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Candy-Making Woes. What went wrong?

  • l

Okay,maybe I'm a fool for continuing to use the same recipe when it's failed on me no fewer than four times, but I've also had success with it and I persist in thinking it's user error. I just can't figure out what my error is. My toffee with almonds keeps on separating (the sugar and butter are not friends). Here are the details and I'm hoping someone can pinpoint the problem. I'll mention first that I am a careful candy-maker and followed all instructions religiously.
1. Used Fannie Farmer toffee with almonds recipe
2. used 1lb. trader joe's unsalted butter
3. used 2 c trader joe's evaporated cane juice sugar (it doesn't matter that i didn't use white refined sugar, right?)
4. brought mixture to a boil. after 5 min added chopped almonds. washed down sides with water.
5. cooked over medium-low gas in a heavy pan
6. stirred slowly in only one direction with wooden spoon.
7. all was well until temp hit about 275 (Fannie says to get it to 290 for hard crack)
8. suddenly, butter and sugar separated and sugar seized into a mass
9. after having this issue in the past, I'd read you can add cold water a few tablespoons at a time to get it back together. This was a disaster and I think made things worse.
The day was foggy, but I've had this same issue with clear weather, too.
What am I doing wrong? Why has this recipe worked in the past but now ceased to work? How can I make successful toffee in future? Should I hang up my apron when it comes to candy-making?

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  1. I'm not a candy making expert, but I'm wondering what would happen if you didn't stir the mixture and left it until the thermometer reaches the desired temperature.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Charlieboy

      It would burn in spots - stirring helps distribute the heat.

    2. You really do need to use sugar to get the caramel. Using that cane sugar juice changed the chemistry.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Candy

        The Trader Joe's product is sugar---they call it "Organic evaporated sugar cane juice," but it's white, crystalline sugar. I made caramels with it last night and didn't have any unusual effects.

        1. re: Christine
          Caitlin McGrath

          I take this information from a post on General Topics some time ago that I can't now find, but it appears to be tehe case that standard granulated sugar is made with a certain, and constant, moisture content, while the moisture content can vary greatly in evaporated cane juice, turbinado, etc., affecting the success of candy recipes that depend on such variables. Now I've successfully made caramels and marshmallows using evaporated cane juice, but it may be that Laurella's recipe really requires standard granulated sugar to work. If it's worked for her in the past with regular white sugar, it may be an issue.

      2. I make enormous amounts of candy every Christmas and have never had something like this happen, but I have also never used a Fanny Farmer recipe. First, I'd use traditional sugar, regardless of whether the TJ sugar looks the same or not. Second, I know a lot (if not all) candy recipes say to cook candy over med-low heat. I always cook on med or med-high heat. Also, what kind of thermometer are you using? It could be innacurate. Also, I've never heard about stirring in the same direction. I stir, stir, stir vigorously with a wooden spoon, unless the recipe specifically says no stirring. But I'd certainly try again but with regular white sugar and see if that's the problem. Oh, and one more thing-most of the candy I make (except for peanut brittle)calls for adding the nuts after the temp hits 290 and its been removed from the heat. Maybe try cooking the candy and then at 290, remove from heat, vigorously stir in nuts, and then pour it out.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Samantha

          Thanks Samantha and everyone else for your ideas. I might even have the heart to try again this year. Fannie Farmer says something about stirring slowly--I think it has to do with fear of sugaring. My thermometer was a Pyrex that has been accurate in other instances--in the past I've used a different thermometer or the water test for hard-crack.
          I might try with the white sugar and see if that really could be it, and also I'm going to add the nuts at the end rather than at the beginning. I'd like to eliminate as many variables as possible.

        2. I, too, suspect the sugar. I have found that using plain, refined, white cane sugar (usually Dominos) gives me the most consistent results in making caramel for flan, croquembouche, etc. A pastry chef once told me that sugar is refined to various degrees, depending on the brand and source. He usually boiled his sugar with water until a gray scum appeared, skimmed that off, and proceeded with cooking it. He used beet sugar for a demonstration and noted that it was very "impure." It took a good 10 minutes of boiling before it clarified.

          When I have made flan with non-cane sugar, it has often seized and will not melt out before burning. With the Domino's it may tighten a bit, but it has always
          melted out quickly. I find it worth the extra $$ for ease and speed.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Devon

            You all may be right about the sugar. Just to note, the sugar I used IS cane sugar and actually costs more than refined white sugar I can get at the regular grocery store. I use it because I prefer the taste and like to use products that are as little refined as possible. But if my toffee will consistently fail otherwise, I can use the other kind once a year!
            One success I had with the recipe was in Scotland, again with less-refined sugar, but it was a different brand and could well have had a profile more similar to normal white sugar.

