I really don’t want to write another post about cooking with sugar, mostly because all my carefully honed and lovingly nurtured communication skills fall to ruin after I type the word “sugar.” For some reason, people don’t understand what I’m saying and there’s only one person to blame.
But after a bunch of recent requests for a recipe, I decided to try again. The problem begins with the idea of a recipe because a recipe implies a ratio of ingredients that will give you the proper results. But cooking with sugar is more of a process than a formula.
If I start by explaining that table sugar (or sucrose) is a disaccharide that you want to invert into a mixture of glucose and fructose by way of a hydrolysis reaction, you won’t remember. Furthermore, it doesn’t matter. Trust me on this.
Changing the format
Just think of it this way: when boiling sugar you are changing its format. Instead of little crystals you will get either a smooth and pliable dough (fondant) or a hard candy, something akin to a lollypop. These formats are easier for you to handle—and less likely to be discarded by your dinner guests—than tiny sugar crystals.
To make fondant or hard candy, you simply dissolve the sugar in the smallest amount of water possible and then cook it to drive the water back out. Really. You don’t need any other ingredients, but a little lemon juice, vinegar, or cream of tartar helps to speed up the conversion of sucrose into glucose and fructose.
The amount of water doesn’t matter
Beekeepers argue about the amount of water needed to start, but it doesn’t matter. You can put ten pounds of sugar in three cups of water or in five gallons of water—you will get the same thing in the end. But the more water you use, the longer it will take to drive it all off again. The trick is to use as much water as necessary, but as little as possible.
The temperature you cook the solution to determines the consistency of the final product. Boiling until 234°F gives you fondant, boiling to 250°F will give you hard candy. For more on these temperatures, called stages, and for information about calibrating your thermometer, see my previous post, “Notes on cooking with sugar syrup.”