Toffee Troubles

What sorts of things can go wrong with toffee making? Will humidity doom a toffee to failure, or could there be something more sinister at work?

My Twitter friend Jennifer asks:

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Candy is a delicate creature, unfit to survive creation out of captivity. Only with constant attention, experience, care, and the proper environment will it make it from its early ingredients stage to the confection we all know and love. Candy made for the holidays is even worse, because chances are you only make it once per year. I mean, you may make hundreds of batches at that one time per year, but it'll still be twelve months until your next attempt, so the skills fade.

Okay, I exaggerate. Yes, candy making requires experience and knowledge, but it only seems mysterious because you're trying to make something that, candy lovers claim, tastes so much better than anything else. And toffee, being one of the tastiest of candies, requires a bit more knowledge to ensure it works.

The short answer is "yes," humidity will absolutely affect candy making. I don't believe, however, that humidity was the problem with your toffee. Humidity is more likely to affect the texture of the toffee, taking away the crunch and making it limp or saucy. Also, unless you're adding an acid or some fructose, you're not likely to absorb all that much water.

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The general goal with most candies is to create a sugar dissolved in a specific amount of water, with perhaps some other things thrown in for flavor or texture. Candy makers, being extremely clever, have come up with a couple of somewhat indirect ways of determining the ratio of sugar to water. The traditional way is to cause the candy to cool rapidly and see how it behaves, generally in water but I've also seen someone* just flick some at a plate and see what kind of strands it makes. The new fashioned way is to take its temperature.

As you've made this toffee before, it's not likely that temperature is the problem you're having, so I will not go into detail on the various stages of candy making. Yes, I know: it's brilliant how many things are probably not wrong with the toffee, but perhaps I could get to the point? Working on it.

When you have a high enough concentration of sugar in heated water, the sugar is going to want to get together and form crystals. Sometimes this is good, such as with rock candy or fudge. Sometimes this is bad, such as with hard candy or toffee. One method of preventing the crystals in toffee is to mix in a bunch of butter, which is great, but it presents potential problems that frustrate the toffee maker.

Problem one is that butter is a combination of water and oil, which means that you are increasing the water content of the mixture, and some butters will have different oil to water ratios. The water content shouldn't be a problem in and of itself, as you can't reach the right temperature of the solution without getting rid of the appropriate amount of water. On the other hand, if you use a butter with a different amount of water, then you are also using a butter with a different amount of oil, which will certainly throw things off. It's worth mentioning that if you usually use salted butter and used unsalted this time, or vice versa, that could cause the problem as well. So, if you might have changed brands of butter, this could be a cause of trouble.

Problem two is temperature. I know, I know, I wrote that I didn't think that the problem was temperature. I even put it in bold. More specifically, problem two is temperature measurement. Getting to the right temperature ensures that you have the appropriate amount of water in the solution, but it's possible that you might not be getting to the right temperature. If you are using a thermometer instead of the traditional methods, then you need to verify that the thermometer is accurate. To do this, put the thermometer into ice water and see if it reads 32°F / 0°C. Also, put it into boiling water and verify that it reads 212°F / 100°C. If it does, you're probably good. If not, you might not really be getting to the proper temperature, which could be trouble. Unless you're not at sea level, in which case verify what the proper temperature should be for your elevation.

Problem three is heat dissipation. It is vital that the sugar/butter/water solution be heated evenly. This means using a strong but temperature-neutral spoon. Wood is traditional, but I'm sure a serious silicone spoon will be fine. Also, it's recommended to use a burner that's larger than your cooking vessel, to ensure that the sides of the pan do not cool the mixture while the bottom is heating it. Heat imbalances kill candy.

Problem four is agitation. Yes, candy-making can really drive you nuts, but that's not what I mean. I'm talking about stirring. Stir slowly. Add ingredients slowly. If you dump a bunch of almonds into the mixture rather than pouring the toffee over the almonds just before the cooling stage, then be gentle with the mixing. Slowly. No, more slowly than that.

