Caramel: Crystal or No?

It is not, reader Bryan. Caramel has so many molecular whatsits in it that the sucrose molecules would need flashlights to find each other. First there’s all the fat from the butter or the cream. Next you have all the broken up pieces of sugars that the caramel-making process creates (the heat of caramelization literally destroys some of the sugar molecules, breaking them into pieces which recombine into all sorts of Franken-cules, most of which still have no names). Last you have some invert sugar, since the broken sugar pieces are acidic, and the slightly acid environment breaks some of the remaining sucrose into glucose and fructose.

And while I’m talking caramel, now is a good time to address a similar question from reader Cindi, who’s been trying her hand at candy lately. She asks:

I can’t seem to make hard candies that don’t have a yellow tint. I assume the yellow comes from the start of caramelization, but is there anything I can do about it?What to professional candy makers do?

Alas, Cindi, there’s nothing that I can think of. Even though you’re not technically at the caramelization point when you boil syrup to that degree, some of that weird molecular detritus is going to be created. Commercial candy makers get around the problem by boiling their syrups in vacuum chambers, so the syrup boils the moisture out without actually getting hot enough to caramelize any sugars. For indeed it’s not the heat that creates the different thicknesses, it’s the moisture content, but then you probably knew that already. Thanks for the great questions!

4 thoughts on “Caramel: Crystal or No?”

  1. Over Christmas I had a realization of the implications of several facts that I knew, but hadn’t before connected:
    1. Caramel is made from sugar that has actually caramelized
    2. Chewy caramels don’t get up to temperatures high enough for caramelization, so it’s mostly Maillard reaction with the dairy
    3. Chewy caramels aren’t caramel-flavored.

    Kinda messed with my head!

  2. Joe… Absolutely love your blog. Very imformative. Thank you. I wanted to offer my two-cents worth re: Cindi’s question about yellowing sugar syrups… I struggled with this issue a number of years ago, and three things come to my mind that *might* be of help, although there is no guarantee, in avoiding the unwanted yellow tinge she speaks of:

    First, if she is boiling her syrup on a gas range, she should check to see that the flame is not set so high that it is beginning to climb up the outside of the pot. If this is the case, then the outside of the pot will get so hot that the temperature of the syrup at the edge of the surface where it meets the inside of the pot at that level, will rise more quickly than the bulk of the syrup. In this case, as the average temperature of the syrup approaches the hard-crack, the temperature of the syrup at that edge can easily sneak into caramelization temperatures. That would indeed impart a golden hue to the batch. And even if the gas flame isn’t wide enough to lap up the sides of the pot, the heat from the flame below the pot can do the same damage. It sneaks around to the side of the pot and up, where it causes the metal to get scortching hot. To alleviate this I have wrapped my sugar pots in a multi-layered “jacket” of heavy duty aluminum foil at, and just below, the point where the surface of the syrup will be. This insulates the outside upper part of the pot from the seering heat of the gas flame below. It does help. Of course, if her range is electric or induction or radiant, then this is probably not the cause.

    Second, as you and another reader have pointed out, there is another reason that “yellow happens.” The so-called Maillard reactions will, among other things, cause proteins to turn brown in the presence of carbohydrates. These reactions are enhanced in the presence of heat. (Witness the rapid browning of steak and onions in a hot saute pan.) In many brands of sugar there may be trace amounts of protein impurities. Though they are slight, at the level of heat found when cooking sugar to a hard-crack, there may be enough impurities to impart the yellow tinge Cindi sees. Using a name brand sugar or, even better, sugar cubes can help in this case. I suggest sugar cubes because several of my colleagues swear by them for this very reason, claiming that some of the additives to granulated sugar are there to help avoid clumping, which is not required in the cubed form. I can’t attest to the accuracy of this, but if it’s true there may be something to it.

    I have a third thought, which I am reluctant to even mention it, because it gets into a realm that most home bakers and amateur candy-makers will probably not tread. But what the heck…! I have found that the use of isomalt instead of sucrose sugar will absolutely guarantee that no yellowing occurs. Of course, isomalt, which I’ve seen packaged as Decomalt or Isomalt, is not easy for home bakers or candy makers to obtain, as it is sold primarily to the trade. But for whatever reason, isomalt syrup remains absolutely clear as its temperature rises to its hard-crack stage. (Pulled sugar decorations, for example, something I am professionally well-versed in, made from untinted isomalt are absolutely snow white.) Since I mentioned it, I should also add that there are a few issues with using isomalt, however. (That is, aside from the difficulty in finding it locally.) Foremost is that isomalt is considerably less sweet than sucrose, so candy made with it has to be sweetened with something like Splenda. Also, to take advantage of its non-hygroscopic properties (that is, when properly used, isomalt will not absorb moisture from its surroundings to the extent that sucrose sugar will) isomalt syrups must be prepared in a specific way. Specifically, combine a quantity of isomalt with 10% of its weight in water. (For example, to each kilogram of isomalt add 10cc — or 100 grams — water.) If you don’t do that, and just melt and cook the isomalt (which you can seemingly do), the finished cooled product will turn into a gooey mess in no time flat. Gradually heat the isomalt/water mixture until it begins to melt, then raise the heat and cook to the hard crack stage which, for isomalt, is 340 degrees Fahrenheit, not 300 degrees as for sucrose. To sweeten add either liquid Splenda concentrate (also difficult to find) or granulated Splenda that has been previously dissolved in as little water as possible (though the exact amount of water isn’t all that critical.) Add the sweetener when the temperature of the syrup reaches about 300 degrees. I have found that about 50 grams of Splenda will sufficiently sweeten 1 kilogram of isomalt. I know it sounds artificial and awfully chemically, but commercial candy makers do use isomalt a lot. And since it is actually made from sucrose (itself a processed product) that has been further processed in a particular way — I don’t really understand the chemistry — it can be argued that it’s not entirely “artificial”, per se. That is, if you cock your head and squint your eyes, you can kind of convince yourself that it really is sugar!

    Anyway, sorry for butting in with so much, but I just thought I’d share my thoughts.

    1. This is invaluable, Barry! Don’t even think of apologizing. I rely on experts like you to provide the really detailed help that readers like Cindi need. Thanks so much for taking the time. I’m going to use your tips myself!

      And please feel free weigh in at length whenever you see fit!

      – Joe

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