Peanut brittle (sort of long, but please help!)
I tried making peanut brittle last night with very interesting but not entirely successful results. Maybe some candy experts can help.
I looked up several recipes and was surprised to see very different methods. Some called for using sugar only; some called for sugar and water; and some for sugar and corn syrup. I think the reason for adding water is to slow the heating of the sugar so it doesn't go from golden to burnt too suddenly. The sugar-and-corn syrup approaches have you add baking soda at the end, warning that it will bubble up. The sugar-only methods did not call for baking soda. The sugar-and-corn syrup method called for using a candy thermometer until the proper temperature was reached (295 degrees), while the sugar-only method merely called for reaching the desired color. The sugar-only method called for not stirring -- except for one that did -- and the sugar-and-corn syrup method called for frequent stirring. And, oh yes, one other thing. Some recipes wanted you to add the peanuts at the beginning, and some at the end.
First I tried the sugar-and-corn syrup method. Following instructions, I started at medium temperature until the sugar melted, then turned up to high and stirred frequently. I started checking the temperature with a candy thermometer. The mixture began to color to golden brown, but I was only at 250 degrees. I backed off the heat a little and contintued. By the time I got to the correct temperature, the mixture seemed too dark --over-cooked. When it had cooled, it did, in fact, have a burnt flavor. But not too much. Just enough to be on the other side of good.
Then I tried the sugar-only method. The Mark Bittman-NY Times recipe was a little puzzling. In the intro paragraphs, he says, "... sometimes carmelized sugar burns or becomes...lumpy. A couple of tips can help you avoid these pitfalls... Add a little water.. which slows the cooking process...allow(ing) you to stir out lumps... Veterans -- and the brave -- will do without water and without stirring...just shak(ing) the pan occasionally to move the melted sugar off the bottom.... *Stirring dry sugar almost guarantees lumps*..."
Then, in the body of the recipe, he instructs, "Stir occasionally." So, to stir or not to stir? I stirred. I got lumps. In fact, it appeared that my sugar never really melted -- it never achieved what I would call a thick and syrupy liquid -- it looked pretty much like sugar the whole time. When I tried to turn it out onto the pan, it couldn't spread at all -- I had hard, sugary balls with peanuts in them.
Next, I went back to the sugar-and-cornstarch method, figuring if I just used my eyes and nose instead of being a slave to the themometer, I'd be fine. (I appreciated how well the mixture melted.) I took it off when it appeared golden brown -- far sooner than the 20 minutes suggested in the recipe. This batch looked great, but had an off-flavor. Huh!
I've been very successful at making a Passover carmelized matzo treat that seems very similar, except it uses butter and brown sugar, melted and poured over matzo and baked for 15 minutes. The result is a delightful carmalized matzo.
Tell me, oh wise candy-makers... What method do you use? Why didn't my sugar melt? Why do we add baking soda when using sugar and corn syrup? Do you add vanilla, as some recipes say to do? And why, oh why, didn't any of my methods work? I await your guidance.
I use a sugar/water/corn syrup mixture (with a dash of cream of tartar added) and I stir it only at the very beginning to mix the ingredients. Then, I leave it ALONE. I don't stir it at all and keep it at med/high heat. If it's at high heat, it will brown before it reaches temp, as yours did.
Once my mixture starts to color, I will occasionally gently swirl the pan (but don't stir!!) so it browns evenly. Once it reaches temp (340F), I remove it from the heat, add a little butter (I also add some cinnamon at this point) and once that melts, add my peanuts and baking soda and stir quickly and immediately spread on a greased baking sheet.
I have made probably 100 batches this way and have never had a bad batch.
I had a very similar experience with Bittman's recipe. Never got it to work. So, I went back to the drawing board. Now, I use regular granulated sugar with a bit of water mixed in. I pour that into the pan with a bit of cream of tartar. then I mix it up so that the sugar is dissolving in the water. I then heat it for a long while (15 minutes, I think). I don't stir it at all. I don't touch it. I just let it heat. Eventually, it will by syrupy and shortly after it will turn a golden brown. That's when I throw in the peanuts, some salt, and a pat of butter. Mix it all up and then spread it on a pan to cool.
I just tried Bittman's recipe, and it came out perfect. I used a non-stick skillet on a gas burner (on low heat). The sugar melted and turned medium brown, pretty much on its own. I think it took about six or seven minutes. I stirred it a bit towards the end in order to make sure that it was all melted. Then I added salt and the peanuts, let it go for a minute or two, and then poured it out into the pan. Perfect! Next time I think I will try adding rum or vanilla or cayanne or something.
Peanut brittle is pretty much the only candy you can make in the microwave, and it comes out great---shocking yes I know. I don't have the recipe that I used, it was actually on the back of the pack of peanuts that I bought, this was back when I was in grad school, back when even a candy thermometer was out of my price range. The point is you can do it the hard way...sometimes it can be fun and a learning experience to do that, but there is a no-fail alternative if you're open minded. (and I find it even more fun to get away with something!---Oh, I spent hours making this really!)
I just made it in the microwave and it is so easy and tastes delicious. I have seriously never made anything that required so little effort for such a great end product. I think next time I may add more salt and finish it off with some coarse sea salt but this was so simple and tastes just like See's peanut brittle.
Recipe I used from the internet:
1 Cup of granulated sugar
1/2 cup of light corn syrup
1/8 tsp of kosher salt
1 cups of Raw peanuts (must be raw it toasts in the microwave)
1 tsp of butter (I used 1/2 a tblsp)
1 tsp of baking soda
1 tsp of vanilla extract
Add first four ingredients in a a microwave safe dish (I used a 4 cup measuring cup). Microwave for 4 minutes and then stir and microwave for another 4 minutes. Add the butter and stir and microwave for another 2 minutes. Add the baking soda and vanilla (it will foam up) and stir until it is no longer foamy. Pour onto a parchment lined baking sheet and spread out to make it thin.
A few thoughts.
The sugar & corn syrup should be less prone to crystallization (at least according to Alton Brown), which would explain why those recipes called for stirring. It's a little bit easier, but as you noticed, it can taste a little funky because the corn syrup doesn't taste quite like sugar.
Sugar only caramel is pretty prone to crystallization, as you learned. Sugar and water just gives you a chance to dissolve the sugar before it starts to caramelize. Something that I learned along the way (which isn't in any of my recipes) is that you want the sugar dissolved before it starts to boil.
As for when to add the peanuts, I have enough trouble caramelizing sugar - the last thing I need is to have peanuts in the equation. I add 'em at the end.
I don't know chemically what baking soda does, but it does make the brittle, brittle. The soda gives air and porous to the brittle and makes it easier to break and chew. If you don't add the soda, then I don't think it's peanut brittle, it's peanut parelene.
For the record, I don't use water and just let the sugar come to carmalization on its own, then the soda, then the peanuts. I have a recipe somewhere around here...
Note to Pixellle, don't make brittle if it's raining, you'll just get soggy brittle after a few hours, even if everything worked out.