I've heard that adding a bit of salt will make life easier, and I've also heard that adding a bit more water may do the same. The success of these solutions (no pun intended) will depend on the particular toffee recipe you're trying, but are at best risk mitigation. If you have an otherwise good toffee recipe, which I believe you do, then they shouldn't be necessary.

Why is toffee such a pain, even more so than other candies? It's because toffee is a candy that is also a sauce. It's very similar to an article I wrote last month about the troubles with Alfredo Sauce. Not only do you have the whole "sugar likes to turn into a bunch of crystals" problem that plagues most candies, but you're suspending a bunch of oil in a solution of things that don't really play well with oil. You're expecting the sugar, which is temperamental at best, to keep oil from mixing with water, and we all know how well that's supposed to work out. But treat it with care, and everything should work out okay. If not, let me know and we can work on the other, less likely scenarios.

For those who don't have their own toffee recipe, or if you just want to try a new one, here is a toffee recipe that covers the advice that I mentioned plus a few other items that I didn't.

*- Sue Ashburn, creator of the greatest toffee in existence.

This post was originally hosted at FineCooking.com on Januray 8, 2009. This content is not available under a Creative Commons License.

Tobasco Reserve

Every now and then, someone offers to send me something for free. Sometimes I accept; sometimes I do not. Sometimes I review it; sometimes I do not. Sometimes I like it; sometimes I do not. This is one of the cases where I accepted the item and decided to review it.
What is it?

Fancy Tobasco Sauce. Perhaps the fanciest of Tobasco sauce. 2011 Tobasco Brand Family Reserve Pepper Sauce from the McIlhenny Co. It's available at Amazon for just shy of $25, and the item description calls it a collector's item. Why?

Well, first of all it's small batch. Second, it's aged. Third, it's blended with premium ingredients. Oh, and the peppers were aged as well. The finest peppers.

Also, it has a wax seal and a little medal. So that's cool.

Now what you should be asking me is, "Brian, now that you've tried it, is this Tobasco Brand Family Reserve Pepper Sauce really worth $25? I mean, it does have a medal that goes around the bottle." To which I say, "Wellllllll… maybe. Probably not. But maybe."

I enjoy Tobasco sauce and other hot pepper sauces. I have even made my own, which is fun and tasty. However, I am not a Tobasco fanatic. There are those who pick a sauce, Tobasco or otherwise, and put it on everything. Everything edible. Probably a couple of other things, but most won't admit to that. Some of these people live a life of Tobasco-centered joy. If you need to buy a gift for one of these people, I would absolutely buy this gift. It's Tobasco-y, it's limited edition, it has slightly fancier bottling, and it comes in a box that makes it easy to wrap. How can you lose?

If you are thinking of buying this for yourself, and you are a Tobasconaut as described above, then I'm afraid I can't help you. I just don't have a refined enough Tobasco palate to be able to adequately judge the awesomeness or lameness of this sauce. Find another review, and check that.

If you are a casual pepper sauce eater, then I would not advise spending the $25 on a bottle of this. Go with the chipotle version, or the habañero version, or Sriracha, or one of the many many small-batch brands of hot sauce. Or make your own. All good choices. But spending $25 on this will not give you such a difference in flavor that a casual hot-sauce consumer would notice. You can get a lot of hot sauce for $25. But several of the other options instead.

Oh, and about that medal: don't leave it on the bottle. If you leave it on, every time you put hot sauce on your food, the medal will fall into said food. It's happened to me three times. Now that I've taken a picture of the thing, I am getting rid of it forever. If you, um, collect hot sauce bottles, set the medal aside and save it for when you've finished with the bottle. It will look nice on the shelf. Well, as nice as a bottle of hot sauce on your shelf is going to look, I suppose.