          2. You have to use granulated sugar. Candy making is a science as well as cooking. You shouldn't deviate from basic foundations of recipes.

            1. i
              i like peeps!!

              The problem might be that the sugar crystals are not dissolving completely. Is the TJ Evaporated cane sugar the same size/consistency as regular cane sugar. Or maybe It's your spoon going back into the pot? Either way, if you want to ensure that all of the sugar has dissolved you might try putting a lid on the pan for a bit after you bring it up to a boil and before you add the almonds.

              1 Reply
              1. re: i like peeps!!

                The crystals seem to be smaller, if anything, than regular sugar (they're nothing like the demerara I've also got in my cupboard with very large crystals). But they just may not behave the way normal sugar does. Good tip about the lid, thanks.

              2. Sounds similar to the toffee recipe I've used, but I've never had anything like this happen to me. I'm also jumping on the sugar as culprit bandwagon. Sucrose is sucrose is sucrose. The molecule is the same. Difference in taste of raw sugar comes from the size and shape of the crystal and any impurities. In a candy recipe like this, the size and shape is irrelevant but the impurities may not be and as one poster mentioned the water content could be a cause (though I'm not convinced.) If you want a different taste you can experiment with adding extracts or a touch of molasses. But as with adding vanilla, I'd do it at the end or you could cook it all off. Sugar candy cooks at an awful high temp after all.

                1. If I were a betting woman, I would say it was the stirring and not the sugar or the addition of the almonds that caused the problem. My candy making expereience is primarily with fudge, taffy and marshmallows. I never, ever stir after the sugar is dissolved, as ever failure has involved stirring. Even the tiniest crystal will inspire the whole masss to re-crystallize.

                  Stirring is defintiely not needed to prevent burning. You need a heavy pot and moderate heat to prevent burning.

                  1. r
                    Reared on Home Cookin

                    I don't believe there is enough evidence to latch on to the impure-sugar hypothesis: butter and almonds are impurities, and likely to be much more impure than your sugar. Moisture content... nah, same thing, plus, nothing dries something out like heating it beyond the boiling point for water. If the impurity in the sugar were some mineral like calcium, ok, that could be chemically reactive, and sure, why not use the pure hyper refined--but still, without a specific reason, I just can't get behind the supposition.

                    However, I'm not an expert either, so I looked in the Joy of Cooking:

                    "About Sugaring in Candies: when we were inexperienced, we were constantly baffled by the tendency of smooth, promising candy sirups to turn with lightning speed into grainy masses..." sound like what you witnessed?

                    The number one reason they say is stirring crystals formed on the side of the pan down into the sirup. They suggest that if you are making a recipe that includes butter, start by greasing the sides of the pan. When checking and stirring, especially in the latter stages, do not introduce any new sugar crystals: clean spoons, clean thermometers only.

                    They go into a bit of detail on a "foolproof" technique, but the heart of it seems to be the advice to cover the candy for 2 or 3 minutes while you boil it (after all the mixing): the covering will allow steam inside to "wash" down the sides of the pot. Then, after uncovering, do not stir any more while you finish heating (medium heat if it's milk based, higher if water).

                    Other instructions which may or may not apply to your case, say things like "do not jostle the pan while cooling", "pour out, but do not scrape"... get a copy, it'll be worth it. Used bookstores everywhere generally have some, and generally old ones, and old is what you want for these old tips. It's pretty outdated menu-wise, but the "about" sections are valuable... and I was itchy to look up "About Game..." after that whole turkey anus plucking thing got posted here.

                    1. I'm a little late to the conversation, but wanted to share a link to a great site on making candy.

                      I've made a Butter Crunch recipe (very similar to toffee) from an old Betty Crocker cookbook that everyone raves about. This recipe uses butter, sugar, water and corn syrup. Nuts get added at the end.

                      I'm going with the suggestions of regular white sugar and add nuts after mixture reaches 290.

                      Link: http://www.exploratorium.edu/cooking/...

                      1. It sweems like you have been given good advice but I suggest that you ask Alton Brown at the Food Network web site or someone at Cook's Illustrated magazine. pbs.org may have a link to Cook's Illustrated via their America's Test Kitchen web site.

                        1. It sweems like you have been given good advice but I suggest that you ask Alton Brown at the Food Network web site or someone at Cook's Illustrated magazine. pbs.org may have a link to Cook's Illustrated via their America's Test Kitchen web site.