Working with Sugar – Sugar syrups and caramel

working with sugar

Working with hot sugar is not an easy task and there are pastry chefs out there who specialize on this particular part of pastry, taking it to whole new levels of edible art. It does take practice to reach perfection, but most of all, it takes care and safety measures because the sugar reaches incredibly high temperatures. As a sugar syrup cooks, water boils out and the sugar concentration increases, together with the temperature. And it is this temperature that tells you what the syrup will be like when it cools down. But before going into details about the stages a sugar syrup goes through when it’s being cooked, let’s start with the basics – the equipment needed when working with sugar.

Tools and Equipment:

  • Thermometer
  • Stainless steel pot or other heavy pot
  • Brush – used to wash down the sides of the pan (make sure it’s heat-resistant)
  • Metal scraper, spatula or metal spoon
  • Wooden spoon
  • A bowl of cold water to keep close by in case of emergency
  • Metal whisk for spun sugar
  • Kitchen scissors
  • Baking pans
  • Baking paper

Once the equipment is in its place, the next step is to make sure you’re safe. Wear thick clothes and keep your hair pulled up, wear pants and proper shoes to protect your legs in case of emergency, keep calm and work with care, don’t allow kids in the kitchen and just keep in mind that safety comes first! I’m not saying that working with sugar is dangerous, but it does need some extra precaution measures just to make sure nothing bad can go wrong! So take this into consideration every time you put sugar and water to a boil or you make a caramel.

Sugar syrup – working temperatures

When cooking, sugar goes through a whole range of stages, each with its temperature and characteristics, its own uses and specific descriptions.

 Stage Temperature Test
Thread Stage230-235F/110-112CAt this stage, the syrup is still watery. If you drop a bit of syrup in cold water, it forms a liquid thread that will not ball up. At this stage, the syrup won’t harden once cooled, it will barely thicken up and look much like a syrup to use on ice creams or other desserts.
Soft Ball Stage235-240F/112-115CAt this stage, the syrup has approximately 85% sugar concentration and when dropped in cold water, the syrup forms a soft, pliable ball. Fondant is cooked to this stage.
Firm Ball Stage245-250F/118-121CThe sugar concentration at this stage is about 87% and if you drop a bit of syrup in cold water, it forms a firm ball that won’t flatten when you remove it from the water, but remains pliable and somehow elastic. Caramels and Italian meringue are cooked with sugar syrup at the firm ball stage.
Hard Ball Stage251F – 265F/121-129CThe sugar concentration is 92% at this stage and if you drop a bit of syrup in cold water, it forms a hard ball which, when removed from the water, it doesn’t flatten, but remains hard, yet pliable if you squash it. Nougat, marshmallows, gummies and rock candy are cooked to this stage.
Soft Crack Stage270-290F/132-143CThe sugar concentration is 95%. As the sugar reaches this stage, the syrup begins to change its consistency – it looks thicker, the bubbles are smaller and the noise made by the cooking syrup sounds different as well. If you drop a bit of syrup in cold water, it will harden into threads that will bend slightly when removed from water then crack. Toffee and butterscotch are cooked to this stage.
Hard Crack Stage300-310F/148-154CThis stage is the final one before the sugar begins to caramelize. The sugar concentration is almost 100% and if you drop a bit of syrup in cold water, it hardens into a ball that breaks, shatters just like glass. Candy apples and lollipops are cooked at this stage.
Caramel320-360F/160-200COnce past the hard crack stage, the sugar syrup has no water left in it and as a result, it begins to caramelize. The syrup goes from a light amber color to a dark amber color. The mark of 320-360F/160-182C is when the syrup is perfect for spun sugar, whether it is colored or caramelized. As it reaches and goes past the 360F/190C, the sugar begins to burn. The line between light amber color, dark amber and burnt sugar is very fine so watch out. Needless to say that this is when you have to be the most cautious you’ve ever been because the sugar is both hot and extremely sticky!

Troubleshooting, tips and tricks

If the sugar syrup crystallizes, you can do the following to fix it next time:

  • Place the sugar in the center of the pan, not touching the sides of the pan then carefully pour the water around the sugar, inside the perimeter of the pan.
  • If adding honey, glucose or corn syrup, pour it in the center of the pan, over the sugar.
  • Don’t stir into the syrup at all. The only time you’re allowed to stir into the pan is before boiling it. Once it starts to cook, don’t even shake the pan or bump into it.
  • Clean the sides of the pan as the syrup cooks by washing it down with a clean pastry brush dipped in cold water. Or cover the pan with a lid for 2-3 minutes – the steams formed inside will wash down the sides of the pan.
  • Clean the thermometer after each measuring and keep it in a container filled with water between uses – this helps the sugar on the probe melt down and prevents crystallization.
  • Use good quality ingredients when making candies, starting with the sugar, ending with the fat (always butter, never shortening or margarine).
  • Use a big enough pan to prevent the syrup from boiling over.
  • Use non-stick pans to mold the sugar – silicone or non-stick metal.

Check out my other Baking Science ad Techniques articles:

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