Can you overcook syrup?

Reader Jenni asks whether a candy syrup is usable for anything else after it’s overcooked, i.e., once soft ball syrup is cooked to, say, firm ball syrup. The answer, Jenni, is that you can fix an overcooked candy syrup by simply adding more water to it. For there’s really no “cooking” going on in a candy syrup that contains only sugar and water. Proteins aren’t coagulating, starches aren’t gelling, fats aren’t breaking down, nothing like that is going on. Indeed when you boil a sugar syrup, as long as it’s below the caramelization temperature, only one thing happens: its water content goes down. Seen in that light a sugar syrup’s temperature isn’t so much a measure of how hot it is — though it certainly is that — it’s a measure of water content. Soft ball syrup is soft because its relatively high water content makes it pliable. Hard crack is hard and brittle because it has a good deal less water and is so very rigid.

Add a few drops of water to a boiling sugar syrup and its temperature will drop instantly, not because the water is spreading coolness around, but because the water content of the syrup has just increased. Pretty cool huh? So if you overshoot the mark on your candy syrup don’t fret, just carefully add a little water and keep cooking. As long as it isn’t caramel yet, you can easily save it. Thanks for the question, Jenni!

12 thoughts on “Can you overcook syrup?”

  1. Recipes for meringue-based frostings specify a precise temperature for the sugar syrup and then recommend pouring the syrup from the pan into a measuring cup for easier adding to the whipped egg whites. I wonder about the syrup temperature dropping before it meets the eggs. If temperature is only a function of water content, does that mean the syrup temperature at contact is irrelevant?

    1. GREAT question, LML. The answer is that as long as the syrup is warm enough that it flows out of the container and into the whipped whites in the first place, its temperature is indeed irrelevant. At least it’s irrelevant to the performance of the syrup and the frosting in general. A lot of people like to think that the function of a hot syrup is to kill microbes in egg foam. Unfortunately that’s not the case. It will kill some microbes but not all of them, not by any means.

      Does that answer your question?

      – Joe

      1. Yes, thank you. With this better understanding of temperature control I have more enthusiasm for same-day making of 238 degree Italian meringue, 235 degree Boiled icing, Seven-minute icing and Swiss meringue to see how they vary.

  2. I made rose syrup , left to cook down but it came out a bit thicker than I want. Is it possible to thin it before bottling it. The syrup is at room temperature now.

    1. Yes, Diana! If it’s fairly thin to begin with you can just add water to get it the consistency you want. Only add a little to start, as it’s amazing how quickly a syrup will thin out!

      Cheers,

      Joe

  3. JoePastry-
    I have made a recipe of “Golden Syrup.”
    Now it is so thick that when I stick my finger into it, the indentation is still there hours later. I do not have much and I’d hate to scrap it. Can it be saved or can I turn it into something else?
    Sincerly,
    Greg Wolf

    1. Hey Greg!

      No, no need to scrap it. You can warm it up and stir in a little water to loosen it. A little will go a long way, so start with just a half teaspoon or so and see where you are. You can cool and heat over and over if need be, to get to the consistency you want.

      Good luck!

      – Joe

    1. St. Joe of the Sweet Syrups. I could live with that, John! But someone will have to call the Pope to nominate me, as nominating oneself for sainthood is considered gauche in Catholic circles. I’ll leave it in your capable hands!

      Cheers,

      – Joe

  4. Thanks for this. Was making a syrup base for homemade soda and got distracted during the bring to a boil phase. Came back and it was already less a syrup than a hard crack candy. Years ago I destroyed a pan that way. But adding water I was able to get it all out and at least save the pan. Was a little too overzealous adding the water to save the batch. But at least cleanup wasn’t a nightmare of chizeling so I could restart.

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