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Test Kitchen tips: Keeping cooked sugar from crystallizing

October 6, 2011 |  7:00 am

Caramelricardodearatanha

Many recipes, such as certain buttercreams and meringues, call for cooking sugar down to a syrup. Others, like caramel sauces, call for cooking the sugar until it caramelizes to a rich golden or brown color.

If not cooked carefully, sugar syrup (liquid sugar) can thicken and re-crystallize, ruining the recipe. To prevent sugar from crystallizing as it is cooked, follow a few basic tips:

  • Always use a clean pot or pan. Sugar granules in the syrup will latch onto any particles left on a pan and crystallize to form a solid mass. Check to make sure the pan is free of any dust or particulates.
  • Dip a pastry brush in water to wash away any sugar that sticks to the side of the pot or pan as the sugar heats. Sugar will splatter onto the sides of the pan as it begins to bubble; left alone, this sugar can harden and crystallize, causing the rest of the sugar to crystallize in turn. Using a wet brush to wash away the sugar will keep it from becoming a problem.
  • Combine the sugar with a little water (it should have the consistency of wet sand) before cooking. You do not have to do this -- sugar can be cooked on its own -- but I find the water helps to melt down the sugar more evenly and smoothly, especially for beginner cooks.
  • Avoid stirring the sugar when it comes to a simmer. Sugar is temperamental and can treat a spoon or spatula (or any foreign object, like a thermometer) as particulate, something to latch onto to crystallize.
  • Cover the pan loosely with a lid or baking sheet. As the sugar cooks and the water evaporates, a loose lid works to temporarily trap the steam in the pan; the steam will help keep the sides of the pan clean, much like using a moistened pastry brush. Keeping the lid ajar will allow some steam to escape as the sugar continues to cook.
  • Add a little acid (such as a touch of lemon juice) or corn syrup to the sugar-water mixture before cooking; they help interfere with crystallization.

If your sugar does happen to crystallize in the pan, don't fret. It's happened to all of us. Simply add water to the pan and bring the liquid to a boil; the water will loosen the hardened sugar and make it easier to clean the pan before you try again.

If you have any kitchen tips or questions you'd like me to explore, leave a comment below or email me at noelle.carter@latimes.com.

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-- Noelle Carter
Twitter/noellecarter

Photo credit: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times

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