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:


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.


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 on Januray 8, 2009. This content is not available under a Creative Commons License.

Twitter Cookbook 1.0

To start of the new year properly, Mike Tremoulet, a.k.a. @coffeemike, has compiled the Twitter Cookbook. It's a collection of recipes from folks on twitter, compiled into a single book that available electronically or, for the cost of creation*, a print on demand book. There is a Food Geek recipe on there, but I think the real value is from all the non Food Geek recipes. It was created in a very short time frame as an example of what can be done with the power of social media and Creative Commons. *- Which looks to be $21.40 right now.

Food Timeline

Serious eats asks:
How long before The Food Timeline makes the rounds on all the blogs
And I say that I'll do my part right away. The Food Timeline is a, er, timeline of food. Food history, rather. It's a series of links organized by time, telling us important tidbits and giving us a chance to understand the context. For example, I did not realize that the koolickle (Kool-aid Pickle) is a recent invention (2007 from all accounts), nor that Peanut Butter cookies were invented in 1933 by the Pillsbury Flour Mills Company. Pre-history, apparently, involves water, ice, salt, shellfish, non-shell fish, eggs, mushrooms, insects, and rice. From there we find that the first real non-whole foods are bread, beer, and soup. All of which are related, if you think about it, and can easily make a whole meal. In any case, like the medieval recipe translations, this looks to be a quick stop for anyone wanting to learn about the history of food. Because it was created by a reference librarian and IACP member, there is even information in the "About this site" section about citing the site. It is properly copyrighted and not creative commons, so be sure to cite properly if you use information from the Food Timeline.

Roasting Coffee the Popcorn Way

Remember when I said I had to stop myself from posting anything that comes across and Ideas in Food? Apparently Make is one of those, as well, at least for their food related posts.* However, in this case, a casual exchange on twitter prompts this one.
Ihnatko: 'I've just ordered a hot-air popcorn popper on Amazon. Yes, I am indeed living the dream…' thefoodgeek: 'Are you modding it to roast coffee beans, or is this just for popcorn?' snitty: 'You can do *what* with a popcorn popper? Do you have a link? Also, is the modification reversible?'
At the time, I just forwarded a link to an old engadget article about seriously modding a popcorn popper. It's a good read, but then I ran across this article on Make about an airpopper coffee roaster, with included video, and it is so much easier. No modding, available inexpensively though yard sales or eBay. Go to it! You can pay for the popper with about 3lbs, based on the price estimates in the video. Plus, your coffee will taste better. Less money, better coffee. *- To be fair, I have scooped a few of the more mainstream sites with a couple of these, so I apparently have my finger on the heartbeat of the something something blah blah.

The mystery of the moister cake

One of my twitter friends posted what was, to him, a disturbing tale of a cake transformed. In 140 characters or less, here was the conundrum: From Twitter user Steve. Me: 'This (day-old leftover) cake is really moist!' Her: 'Wow. It was bone-dry yesterday.' #ulp After eating the cake, his mind was alight with frightening tales of adulterated coffee in offices and strange and weird ways that the cake could have become more moist over the course of a day. None of those possibilities made him feel particularly good about the thus-eaten cake. However, I know a food secret, and it's this: sugar loves water. Loves it. Sugar has a water tattoo on its shoulder, and when they're not dating, it hangs out creepily next to water's car when water is at work, writing little messages in the windows that water won't see until the dew hits the next day. Most substances, when they sit out in the open air, become dryer as time goes on. Bread goes stale, food sticks to the bottom of a bowl, dogs no longer have to shake the water off onto the entire living room, etc. With sugar, though, you've seen how it starts clumping together given half a chance. You let the sugar sit in the jar too long, and you'll have to break it apart. That's because sugar is hygroscopic, which, as I mentioned, means it loves water, especially water that is hanging around in the air. Cakes are sweet, what with all the sugar in them. So even a cake fresh from the oven that is dry has a chance to moisten up if there's any humidity at all. Generally, a cake is better the second day than the first for just this reason. Steve felt much better after I told him about that, and I performed another public service, so it was a good day all round.