Fine Cooking Thursdays: Reducing Complexity

Another article is up on Fine Cooking's web site, this time from @megpasz about the temperature at which sauces reduce. I answered the question in my usual overachieving manner. Because, I ask you, how many other columnists will tell you what temperature really is?* Also, it should be noted that no kittens were harmed in the making of this week's metaphor. steamy-pot.jpg *- Probably only 3. Maybe 4, depending on the day.

Food Mysteries: Broken Alfredo (Sauce)

Friend of The Food Geek Greg Turner of Kitchen Sojourn tells a sad tale of a broken Alfredo sauce, a tale that I am not unfamiliar with. Back in the day, I used to make Alfredo sauce much the same way he did, and while it was tasty, you could feel the arteries clogging while you were chewing, not just after you swallow. Also, it's a finicky sauce. Let's take a look at general path he took to make it:
heat some heavy cream (about 1/2 a cup) over medium heat Begin adding fresh grated Parmesan cheese, whisking gently Taste Add more cheese, whisk Taste Add some butter, a little cheese, whisk Taste At this point the detail become a little fuzzy. I may have added a splash of milk (2%) to the mix because I was all out of cream. Then, on the final addition of cheese, the sauce absolutely came apart, separated like curds and whey and I was left with a soupy mix of small cheese crumbles (each about the size of a bacon bit) and a watery liquid that was more like skim milk than heavy cream.
A perfectly good, perfectly tasty recipe. Unfortunately, at some point he had to use a milk for a bit of the liquid, and he added a bit more cheese, and the whole thing broke. Clumps of cheese and mess everywhere. Delicious mess, but not delicious enough. The great thing about this Alfredo sauce is that it's a combination of fat, fat, umami-laden cheese, and salt. You give to guests, they enjoy, and shortly thereafter you break out the home defibrillator. The evening ends with a toast to your health, and everyone considers the dinner a success. The bad thing about it is that it's, well, too much of a good thing. There's a much easier way to make this kind of sauce that incorporates most of the flavor with not nearly as much death-dealing cholesterol and in a non-breaking manner. Consider this: with the above recipe, what's providing the structure for the sauce? It's not the cream, and it's not the butter. It's certainly not the salt. Which leaves the cheese. What you're attempting to do is to melt the cheese in the right way so that the protein loses its rigid form and turns into a connected mesh around the liquid and fat. You are, in effect, making a stretchy bungee-cord net, but out of cheese, for all of the rest of the ingredients. What most likely went wrong? With a cheese sauce, chances are that there was too much stirring, and the net collapsed into little patches of protein strands, much as if you stretched the strings of the bungee-cord net too far and several broke at once. The fats in the cream and butter stayed with the cheese, because the cheese also contains fat, so it all just stuck together and the water was the odd man out.* In any case, you're going about this sauce the difficult way. Don't force the cheese to define the structure. Let something else do that work for you, and allow the cream and cheese to provide flavor. Get some sort of starch to do the heavy lifting, and maybe an egg for some emulsification. Try a bechamella.** There's Mario Batali's, which is perfectly good. Add some cheese to it at the end, and you're set. No muss, no fuss. That's an egg-free version, but you could do eggy if you wanted to. That's what I do with my macaroni and cheese. So, in this case you have the starch in the flour that absorbs liquid and, once it reaches a temperature around the boiling point of water, springs out in all directions. Instead of being a taut bungee cord, it's more like a bunch of springs that are still trying to push out of the confined space. Nothing's getting out of that structure, but it's not in such a precarious position as the protein net. Also, because you're not forcing the cheese to provide structure, you don't have to use cream, as the cream is less likely to curdle for reasons which I won't go into now, but involves casein. Some other time. In any case, plenty tasty***, healthier, and less fussy. How great is that? That a heap of great. *- Had the fat separated from the sauce, I would have suspected overheating it. Then the protein strands would have bunched together and squeezed out all the fat. **- Or, if you haven't gone to the Italian re-education centers like I have, a béchamel. ***- You can go overboard on the cheese reduction, though, so don't skimp there. You still want to taste the parmesan.