Making toffee appears easy to people that have the knack. For other, less culinary gifted people, it seems like a dark art, shrouded in a cloak of intuitive knowledge. Some cooks like to take the scientific approach and use candy thermometers, skillfully measuring exact temperatures.
Fear not; for those who do not own a candy thermometer or are not in possession of magic toffee knowledge, help is at hand. It is possible to make toffee without a thermometer by knowing a few basic tricks and techniques.
Toffee can be made without a thermometer using the cold water candy test. The toffee mixture is dripped into a dish of cold water until the correct reaction is obtained. Toffee may be cooked until the hardball, soft crack, or hard crack stage. Some recipes can be made with careful timing.
You may not have the time or money to buy a sugar or candy thermometer but still want to produce toffee. Some people do not like to use thermometers and prefer to rely on other techniques when making candies.
Is It Possible to Make Toffee Without a Sugar Thermometer?
Toffee has been made since the late 1800s. The cooks of that era did not possess candy or sugar thermometers.
There are some basic techniques for ascertaining when toffee is sufficiently cooked. These techniques have been used ever since chefs started working with sugar to create candies.
How to Use the Drop Test to Make Toffee
Making toffee involves combining the ingredients and cooking them until they reach the correct consistency. The challenge lies in achieving the proper consistency without burning the mixture. Few things taste as bad as burnt sugar.
The drop test or cold water candy test involves dripping some of the toffee mixture into a dish of cold water and observing how the syrup reacts.
Prepare the dish of cold water to have it ready next to the pot of cooking toffee mixture. Drop a teaspoon of the toffee mixture into the cold water every few minutes to assess when the toffee has cooked sufficiently.
Toffee recipes usually provide instructions on which stage to stop cooking or the temperature that should be reached on the sugar thermometer.
The Stages of The Cold Water Candy Test
There are several stages in cooking sugar.
- The Thread Stage
230° F to 235° F
There is still approximately 20% water in the mixture. The sugar concentration is 80%. This stage of cooking sugar produces syrup. If a teaspoon of the mixture is dropped in the cold water, soft, thin threads will be formed. These strands will not form a ball when they are removed from the water.
- The Soft Ball Satge
235° F to 245° F
The sugar concentration is 85% as more water has been lost. When the toffee mixture is dropped into cold water, a softball will form. If this ball is removed from the water, it is soft and will flatten into a pancake shape.
- The Firm Ball Stage
245° F to 250° F
The sugar concentration is 87%. The mixture will form a firm ball when dropped into the cold water. It will not spontaneously flatten when removed from the water. It is malleable and can easily be flattened when pressed with the fingers.
- The Hard Ball Stage
250° F to 266° F
The sugar concentration is 92%. The syrupy mixture forms ropey threads when it is dripped. It will create a hard ball that cannot easily be flattened in cold water.
- The Soft Crack Stage
270° F to 290° F
The sugar concentration is 95%. The bubbles on top of the toffee mixture are small and close together. Dropping the mixture into cold water forms long threads. The strands are pliable when removed from the water and will bend before snapping or cracking.
- The Hard Crack Stage
300° F to 310° F
The sugar concentration is 99%. The toffee mixture will form hard threads when dropped into cold water. If you remove these threads from the water, they will snap easily under pressure. Caution must be exercised when handling these threads as they are extremely hot.
Allow them to cool in the water before testing them.
What Cold Water Candy Stage Is Toffee Cooked To?
Toffee is usually cooked to the hardball, soft crack, or hard crack stage. If cooked to the hardball stage, the toffee will be soft and easily chewable. The soft crack stage will give a slightly harder, more chewy toffee.
The hard crack stage creates brittle, hard toffee with a definite snap when bitten. It will require good jaw power to chew toffee cooked to the hard crack stage.
Recipes That Use Timing
There are some recipes available that claim you can make toffee by simply timing the cooking. In theory, this sounds reasonable, but there are some complications.
Altitude affects cooking time as the water boils at different temperatures depending on the altitude. Stating that the toffee mixture should boil for five minutes will be successful if the recipe was developed at sea level and you are cooking at sea level. If you live at a higher altitude, there is a good chance that your toffee mixture will burn.
Even if the recipe states that you should cook it for a specific time, it is always best to use the cold water candy test.
The Limitations of Sugar Thermometers When Making Toffee
In the same way that timing a recipe is not accurate, so is using the thermometer if you do not consider your altitude.
When using a sugar thermometer, you must adjust your temperature readings according to altitude.
You can complete a test where you measure the temperature five minutes after the water has come to the boil. This will provide you with the boiling point at your altitude. Water boils at sea level at 212° F (100° C). If your water boils four degrees below sea level boiling point, remove four degrees from the cooking temperature stated on the recipe.
Many people find this a complicated procedure and do not wish to complete it. As a result, toffee makers may prefer to use the cold water candy test in addition to or instead of a sugar thermometer.
The most reliable way of making toffee without a thermometer is by using the cold water candy test. Many people rely on this test even if they use a sugar thermometer as it is a check on when the toffee is cooked and prevents burning.
Sarah is the founder of Baking Kneads, LLC, a blog sharing guides, tips, and recipes for those learning how to bake. Growing up as the daughter of a baker, she spent much of her childhood learning the basics in a local bakery.