Kitchen 101: Stages + Temperatures of Candy Making

December 13, 2015

If you’ve ever set out to make chewy caramels and ended up with something that will break your teeth off, you know that cooking sugar is tricky stuff. But, you also know that sugar is awesome and that science is fantastic. A caramel sauce, candy canes, marshmallows and nougat are all made from the exact same ingredients: SUGAR. And really, ONLY SUGAR. So what’s the different between them? Temperature. Here’s a quick guide for learning the stages and temperatures of candy making. 

As a sugar syrup (sugar and some quantity of water) is cooked, the water boils away, the sugar concentration increases, and the temperature rises. The highest temperature that the sugar syrup reaches during its cooking process tells you what the syrup will be like when it cools. In fact, that’s how the standard stages of sugar cooking are titled: by the end result. 

For example, at 235° F, the syrup is at the “soft-ball” stage. That means that when you drop a bit of it into cold water to cool it down, it will form a soft ball.

Most candy recipes will tell you to boil your sugar mixture until it reaches one of the stages below. If it doesn’t knowing the below stages of sugar cooking will help you to determine what temperature you’re looking for to accompany the visual cues the recipe gives you. For the best results and most accuracy, I recommend that you use both a candy thermometer and the cold water test. It’s also a good idea to test your thermometer’s accuracy (especially here at altitude!) by placing it in plain boiling water. At sea level, it should read 212° F. If it reads above or below this number, make the necessary adjustments when cooking your candy syrup.

Note: The temperatures specified here are for sea level. At higher altitudes, subtract 1° F from every listed temperature for each 500 feet above sea level.

 

Stages + Temperatures of Candy Making

 

  • 230° F–235° F – Thread Stage // sugar concentration: 80%

At this relatively low temperature, there is still a lot of water left in the syrup. When you drop a little of this syrup into cold water to cool, it forms a liquid thread that will not ball up.
Cooking sugar syrup to this stage gives a thick syrup (like would be used in this Maple Creme recipe) — something you might make to pour over ice cream.

  • 235° F–240° F – Soft-Ball Stage // sugar concentration: 85%

At this temperature, sugar syrup dropped into cold water will form a soft, flexible ball. If you remove the ball from water, it will flatten like a pancake after a few moments in your hand. Fudge, pralines, and fondant are made by cooking ingredients to the soft-ball stage.

  • 245° F–250° F – Firm-Ball Stage // sugar concentration: 87%

Drop a little of this syrup in cold water and it will form a firm ball, one that won’t flatten when you take it out of the water, but remains malleable and will flatten when squeezed.
Caramels are cooked to the firm-ball stage.

  • 250° F–265° F – Hard-Ball Stage // sugar concentration: 92%

At this stage, the syrup will form thick, “ropy” threads as it drips from the spoon. The sugar concentration is rather high now, which means there’s less and less moisture in the sugar syrup. A little of this syrup dropped into cold water will form a hard ball. If you take the ball out of the water, it won’t flatten. The ball will be hard, but you can still change its shape by squashing it. Nougat, marshmallows, gummies, divinity, and rock candy are cooked to the hard-ball stage.

  • 270° F–290° F – Soft-Crack Stage // sugar concentration: 95%

As the syrup reached soft-crack stage, the bubbles on top will become smaller, thicker, and closer together. At this stage, the moisture content is low. When you drop a bit of this syrup into cold water, it will solidify into threads that, when removed from the water, are flexible, not brittle. They will bend slightly before breaking. Saltwater taffy and butterscotch are cooked to the soft-crack stage.

  • 300° F–310° F – Hard-Crack Stage // Sugar concentration: 99% 

The hard-crack stage is the highest temperature you are likely to see specified in a candy recipe. At these temperatures, there is almost no water left in the syrup. Drop a little of the molten syrup in cold water and it will form hard, brittle threads that break when bent. CAUTION: To avoid burns, allow the syrup to cool in the cold water for a few moments before touching it! Toffee, nut brittles, and lollipops are all cooked to the hard-crack stage.

For more on candy making, here’s a few candymaking magic tips for everyone, and a sugar syrup that’s perfect to substitute for corn syrup in all the candy you’re about to make! Enjoy! xx

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2 Comments

  • Reply Gerald December 27, 2015 at 12:07 am

    What a great guide. Candy making can be really confusing and prone to failure. Using precise measurements can make all the difference between success and failure. I know that for myself, if I could make better candy myself, I think I could curb my habit.

    Tis year has seen a lot of change for me. I started to grab a hold of candy as a way to cope with the changes. My vices are now Skittles, Starburst, and candy corn. I other wise try and live a very healthy lifestyle centered around cycling. I’m not a chocolate lover, so that is why this post is so appealing to me.

    What would you suggest as a beginner recipe or two to start making my own home made candy?

    Thanks again for the post.

    • Reply Lentine Alexis December 27, 2015 at 7:04 am

      Thanks Gerald! The most important thing to remember in candymaking is to be precise with TEMPERATURE. Get yourself a good thermometer, test it in boiling water to be sure you know what the calibration is, and then get to work! For beginners, I’d start with caramels – you need few ingredients and you can actually watch the sugar go through its different stages of cooking. Really cool! And it will teach you a lot about the process. I hope this is helpful – maybe candymaking is a good vice for change?! I know for me it is! Thanks for reading, and writing! x – L

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