Sugar cooking can be a tricky process. It takes some form of accuracy to produce different types of sweets. Making candy consists of cooking sugar until it reaches the desired stage, typically hard crack (used for hard candy) or caramelization. There are 7 stages to cooking sugar, and they each have their own texture and taste: thread, soft ball, firm ball, hard ball, soft crack, hard crack, and caramel.
For cooking purposes, it’s important to use a calibrated candy thermometer so you know when your sugar has reached the right temperature for cooking! It is easy to calibrate a thermometer; take water to boiling temperatures (212°F) and use the reading on the thermometer to add or subtract degrees based on the difference.
But don’t worry, there is also a way to eyeball the temperatures depending on how the boiling sugar syrup acts when dropped in cold water.
For example, during the thread stage, when the sugar is put in cool water, it will form long threads that do not clump into a ball. The sugar syrup from the soft ball stage after being dropped into cold water holds its shape in a soft ball-like clump.
The best way to make candy is to use a candy thermometer along with a cold water test. That way, you can get a feel for how hot the sugar is based on looks.
What is a cold water test?
A cold water test is a way to estimate the temperature of a boiling sugar solution without a thermometer. This is not a completely reliable method, but it is the best option without a thermometer at hand. It might take a couple of tries to get the right consistency.
For fewer headaches and guesswork, a good candy thermometer is the best way to test cooking sugar and caramelize it correctly every time!
Here are some ballpark temperature ranges for each stage of sugar cooking using the cold water test along with typical appearances and textures.
1. Thread – 230°F – 234°F
Thin threads; sugar does not ball up when put in cool water
2. Soft-Ball – 235°F – 240°F
Holds a clump shape outside of water. Will flatten when left alone.
3. Firm-Ball – 241°F – 249°F
Forms a firm ball outside of water. It doesn’t flatten unless squeezed.
4. Hard-Ball – 250°F – 268°F
Almost a complete solid. Sugar ball will be hard but can still be manipulated by squeezing. It can also be pulled apart. Gummy candies are typically made around hard-ball temperatures (sometimes lower).
5. Soft-Crack – 270°F – 295°F
Forms flexible strands of sugar in water. This is for making taffies and butterscotch.
6. Hard-Crack – 298°F – 310°F
Forms brittle strands of sugar in water. This is the stage to make hard candies.
7. Caramel and Beyond – 320°F+
At this point, all the moisture and water are gone from the boiling sugar. This is where your light and dark caramels start to come in.
“The Cold Water Candy Test”. Exploratorium. www.exploratorium.edu/cooking/candy/sugar-stages