Soft crack, hard crack…

Reader Jen asks:

Where do the names for the confectionery stages of sugar come from?

A very interesting question. The names themselves are obviously descriptive of the way the sugar syrup behaves after it’s been heated to the requisite temperature. “Thread”-stage syrup forms threads as it’s drizzled from a spoon or fork. “Soft crack” and “hard crack” are said to emit cracking sounds as they drip from an implement (presumably the cracking sounds are a result of cooling).

As for who came up with the names and when, those are both debated subjects. It’s thought that the stages themselves were first established some 400 years ago. What I find so interesting as that even hundreds of years later, those categories are still in use. Sure, we all have thermometers now and don’t need to go dropping blobs of syrup into glasses of water. Still most recipes I come across that call for a cooked sugar syrup still list, in addition to the precise temperature, the stage.

The inimitable Jim C. adds:

In eighteenth century France, the degrees were: smoothed, pearled, blown, to a feather, broken (cracked), caramel. With all kinds of intermediary degrees, by some accounts.

Thanks Jim!

12 thoughts on “Soft crack, hard crack…”

  1. I’ve tried making caramel using the sugar & water method as well as the sugar only method and have had more success w/ the latter. I’ve seen conflicting instructions on stirring: don’t ever stir but DO swirl the pan, stir in the beginning but not after “sandy-looking” lumps appear, stir until there’s liquid in the bottom of the pan, don’t stir but DO brush sides of pan w/ wet pastry brush, etc. I’ve ruined my fair share of caramel by stirring too much and now use a “stir a tiny bit, stare into the pot nervously, sweat profusely” approach that, though mostly successful, would benefit from the opinion of a scientific mind. Any thoughts? Many thanks.

    1. Hey Carissa!

      There’s a caramel-making tutorial on the site that you might find helpful. In general I like the water-and-sugar methods because it protects the sugar from the heat (at least at first), preventing burning. A little water added to the sugar allows you to crank the heat up at the beginning. When you do that you leapfrog over several of the “states” of cooked sugar…the flakes, the granules…you know the ones. The mixture gets so hot so fast it stays liquid the whole time. Swirling the pan is the best strategy for this sort of caramel-making because you don’t get crystal formation on an implement (crystals that you re-introduce to the caramel every time you stir) and any crystals that form on the sides of the pan tend to get washed down.

      I think it’s simpler and less prone to error, but you of course need to be careful doing it. Not everyone feels comfortable with high heat. Get back to me with any more questions!

      – Joe

      1. Thanks for your helpful reply! So, as w/ any good reply, it’s led me to more questions ;-)!
        When I’ve used the water/sugar method in the past, I’ve used very hot water and stirred, WITHOUT turning on the heat, until sugar is nearly dissolved THEN turned on the heat and used a CLEAN implement for stirring when/if necessary (after that very dark spot appears in the caramel or to stir in cream/butter); that has seemed to work okay but I can’t recall if it was reliable 100% of the time. Would you do it that way or just do sugar/water/swirl-don’t-stir? Question 2: I make a Hawaiian Toffee recipe that I got from my sister that she’s made for forever. The recipe says to put sugar, butter and salt in a heavy pot then melt all to caramel/hard crack stage. When I tried to make it — and failed — I called a local cooking school in Manhattan Beach and was told that it’s impossible to make caramel if the fat is added in the beginning (you must make the caramel w/ sugar only or sugar/water then add the fat) which seemed reasonable. Ironically, once I explained this to my sister (who disputed this vociferously, btw), she TOO started having issues with the recipe (the toffee wasn’t crackly crisp but greasy/stringy), which is kinda funny but kinda NOT funny as we LOVE this Hawaiian toffee recipe! Any thoughts/strong opinions/weather-related theories on this?
        Many thanks, Joe, for sharing your wisdom! I checked out the caramel-making tutorial portion of the Caramel-Pumpkin bars and it IS very helpful. So helpful that it leads to more annoying questions from a fan ;-)!

        1. Questions are always a welcome thing around here, Carissa. I too have heard about people adding fat to their cold mixtures and turning the whole thing into caramel at once. I’ve never gotten that to work, myself. One thing that happens is that you burn the milk solids in the butter, a taste I don’t care for at all. I do it the old-fashioned way, cooking the caramel first and only then adding the butter. As far as the texture problem that your sister is having, I’d be tempted to blame it on humidity before I went looking for process problems.

          As for adding hot water first, it really doesn’t make a difference. I just put it in a pan, turn up the heat and go for it. Personally I think too many people get too obsessed with preventing crystal formation, but there’s nothing wrong with being careful about your implements and/or brushing down crystals… just be careful you bon’t burn yourself! Cheers,

          – joe

  2. Thanks so much, Joe. Unlike many other desserts, it’s pretty darned inexpensive to practice caramelizing sugar — until you start adding the butter or cream. I’m guessing that by the bottom of the C&H bag I could be pretty pro at it and build my confidence (which is at least half the battle, i think). Full speed ahead! Again, many thanks.

  3. I’ve been researching all over the ‘net and haven’t found the answer to my question yet: At what EXACT temperature do you get a hard caramel/toffee that becomes somewhat pliable when you suck on it? I’ve done hard crack that stays like shards of glass when sucked, and gummy caramel that can be molded well after it’s cooled. I’m looking for something in between – hard to the touch when cooled, but softens (not melts, per se) when sucked.

    1. Interesting challenge, Minerva. What are you hoping to end up with, if you don’t mind my asking?

      – Joe

  4. Out of curiosity would there be any reason why a sugar water combo reaches soft ball at about 96 whereas my fudge mix (cocoa, sugar, milk) reaches soft ball at the recommended heat for soft ball.

    1. Hey Suzanne! Soft ball stage is 118C at sea level. Are you at a high altitude?

      – Joe

  5. Hi thanks for the response, Yep were about 1000 metres above sea level which lowers it a bit, its bizarre that the 2 different mixes reach soft ball at two different temperatures.

    1. Hey Suzanne!

      It’s amazing how added ingredients can impact something like a boiling point. As for when specifically is going on, I couldn’t tell you!

      Cheers and thanks for the question,

      – Joe

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