Sugar Cooking

I have a funny story for you! My first practial lesson at Le Cordon Bleu in London was on fruit preparation (cutting) and testing sugar stages… yawn right? That was my first thought exactly! Boy was I wrong! Fruit preparation is actually difficult by the way, but that’s another story for another day. Today is about sugar! I’ll never forget that day, it was another thing all together. See, no one told us we would be sugar testing by hand! Sugar gets hot, very, very hot and it can cause a nasty burn so don’t try any of this please, thermometers are too easy to come by. However, at LCB it is believed experiencing everything by hand is the best method of learning, which is true for most things, but imagine the terror when we all found out we had to stick our hands in ice water until they were numb and dip our hands into pots of boiling sugar to retrive a small portion, and dip back into the ice water to cool that sugar or be burned. Not once, not twice but 4 times as the sugar got hotter and hotter so we could present thread, soft & hard ball sugar and lastly medium crack sugar. It was during those moments I knew I really wanted to be a pastry chef. What an ah-ha moment hey?

No one got burned by the way, I know you’re wondering, but only because we had been shown how to do it right, so no sticking your fingers into pots of boiling hot sugar please!!

That class taught me many things but one of them was that the vast amount of things you can do with sugar are pretty awsome! Today I will share some sugar cooking tips with you nd give you a bit more insight on the subject! There are many sugar syrups of various strengths. Knowing what they are and their preparation can help you improve your cooking and dessert making. Let’s go through them shall we?

Basic Principles

The principle of sugar making is simple. A proportion of water and sugar are boiled to evaporate some of the water. This allows the temperature of the solution to rise and thickens the solution.

The higher the temperature the sugar is cooked to, the harder the sugar will be when cooled. For example a syrup cooked to 116-122 degrees C (~240 degrees F) forms a soft ball when cooled. However, a syrup cooked to 150 degrees C (300 degrees F) is hard brittle when cooled and can crack.

One part of water is enough to dissolve 3 to 4 parts of water. You don’t have to add more water because it is going to be evaporated off anyway before the syrup can become various thicker consistencies.

Simple Syrup

Simple syrup is a solution of equal parts sugar to water (equal weight). It is brought to a simmer just to dissolve the sugar and cooled.

A soaking syrup is a flavoured simple syrup to moisten cakes and add flavour. Flavours can be:

  • Vanilla or liquors e.g kirsh. These flavours should be added after the syrup is cooled. If added before they may lose their flavour.
  • Cirtus rind or whole spices (so they can be strained out before use).


Crystallisation is the enemy full stop. Graininess occurs when cooked sugar cystallises (turns into tiny sugar crystals) instead of staying dissolved in the syrup. The real nuissance is that iseven if one sugar crystal meets cooked syrup, it can start a chain reaction that can potentially turn your whole syrup into a mass of sugar crystals!

How to avoid Sugar crystallisation

During the first stages of boiling and the syrup is still in a toally liquid state it spits more. Therefore:

  • Wash down the sides of the saucepan you are using to boil the syrup with a pastry brush generously dipped in water to wash the spit sugar down back into the mass before it gets the chance to crystallise.
  • You can alternatively cover the saucepan with a lid for a few minutes. Again only during that first stage of boiling. The steam will have no escape and will therefore condense, inevitably washing down the sides of the pan for you. Be careful on to leave it on forever or you’ll easily pass the sugar temperature you wanted to reach if you forget about it.
  • Adding acids e.g cream of tartar to the sugar before boiling can help as it changes the sugar to invert sugar which resists crystallisation. Glucose syrup can also be added which is an invert sugar itself.

The stages of sugar cooking

Candy Thermometers are essential for sugar cooking. If you don’t have one I strongly advise you get one if you want to ever make, caramels, toffees or fudge at home. For a comprehensive guide on what you need in the kitchen to be a better cook/ baker check out my ebook that has helped many so far!

Sugar StageDegrees CelciusDegrees Fahrenheit
Strong Thread110230
Strong Blow116240
Soft Ball116-122240-251
Medium Ball122-124251-255
Hard Ball 126-130258-266
Soft Crack 132-138269-280
Medium Crack144-150291-302
Hard Crack150-158302-316

Note: you can coninue cooking caramel for longer until it gets hotter and hotter but this will only leave you with a dark, bitter caramel, try your best to stick to the temperatures I have listed above.

I have an image I have borrowed from google here to show you what some of the stages of sugar cooking look like:

These grapes are made from blown sugar! Another borrowed image.

That’s All Folks!

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