What up and how’s it hanging, my beneficent boys and girls? Welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophe Quick Tips. Man, two weeks of posts following up the Monday post. I have never been so consistent on message in my life. Even when I’ve run for positions, I always take a minute to remind the electorate that in addition to my many good qualities, I’m also a sarcastic dick-bag, so maybe don’t get so angry when I make jokes about you, dumb-dumb.
Today also served as a great time to talk about a specific facet of food science, (a mirrored set of alliteration that really resonated with me), specifically the science of Sugar Stages. Far from solely being Candyland’s Premiere Burlesque venue, sugar stages are a vital part of understanding aspects of our last two catastrophes, and something you may want to look into during the coming weeks: homemade candies are a big wow factor at holiday meals, and can serve as functional gifts for those shy on funding. So let’s talk shop and sift to the truth on sugar stages.
Sugar Sugar, How’d You Get So Fly
So let’s talk about sugar really quick, just to get a foundation. There are actually a BUNCH of sugars in existence, but we’re focusing on table sugar, aka sucrose, from the Latin for “Sugar-like”. Hey, credit where credit’s due, when it came to scientific names, they tried to get that shit as simple as possible. (Until they started naming shit after people or countries, because pride is the flaw in every heart.) It comes form sugar cane, or beets, and it’s in basically fucking everything.
One quick fun fact: sugar doesn’t technically melt. (or, rather, the crystals begin to break down LONG before 'melting" actually begins.) Instead, the heat causes it to decompose, dissolving weaker chemical bonds in the compound, producing carbon dioxide and water. This is actually WHY the sugar stages exist: the hotter your sugar gets, the more it has changed on a molecular level, altering the texture and composition of the sugars as they cool.
"Did someone say "sugar" and "decomposition"?"
If that sounds like a bunch of science mumbo-jumbo, think about a log burning: the longer you let it burn, the less and less integrity it will have. The wood will go from solid, to flaky, to crumbly coals, to dust-like ash. Each grain of sugar is a itty bitty teenie weenie log you’re burning to make candy.
And candy is the main use of the stages, make no mistake. As I noted everywhere, sugar’s in basically everything, and the human brain is WIRED to find it. Back when we were primitive, it was a super useful ingredient: sugar breaks down very easily in acid, and releases a lot of caloric energy while doing so, the long-discussed “sugar high”. It also helped our bodies store fat, which was useful for hairless apes, with our reduced ability to control our body heat. (Note: this is also one of the reasons people suspect we’re facing an obesity epidemic. A push for low-fat foods in the late 70’s and 80’s led to foods reducing fat content, but upping sugar to compensate for flavor issues. Which, paradoxically, primed our bodies to store more food as fat.)
But enough talk of the stuff itself, I wanna see how it BURNS.
You Lost That Burning Feeling
Now, not 200 words ago, I told your ass that the stages of sugar are points where the texture will have altered when it solidifies. If you weren’t paying attention, just try and pretend that you’re listening while the rest of the class works, alright? To those who WERE paying attention, I have an admission to make: the stages also assume you’re not actually using straight sugar.
Yeah, see, if you just throw dry sugar in a pan with nothing else, it’s not going to ‘melt’ until like, 320-340 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on some esoteric shit like local humidity and altitude. Yeah, a LOT of shit affects sugar’s rate of decomposition. And it will turn brown and caramelize at…right around 345 degrees, and it’ll burn at 351. So raw sugar tends to straight from ‘white sand’ to “furiously boiling liquid”, to “searing black tar”.
This is actually what happens if you boil Coca-Cola too long, but it's basically the same.
As such, those are the three RAW sugar stages, while almost all normall candy making takes a safer approach: start with the sugar IN SOLUTION (like, say, dissolved in water) and keep heating it up. The water will start to boil out at 212 degrees, and as the temperature climbs, the remaining mixture will be more and more sugar, with just enough water to give it some mobility. This is why the nougat heated to 245, while the Caramel went to 350: the nougat was using traditional candy making techniques, while the Caramel needed to get those strong burnt sugar flavors, and THEN be thinned out. They were building in ways that made different textures. So Let’s check out those textures now.
Stage 1: A Needle Pulling THREAD
The names of the stages come from the old days when thermometers were shit that witches owned, and you judged how hot a fire was by burning another son’s hand in it, and seeing if it burned worse than his brother’s. Nah, I’m kidding. You just cooled it down and watched what happened.
That's right, boys! Your many burns were simply a joke! A bit of light-hearted humor!