Cooking Creatively

There’s this web site called twitter. It’s at The purpose of it is to allow people to basically say what they’re up to in 140 characters or less. It also let’s you get an idea of what various people you’re interested in are doing. Not a site for complex philosophy, but it’s good to give you an idea of what’s happening in various people’s lives. I’m on twitter as thefoodgeek, and various people interested in food follow what I say. One of these, called snitty, asked, “I can cook and bake, but not very creatively. Is there a book that will teach me some general theories that I can apply.” Now, there are simple answers to questions like that, and there are complex answers. The simple answer, I.e. The one I could give in 140 characters, was, “Alton Brown’s books, and Shirley O’Corriher’s Cookwise. However, the question is very interesting, so I figured it might be nice to explore it a bit here. I’m not a terribly creative cook. I occasionally do some creative things, but I’m not that interested in the creativity, yet. I’m more on the path myself, so I figured I’d share what my path is, so people can follow, ignore, or avoid the path, as you see fit. When I was younger, I experimented more with the cooking. Part of that is because I was a bachelor, and there’s a certain, oh, lack of concern about the way things have to be when you’re a bachelor. If you decide that perhaps peanut butter will go with hot dogs, you cook up a hot dog, slather some peanut butter on the bun, and see what you’ve created. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it does not. This is a path many cooks take, some more successfully than others. Psychologists say that one of the big differences between people and animals is that people have this big section of the brain whose job is to pretend that what you’re imagining may happen in the future is actually happening, so you can react to it and accept or reject the plan depending on if you believe the outcome will be favorable or not. The intuitive path is to engage this portion of your brain, and figure that’s enough to get you going. “I like eggs on my cheese, so what if I mixed the egg and cheese before I cook it, so the cheese will be all nicely melted in the eggy goodness?” If you’ve ever tried it, you know that the answer is, “The egg won’t set properly, and you’ll have this really nasty sort of not-quite-custard thing.” So sometimes you can predict well, and sometimes you can’t. People with a lot of talent at these predictions can go on to make great chefs. So, what if you aren’t so good at that prediction? All is not lost. Logic can save the day in instances like these. Logic, practice, and experience. The first step is to learn all of the basics. Learn what happens when you take some food and cook it various ways. Grilled meat, steamed vegetables, roasted vegetables, steamed meat, macerated fruits, baked bread, steamed bread, steamed and baked bread, broiled meat, pasta with a simple sauce, etc. Don’t do a fancy recipe, just get a decent example of whatever it is you’re cooking, and do the minimum that you can in order to cook it properly, so you can understand what it tastes like as well as the essential methods that get you to that point. The next step is to try a variation or two on some of these recipes. This is more important with baking than it is with cooking, because there’s more controllable chemistry going on in baking, which you can mess up by being incautious. But still, see what a small or large variation of your favorite recipe might do. After that, or during that process, I like to try to find out what’s really going on when I do things. This ingredient is thickening the sauce, but only when it hits a temperature near boiling. This ingredient is preventing the eggs from curdling. This ingredient and technique keeps the dough from becoming too tough. The above steps are your foundation. If you are serious about what you’re doing, or maybe not even all that serious but with enough talent to make up for it, then you should be a great cook. You should be able to follow recipes and ready to ignore parts of the process because you know there’s a better way to do it, whether you’re right or not. However, that hasn’t quite gotten us to creative. There are many paths to creativity. Many people see creativity as an inborn process that uses your instincts to see what you can do to make the world a more interesting place. It’s an interesting theory, but it’s not terribly useful for us. It’s a descriptive theory, to explain why creative people are creative: "Because they are." If someone wants to take the next step, how to become creative if creativity is an inborn talent, generally the suggestion is to either do creative things (learn to paint, write a book), or to hang out with creative people and hope it soaks in. On the other hand, you could look at creativity from the practical perspective: creativity is introducing other people to something they’ve not had a chance to experience. This perspective ignores the origin issue and gets to the effect. This perspective implies that there’s a mechanical process that can get you started on the path to creativity. So, from a practical perspective, you have a number of options. Flavor