar syrup to the right temperature, ensures that it will have the proper sugar saturation necessary for the type of candy being made. Learning to boil without inducing crystals is important. Knowing when to stop is crucial: Using a Candy Thermometer is probably the most accurate way to tell. Using how long the sugar syrup has been boiling is the least accurate and the color and the soft ball test are in between.

The butter separates from the sugar; candy won't harden: 

  • Sometimes the boiling sugar and water mixture appears to break just before it reaches a temperature stage. If this happens, take it off the heat immediately and stir it gently. You should be able to get it to recombine. Use a medium-high heat so the syrup cooks relatively quickly. 
  • Also, be sure you're using high quality butter - never margarines, which may contain too much water for candy making.
  • If you are in a very humid climate or a rainy one, choose drier days for candy-making. Excess water - which can even come from the air, can also cause butter/sugar syrups to break. 

Sugar syrup boils over:

  • Be sure to use the right pot with high, straight sides because it will often time bubble up, especially when adding cream, etc. Wear hot mitts that cover as much as your forearm as possible to protect yourself from the steam.

Hard candy doesn't come easily from its mold.

  • The best solution is to use silicone molds. After that, I prefer the metal to the plastic. Silicone molds are definitely the way to go. Nothing sticks to them, especially fat-free stuff like sugar. No greasing is ever needed for silicone molds when used with sugar. And, depending on the stiffness of the mold, you can bend them after the sugar is cold, and -- voila! -- they pop right out. I've never seen a silicone mold that *wasn't* slightly flexible. 
  • Grease molds (other than silicone): Prepare molds first by spraying with non stick cooking spray, wipe out excess spray with paper towel. 
  • Get rid of excess air bubbles: After removing pan from heat, allow to stand briefly until bubbles have settled down. Add flavoring and color, as desired. Stir until blended and bubbles disappear. Pour into molds. If necessary, try lightly dropping the molds against the counter to force air bubbles.

Candy sticks to waxed paper:

  • You can use waxed paper to drop your candy on -- but, I always use lightly oiled aluminum foil, instead. A thin coat of canola, vegetable, mineral oil, etc., applied with paper towels should do the trick. Waxed paper doesn't work well, even though every recipe says it should. I'm thinking of sticky buns baked on wax paper. I would never expect them to lift clean off, especially the gooey butter, sugar, cinnamon stuff on top that drips down. Also, often a waxy film is lifted from the paper onto the finished product.  
  • My caramel recipes have you refrigerate the candy so it hardens (no more than 15-30 minutes) or place in the freezer (no more than 5 minutes). The freezer is better because it tends to be drier (no humidity which prevents the candy from becoming sticky). Then, remove from the foil.
  • Also, any candy made during humid or wet weather, will not set properly, hence the stickiness. 

QUESTION: My pot has baked-on crystallized sugar which I am having much trouble removing when I clean them. Is there a good way to remove this sticky stuff?
SARAH SAYS. Pots with baked on crystallized sugar are unavoidable. Fill the pot with water, heat it on the stove on high, and let the crystallized sugar dissolve as the water boils. Then clean as usual. You can also put any utensils that you used in boiling the sugar into the pot to clean at the same time.

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