It's the base of many a dessert, but turning out the perfect sugar syrup for your recipe, whether it be confectionery or a rich caramel sauce, takes practice and, of course, a bit of Test Kitchen know-how...
How to make the perfect sugar syrup
The single most important thing when making a water and sugar-based caramel is to ensure that all sugar crystals dissolve to prevent crystallisation. To guarantee this result:
1. Use white sugar or caster sugar; white sugar will usually give a clearer result.
2. Dissolve the sugar before the mixture boils by stirring over medium heat.
3. Dip a pastry brush in water and brush down the side of the pan to remove any undissolved crystals (Step 1, below).
4. Once boiling, don't stir the mixture – only swirl the pan lightly if needed to even out the colour.
How do you know when sugar syrup is ready?
The most accurate way to test is with a candy thermometer, available from kitchenware and cake decorating suppliers.
If you don't have a thermometer, you can test to see if your syrup is ready with the following methods.
Take the pan off the heat and drop about a teaspoon of the sugar syrup into a glass of cold tap water (Step 2, below). Gather up the sugar syrup with your fingers and:
● Soft ball 116°C: Syrup will form a soft, sticky ball that can be flattened. Used for Italian meringue and frostings.
● Hard ball 122°C: Syrup will form a hard ball that holds its shape. Used for confectionery and soft stickjaw toffee.
● Small crack 138°C: Syrup will form firm but flexible strands. Used for butterscotch desserts and firm nougat.
● Crack 154°C: Syrup will form brittle threads. Used for brittles, toffees, hard confectionery and spun sugar.
● Caramel 174°C: Syrup will range from light golden at about 160°C, to dark caramel above 174°C. Used for praline, confectionery, brittles and sauces.
Achieving the perfect caramel colour
Once the caramel starts to colour, swirl the pan gently to ensure it colours evenly, but don't stir. It will colour quickly and will continue to do so off the heat.
If you are new to making caramel, it's better to remove it from the heat a little earlier and wait for it to continue to deepen off the heat.
If your caramel is the perfect colour on the heat, chances are it has gone too far, as it will continue to darken. To stop it, place the saucepan in a sink with enough cold water to come one-third of the way up the side of the pan to cool rapidly.
How dark should caramel be?
If a caramel sauce is too light, it will simply taste sweet; too dark and it will be bitter.
A mid-golden caramel is ideal as it will offer less sweetness and more caramel taste.
How to store homemade caramel
Take care when making caramel, as it reaches a high temperature.
If a liquid is added to a caramel it will splatter, so stand back and add gradually.
If it sets into hard pieces, melt it over a low heat. Don't make or pour hot caramel in plastic – only use heavy-duty, heatproof glass, ceramic or metal.
Store toffee-based items in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.