What do candy, caramel, italian meringue, italian and french buttercreams, and nougat all have in common? They all require you to cook sugar to make them. It’s a process that needs precision but is pretty simple and straightforward, so you don’t need to feel intimidated.
All you will need is a pot, sugar, water, and a thermometer or a big bowl of icy water. A brush is also recommended.
Now, the easiest and safest way to do this is to use a thermometer to measure the temperature of the boiling syrup. If you don’t have one or you can’t find it because it’s hiding somewhere in those drawers, don’t panic. It will be okay.
The thermometer-less method
When I was studying baking, my teachers deemed it unnecessary to give us thermometers because, after all, ‘’ real bakers don’t use thermometers.’’ They wanted us to learn to tell the temperature of our preparations by the look and feel of them. It is true that I never saw a thermometer used in the professional bakery that I worked at and it did come in pretty handy a few times in my home cooking to be able to do without the thermometer.
Before starting, you might take a moment to wonder : ‘Why am I doing this? Am I insane? This doesn’t sound like something someone with a sound mind would be doing…’
Alright, now that you have gathered up your nerves, stand in front of your boiling syrup. You will have beside you a bowl of really really cold water (even better if you have ice cubes in it!). Dip your fingers in the water until they feel really cold and then very quickly pinch the syrup with your iced fingers and plunge them back into the bowl of water. Crazy, right? You should now have cooled syrup between your fingers. Its texture will tell you how hot the syrup is. If you do this right, it will not hurt at all. You can also use a spoon to scoop up a little bit of the syrup and dump it in the water, for a much less scary experience, and possibly safer, depending on your level of clumsiness.
Nowadays, if I do have a thermometer, I’ll use it. Why go to the trouble if you have a perfectly good, easier way to do something?
First, you need to select a pot. It needs to be big enough that you’ll have plenty of room at the top because once the syrup is bubbling, it rises some. However, don’t choose a giant pot for a small amount of syrup or you won’t be able to stick your thermometer in it and it might cook too fast.
The quantities of sugar and water you’ll use depend on your recipe but a good ratio to follow is 1.35kg of sugar (3 pounds) for every liter of water used (34oz). More water will take longer to cook, as it needs to evaporate first. Less water will cook faster, but if there’s not enough water to make all the sugar wet, you might burn some of it. Put the water into the pot first and then add the sugar. You may gently stir to make sure that all the sugar is wet, but as long as you put the sugar in the water and not the other way around, you should be good.
Sugar is a bit capricious; if you mix it while it’s cooking, you risk having the whole batch crystallize and clump on you. At that point, there’s nothing to do; you’ll need to start over. That’s why you should never mix it and, whether you use a spoon or thermometer (or your fingers for that matter), make sure your implements are clean and free of sugar crystals or impurities.
Once you start heating your syrup you may find that you have a few crystals that are clinging to the side of your pot. You can use a wet brush to clean them off. If you don’t, there’s a risk that you might knock some off in your syrup later on and cause clumping.
105°C (221°F) – Lissé
At this temperature, if you separate your fingers, the sugar will form a thread between them and then will break. If you followed the proportions of sugar I mentioned above you will end up with a simple syrup or what is called sometimes ‘sirop à 30’. 30 Here means 30° Baumé, which is a measure of density. This syrup keeps pretty well and can be flavored to soak cakes or help liquefy an apricot glaze that has gotten too thick.
107.5°C (225.5°F) – Filet
You will still get a thread between your fingers, but it won’t break.
111°C (232°F) – Morve or Soufflé
Morve means ‘snot’ in English. Now if that doesn’t whet your appetite… At this stage the syrup would leave a sticky coating to your fingers but won’t form a thread.
115°C (239°F) – Petit boulé (Soft ball)
If your roll the syrup between your fingers, it will start making a very soft ball that will lose its shape if you let it go.
117°C (242.6°F) – Boulé (Firm ball)
The ball now hold its shape if you let it go, but you can still squish it really easily.
120°C (248°F) – Gros boulé (Hard ball)
The ball is much firmer now and you can still change its shape, but it will resist a lot more.
The ball stages are what you’ll use in the making of fondants, nougats, buttercreams, caramels (the candy kind, not the cooked sugar stage kind), and italian meringue among other things. It will give you an end product that behaves like the syrup itself, in a way. It’s firm and can hold a shape, but malleable and soft still.
125/135°C (257/275°F) – Petit cassé (Soft crack)
The sugar is now forming a brittle layer, that can’t be shaped, but will stick to your teeth if you bite into it.
145/146°C (293°F) – Grand cassé (Hard crack)
The sugar forms a hard layer that you can break and won’t stick to your teeth.
This is the stage used to make decorations out of sugar (blown sugar, pulled sugar, spun sugar, etc.)
150°C (302°F) – Light Caramel
You should see your sugar starting to change color and turn a light golden (if you started with white sugar).
165°C (329°F) – Caramel
The sugar is now becoming a nice brown. You don’t want to cook it too long or it will turn bitter! If you are using the caramel for something that will cook again (for example, crème caramel) it is better to leave it a tad lighter than you want it to be in the end, as it might darken some more.
The caramel stages are used for crème caramels, nougatines, and as glue in croquembouche, for example.
190°C (374°F) – Dark Caramel
Well now you did it. Your sugar is turning black and your kitchen is starting to fill with an acrid smoke. The taste is super bitter. This kind of caramel is only used in small quantities as a food coloring.
Cooked sugar can seem pretty hard to clean up, once you are done, but just fill your pot with some water and bring it to a boil and it should dissolve all the sticky mess.