The first stage is the Thread stage, so named because you pull it into threads. It’s mostly only used for making like, flavored syrups: boil an ingredient in the syrup for a minute or two, then let it steep for a while, and you’ve got instant flavor options for cocktails, cakes, and more. At this point, the mixture’s no more than say, 80% sugar, and no higher than 233 degrees.
STAGE 2: Welcome to the SOFT BALL League
Now, from this point on, checking the exact consistency before we all had the money to place mercury-tubes in our food was done by taking a spoon of the mixture and placing it in water, as the sugar was just too hot to handle, a claim I’d argue was true of the local women’s softball league, which is probably why I have a lifetime ban. It was either my rampant sexism or the time I stole the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile and drove it through a concession stand on accident. Could go either way.
And let me tell you, it was really hard to steal the Wienermobile in 1915. It wasn't even INVENTED till 1936. I put EFFORT into that accident.
In short, as you may infer, this temp forms a ball on the spoon, with a smooth, pliable texture. This is the temp you’d be aiming for if you wanted to make like, fudge. And it’s normally hit around 235 degrees-245
Stage 3: So you wanna play HARD BALL
Well, too bad, that show got cancelled. Probably. Look, I don’t watch the news. I know Crossfire got cancelled after Jon Stewart went on and basically gave the hosts a 15 minute interview of “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed”, because the man has some very intense guilting abilities, which my lawyers are frantically signaling I should not try to connect to his Jewish heritage.
They would probably be very unhappy to see this picture placed here.
Anyway, as you can guess, this stage forms a hard ball shape when cooled, and is typically used in things like marshmallows or soft caramel candies. Though it is worth noting that some people state there’s a ‘firm ball’ stage between Hard and soft that you should really be aiming for with those while true “Hard ball” is better for nougats. Hard ball ranges up to around 265 degrees, so if you’re making softer candies, try and end them in the 250 degree range.
Stage 4: These ain’t no Hard Drugs, Baby, this is SOFT CRACK
Listen, I understand that covering Every Little Step of the sugar stage tree is a drag. “Don’t Be Cruel”, you beg me. Well, listen up, Candy Girl, because you know what? I don’t like listing them either. That’s Something In Common between us, alright? But this is my blog, and my post, so if I feel I need to cover them all, that’s My Prerogative. And if you don’t Cool It Now with Mr Telephone-Man over there, you can just Get Away because You’re Not My Kind of Girl. You might find me Humpin’ Around, because Two Can Play that game, baby. What I’m saying is, I promised not to make any Whitney Houston jokes this week, I didn’t say ANYTHING about Bobby Brown.
Then again, very few people have said anything about Bobby Brown for like, 8 years, so I guess it's nothing new.
Soft Crack is around 270 degrees, and at this point, the syrup is going to be 95% sugar. When you dunk it into the water, you’re going to end up with long threads of sugar that coalesce into the ball shape. And if you take out and squeeze it, you’ll feel the popping of the threads. This is the ‘soft crack’ the name is referring to. This is where you stop for things like softer toffees, or, humorously, harder taffies. Firm, crunchy nougat can cook to here.
Stage 5: Take one last HARD CRACK at it.
Shit, I already used my baseball AND my R&B singer jokes! I could go full Ike Turner on the jokes, but you never go Full Ike Turner. I’d make a plumbing joke to try and spin it, but after writing “You never go full Ike Turner”, I went and read an Ike Turner interview from 1985, and watched a video of him, and…man…I’m just sad now.
That's...certainly one way to write that headline.
Tragedies of the Turners aside, the Hard Crack stage is the last stage of syrup candy production. It kicks in around 290-310 degrees, and where the threads lightly popped if you squeezed them, the hard crack stage won’t even really form into a ball, and it’ll make little cracking sounds as it hits the water.
At this juncture, the resulting candy will be hard. This is what you use to make toffee, or peanut brittle, or lollipops. The mixture is 95% sugar at this stage.
And those are the sugar stages! Keep them in mind if you’re looking to make some holiday treats this year, or really any time you find yourself melting sugar at home! I didn’t have an outro planned for this, but I felt I needed another section, so I don’t really know what to write here.
MONDAY: JON MAKES MORE VEGGIE SIDES FOR THE HOLIDAYS. THIS TIME, TINY CABBAGES AND SPICY SQUASH TAKE FRONT STAGE.
THURSDAY: I FEEL LIKE I INTENDED TO WRITE A REVIEW OF SOMETHING, BUT IF SO, I’VE DEFINITELY FORGOTTEN WHAT I WAS SUPPOSED TO BE REVIEWING. THIS’LL BE COMING OUT ON THANKSGIVING, SO I GUESS SOMETHING CONNECTED TO THAT?