pairings. Texture combinations. Deconstruction. Reconstruction. Desperation. Stealing. Baconizing. All of these are perfectly good tools for the creative process. Flavor pairings. You have some strawberries. You know that strawberries goes well with cilantro, because you’ve read on some web site that strawberry and coriander go well together. Cilantro is often used in Tex-Mex food, such as salsa. Therefore, you may think, I could make a strawberry “salsa”. Find something to replace the onion, such as fennel. Maybe sneak in some balsamic vinegar. Maybe a chile or two for heat. Perhaps, instead of a corn chip, you use a madeleine as your salsa transportation device. Could be you’d want to try to make a taco with this, so you have to find a substitute for the meat. Or don’t, and use a meat that could handle the strawberry salsa. Maybe duck. Who knows? That’s what flavor pairings do for you. You could start with a simple use, such as adding cilantro to your strawberry shortcakes to see what happens, but if you let it run away with you, you can make something crazy. Could be crazy-good, could be crazy-bad. If you’re willing to play, then you can find out. But don’t let one bad diversion keep you from trying. Texture combinations. Mixing crunchy with smooth is a classic method of livening up a food stuff. Creme brulée works on this principal, as does putting potato chips on a roast beef sandwich. Oh, don’t try to tell me you’ve never tried it. In any case, take something smooth, and add crunch to it. Or vice versa. Chocolate pudding. Smooth and creamy. Add something crunchy to it. Puffed rice cereal is one option (yes, I’m talking Rice Krispies®) would be quick and safe. But ginger goes well with chocolate. How about crystalized ginger? That gives flavor and texture. Maybe the pudding is too smooth to handle that, so you could try some crushed up oreos. Or toasted brioche. Deconstruction and reconstruction. These are fun ones, and not too terribly difficult to try out. You say to yourself, “Hey, let’s pick a food and deconstruct it.” So, what if we tried…caesar salad. Great. You have lettuce, egg, anchovies, garlic, bread, parmesan cheese. Maybe some other stuff. Okay, the idea behind it is to have the anchovies (properly from the Worcestershire Sauce) provide some umami, egg providing a medium for flavor and for binding, garlic croutons for crunch, and parmesan cheese for favor. Oh, and the lettuce for, well, being lettuce. There we go, deconstructed. We could arrange for a dish to be somehow like this, but we could instead reconstruct it in a benign or a startling manner. Let’s swing towards startling. Make some parmesan cheese crisps. Before they cool, roll them into tubes. Take an anchovy, dip in in flour then an egg wash, then garlic breadcrumbs. Fry it. Dash a little Worcestershire Sauce on it for good measure. Wrap it in lettuce, stuff into the parmesan crisp. Win your quick fire challenge. Desperation. This is the favorite of college students and bachelors. You haven’t eaten in 18 hours. You have some pasta, some ranch dressing, and some bread. Toast the bread, pile some pasta in, add a dash of ranch, and watch Dr. Atkins scream at you from the spirit realm for the creation. Not everything made in desperation has to be disgusting, of course. But you’re more likely to eat a mediocre-to-disgusting desperation dish than you are a badly executed flavor pairing dish. See what works from that, and what doesn’t. Salvage as best you can. What you’ll find from the pasta sandwich is that the warm and crispy toast sets off the squishy pasta well (as discussed above). Perhaps a warm pasta salad with croutons would be a better takeaway. Or a bruschetta pasta salad. Probably not so much to be done with the ranch dressing, despite what the Hidden Valley people want you to believe. Stealing. Nigella Lawson has this fantastic Crab-Avocado Asian salad. Turn that into Asian Crab Cake Sandwich with Avocado. Steal, modify slightly, and introduce it to people who haven’t heard of it. Because, again, it’s not necessarily about making something that the world has never seen or tasted before, though that’s fun, too. It’s about being able to do something that you and your dinner guests haven’t done before. Part of stealing is finding out what others are doing. Read books. Go to web sites. [amtap book:isbn=0688102298] [amtap book:isbn=0684800012] Naturally, feel free to post more links in the comments if you have some. Add bacon. Seriously. Everyone knows that everything goes better with bacon. Take a food that’s never seen bacon (to your knowledge, because it’s been done before, but still). Figure out how bacon would work with it. The larger exercise is taking a limited playing field (i.e. Must go with bacon) and turning it into a challenge. The best way to be creative is not to give yourself an unlimited playing field. That just leads to option paralysis (writer’s block). The best way is to force an artificial limit, and try to work within that (Iron Chef). It's possible to become a more creative cook. There are plenty of techniques. Combine that with a good foundation in understanding the inner workings of food, or at least the outer working of food, then you can do amazing things in the kitchen.