Behind the Sweets – part 1 – sugar and caramel

Chocolate caramels

I’ve been enjoying the new food TV series ‘Sweets made simple‘, catching up on the first two episodes on iPlayer.
They successfully rattle through four or five recipes an episode, and succeed in making the finished sweets look both tasty and, yes, simple.
In fact, I think they make both caramel making and chocolate tempering look a bit too simple – it’s quite possible to come across problems with both of these techniques, which they don’t really address.

As usual, my particular bugbear is their lack of explanation of the various rules and instructions (although I concede that exploring these would create a rather different programme). Here are some of the techniques and tips they mention, with a bit of further explanation about them. So here’s a bit of a breakdown of some of things they mention in passing, with a bit more on what’s behind the advice.

Part 1: Caramel making and sugar syrups

Heavy bottomed pan

They are sure to mention that you should use a heavy-bottomed pan when making a caramel. What’s so special about a heavy bottom? What they really mean is a pan that has a sandwich of metal on the base, typically a disc of aluminium, fused to a stainless steel pan. This type of pan will help distribute the heat evenly across the base, as aluminium is a good heat conductor, much better than steel. This will help to avoid hotspots, which can be a particular problem with sugar syrups and caramels, where you are trying to reach a specific temperature across the whole mixture, and where stirring could create crystals that cause the whole lot to become grainy.
In fact, an alternative to the recommended ‘heavy bottomed pan’ is a distinctly lightweight (though not cheap) unlined copper pan, as copper is an excellent heat conductor.

Temp goes fast and then slow

Kitty sensibly mentions that when making a sugar syrup, the temperature will rise fast to 100ºC and then go slowly. The temperature of the syrup is related to how concentrated it is. As it heats up, more and more water boils off, leaving a more and more concentrated sugar syrup behind. While the mixture is mostly water, the temperature will remain at, or very close to 100ºC. It’s only when the syrup is almost all sugar that the temperature can start to rise again. For instance, if you heat to 260F/ 127C you have reached ‘hard-ball’ stage, which is used to make marshmallow, for instance, and the syrup will be 92% sugar and 8% water (see here for more details on the link between temperature and sugar concentration).

This is why the specific temperatures are so critical with sugar work – they determine what the texture of the cooled sugar will be. To make a caramel, all the water has to be boiled away, until you have just molten sugar, which when heated further, will caramelise, firming new molecules and turning first golden, and then dark brown.

Caramel - 3

It will froth up

I’m thinking particularly of the marshmallow recipe, where soaked gelatin sheets are added to sugar syrup, but this applies to anything where you add something containing water, like cream, butter or soaked gelatin, to a syrup or caramel where most or all of the water has been boiled off. As the watery ingredient hits the hot syrup, the water instantly boils, producing a huge mass of bubbles that make the syrup froth and foam. This is why it’s usually a good idea to use a high-sided saucepan when doing sugar work.

Using liquid glucose

A couple of the recipes have suggested adding a small quantity of liquid glucose or golden syrup to the white sugar used for most of the recipe. The reason for these is the same as why Kitty often tells you not to stir as the mixture is heating. When you heat up sugar and water, and start to concentrate it by boiling off the water, it’s easy to trigger the sugar into crystallising again. This produces a grainy white mess in the pan. Putting in a spoon can give the sugar something to crystallise on, which is why sugar recipes often advise you only to swirl the pan. Adding a liquid sweetener like liquid glucose or golden syrup disrupts the crystallisation process, adding in sugar molecules that don’t fit, and making it difficult for the white sugar crystal to reform.

Back soon with more on chocolate and tempering.

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louise-marston

I’m Louise, and I’m a compulsive baker, cookbook hoarder and a bit of a food geek. I learnt to cook at home, and later at Tante Marie’s cooking school in San Francisco. With a science degree and a background in IT analysis, I like to understand why a recipe works, not just how to do it. Why the rules are there and when they can be broken.

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