The Difference Between Candy and Sauce

My failure to distinguish between toffee, caramel and butterscotch sauces and their candy equivalents in an earlier post got me into some well-deserved hot water (syrup?). I confess it had never really occurred to me before, not being much of a confectioner, but caramel sauce is not necessarily just melted or diluted caramel. Indeed, chewy caramel candies are made by cooking caramel to the firm ball stage (248F). Caramel sauce is made by cooking sugar until it practically burns (300 – 330F or even more if you like it smoky!).

Similarly, toffee candy is made by cooking butter, brown sugar (and often some white sugar) to the hard ball stage (265F or so). Butterscotch candy, by cooking roughly the same ingredients to the soft crack stage (290F or so). This is what gives these candies different textures at the candy store. Butterscotch and toffee sauces, at least to my mind, are all but indistinguishable as they call for mostly the same ingredients (butter and brown sugar plus cream and maybe some vanilla) cooked until the mixture is homogenous and maybe a touch reduced.

So: candy, sauce. The processes for making each are surprisingly different. Shame on me for not calling that out sooner!

21 thoughts on “The Difference Between Candy and Sauce”

  1. I guess I am not a confectioner either, I had no idea when I made caramel sauce that I needed to get it that hot!
    I guess I have been doing it wrong. Ignorance can be bliss!

    1. I tend to like mine semi-burnt, Frankly. As long as it’s brown it works!

      – Joe

    1. Hey Catherine!

      Are you asking that because there’s always some sort of world-historical principle involved on this blog? 😉

      Offhand I don’t think there is, but it’s a very interesting question. Candies came before sauces for sure, and while I really don’t know much candy history, my guess is that toffee and butterscotch are rather recent inventions. Candies were commonplace until the mid-1800’s, and a large candy industry didn’t come into being until the late 1800’s. That’s the time when you would have seen a lot of candies being codified and marketed under specific names and brands. The sauces would definitely have come later, and again I’m just guessing here, but they probably came into common use in soda fountains, in the early-to-mid 1900’s. As for when they would have started appearing on plated desserts, that was probably still later, the 60’s and 70’s probably.

      Fascinating question, Cath! Thanks!

      – Joe

      1. Guess I was hoping for the great Austrio-Hungarian caramelized sugar feud, a sweeping saga that would put Herman Wouk to shame. But I had always wondered about what seemed like subtle differences. Thanks again for making things simultaneously clearer and more interesting.

        1. There’s almost always one of those with me, isn’t there? How molasses precipitated the Bolshevik revolution or something. Maybe next time, Cath! 😉

          – Joe

  2. Huh, I never knew it was temperature thing! I just always thought it was more related to how much cream you added… Maybe that’s why my caramel “sauce” always gets a bit brittle.

    1. The candies are more a temperature thing for sure. But you say your caramel sauce gets brittle? That actually (probably) is related to how much butter or cream you add! When do you notice it happening?

      – Joe

      1. I have no idea… In the past, I didn’t use a thermometer or timer. Just eyeballed everything. I think I just didn’t pay attention very well, thinking “oh I add liquid and it’s caramel sauce!”

        1. Hehe…I gotcha!

          The brittleness could be created in a couple of ways. It could be that you’re not using high enough heat in the cooking step, and in that case you sometimes go through a “candy” stage where the whole mess gets hard and flaky before it melts into caramel (swirl the pan over high heat next time). The other possibility: you’re not adding enough cream at the end to dilute the caramel and/or not stirring it in completely. This can also create candy-like bits that need to be melted back into the batch. Either one of those sounds like possibilities?

          – Joe

          1. It’s most likely a temperature issue then I think. I’m always afraid it’ll burn, so perhaps to cautious when making the caramel sauce. I’ll definitely try it with a candy thermometer next time. 🙂

          2. Hey Jey!

            I think high heat and your eyeballs are the best tools, since by the time you get a measure of the temperature the caramel will likely overcook. As long as it’s a nice brown, you’re good!

            Cheers and let me know how it goes!

            – Joe

  3. Thank you! I am so glad to have the temperature references. EVERY time I have made caramel sauce by eye and ear and nose, I’ve burnt it beyond saving. (I make toffee, with a thermometer, and have rave results every time.) I am going to try caramel sauce again, using my trusty thermometer, and hoping for great results.

  4. I’m the opposite: I can’t stand it when my caramel sauce tastes as if it was left on the burner too long. The perfectionist in me has to start over.

    I actually over-cooked a recent batch, re-did it, and purposely didn’t let it cook for quite as long. Of course, I should’ve let it cook a couple of minutes longer (as it was not quite as “caramel-y” as I would’ve liked), but anything is better than something that tastes scorched.

    There’s a very fine line between not cooking it long enough and over-doing it, but when you get it right, there’s nothing better poured on top of a couple of scoops of ice cream! It just takes practice.

    But, the process is a lot easier when you add a dash (1/8 t) of cream of tartar to your sugar/water mixture at the start. It keeps things very fluid later on so you don’t end up with little pieces of rock candy floating to the top of your cream, half-and-half / butter mixture at the very end.

    I’m sure Joe already knows this trick, but I just thought I’d toss my two cents in, because Caramel Sauce is one of my favorite things to make 🙂

    1. In fact I did not know that trick! Very interesting!

      I’m not saying I like a scorched taste, but a certain amount of smoke I think gives a good sauce character. It’s a very fine line as you say. A few seconds can make the difference between a complex sauce and a burned one. Caramel sauce generates its own heat after a point, so as soon as that first small black spot appears ya gotta add the cream! Wow…now I really want to make some!

      Thanks, Andrew!

      – Joe

  5. About the cream of tartar: I kept having issues with the sugar crystallizing after adding the butter/half-and-half (I prefer that to heavy cream, as I think you get a thinner consistency that’s perfect for ice cream and not as rich). I read online that the acid in the cream of tartar prevents a lot of that from happening, so I tried it. To my surprise, it worked. My sauce has been smooth ever since. That’s not to say that there’s no crystallization, though: Any crystals that find their way to the sides of the pan towards the very end of cooking will cause a little crystallization when the butter/dairy are added, but using the cream of tartar noticeably reduces the amount. I’ve also noticed that the syrup becomes a lot clearer as the water cooks out, so it’s actually easier to see when the sugar starts caramelizing on the bottom of the pan.

  6. No this is actually fine, most of us don’t know the difference and we intermix the terminologies. I am happy that you made an effort in understanding the actual meaning. Well, thanks for sharing this information, glad reading 🙂

    1. Thank you, Anna! I appreciate you prodding me a little with this. I can get lazy!


      – Joe

  7. I thought caramel was made using white sugar only and butterscotch using brown sugar. Butterscotch and toffee always had butter but caramel sauce didn’t necessarily use butter. I don’t remember where I got this idea. Is there a rule?

    1. Hey Susan!

      That mostly right-on. Caramel is most often made with white sugar and butterscotch and toffee with brown sugar (light or dark). Also it’s true that caramel sauce doesn’t always have butter, though I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule about that.

      Thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

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