Of all the ways you eat caramelized sugar syrups, toffee, butterscotch, caramel, and saltwater taffy are, hands down, the best. For some reason, they radiate the warmth of nostalgia.
And yet, a lot of people grow up without really being able to tell how four candies that share their basic ingredients could end up being so different.
Several factors along the manufacturing process can end up affecting the flavor profile and texture. In the end, you can either get something that’s super chewy like toffee or saucy like butterscotch.
In this post, we go over a thorough toffee vs. butterscotch, caramel, and taffy comparison. We focus on how each is made, what it feels like, its flavor profile, what pairs well with it, and how you can store it properly.
First things first, let’s take a long hard look at what makes toffee syrup so unique!
All You Need to Know About the Toffee Syrup
The good-old toffee is a confection of caramelized sugar and butter. Milk or cream is then added to act as a blending medium when it’s heated to around 300-310℉.
Getting the temperature right here can make or break the recipe. That’s because getting the syrup to the hard-crack stage is essential to making toffee.
When the confection starts boiling, a portion of the sugar is separated into glucose and fructose. As a result, the syrup turns into a brittle, thread-like structure, which gives toffee its characteristic texture.
It might not sound like a big deal now, but you’ll see how the cooking temperature can make two entirely different candies when we get to the comparison in a minute.
Yet another tiny but crucial component that often gets overlooked in toffee making is the acidic touch of lemon juice. Although it’s used in very small amounts, it can keep the sugary mixture from crystallizing.
Some recipes swap the regular lemon juice for golden syrup. Both are valid options, but golden syrup can enhance the buttery flavor a bit more without being overly tart.
In some cases, people might add a tiny portion of flour to make the mixture more dense and rich. Nuts are also a common addition, but to get this comparison started, we’ll stick to the plain toffee.
Toffee vs. Butterscotch, Caramel, and Taffy: 7 Core Differences
Now that we’ve covered how toffee is made, we’re all set for a thorough head-to-head comparison with butterscotch, caramel, and taffy.
From the ingredients to the shelf life, seven main differences distinguish between these caramelized sweets.
Let’s dig in!
1 – Ingredient List
Sugar and butter are the core of toffee, and they’re all also the basis of many other candies, including butterscotch, caramel, and taffy.
The slight shifts from the primary ingredients, thickeners, flavoring agents, and the way you process it are what make each of those blends distinctive.
For one, to make caramel, you use white sugar, butter, and heavy cream. Adding salt is optional and depends on what the recipe calls for. As an additive, it can calm down the flavor intensity.
Butterscotch, on the other hand, has dark brown sugar as the main component instead of the white granulated sugar staple in toffee and caramel.
Taffy’s ingredient list is a tad bit more complicated.
Besides sugar and butter, you’ll need corn syrup, glycerin, salt, and cornstarch to create the basic taffy blend. However, it’s worth the extra effort!
2 – Cooking Temperature
Both butterscotch and saltwater taffy are cooked at the soft-crack stage at 270-290℉. That’s only one stage before the syrup gets to toffee’s hard-crack stage, which cooks at around 300-310℉.
Meanwhile, caramel’s ideal cooking temperature exceeds toffee at 340℉. By this point, the sugar concentrate turns from hard-crack consistency to a transitory clear liquid stage before it finally forms the iconic brown liquid we know as caramel.
Keep in mind that the longer the blend cooks, the more concentrated the syrup gets. For instance, if you’re starting at an 80% thread-like syrup, it’ll get to a softball phase by 240℉ and 95% at the butterscotch’s soft crack.
It also hardens gradually till it burns and turns bitter. That’s why it’s not recommended to let the sugar concentrate heat over 350℉.
Be careful, though. All these stages can be dangerously hot to the touch!
3 – Post-Cooking Processing
Toffee doesn’t require a lot of processing. You only need to pour the hot mixture into a flat plate and let it sit for 3-4 hours before breaking it into shape.
Processing caramel is even easier since it’s fine staying in its liquid form. However, it’s important to note that it’s better to add the cream at the last step before cooling and storing.
Butterscotch is a different story since it’s sold in a lot of different shapes and forms. For the most part, it’s either left as a dense paste or added to hard candy as a flavoring agent.
On the other side, the taffy soft-crack mixture needs to go through a pulling phase. Originally, candy makers would stretch and pull it by hand to release all the trapped air.
Today, most manufacturers use machines that hook, pull, and fold the blend over and over again till you get the bubble-free and chewy taffy. It’s actually a very satisfying process to watch!
4 – Texture and Consistency
From cooking temperature to the cooling speed, all the different steps that the candy mix goes through tend to change the texture drastically.
Plain toffee has this iconic hard but chewy texture enclosed in a slightly crunchy crust. This crispiness increases with quick cooling, too.
Some people like adding nuts to break things up a bit, but it could make the blend even more brittle.
In terms of texture, taffy is the closest to toffee. The way it’s made balances the chewiness and elasticity.
However, it could lean slightly to the softer side. Plus, the cornstarch in the mix helps reduce stickiness and smooth the surface out.
On the other side of the spectrum, caramel is way runnier.
As a result, the tiniest bit of crystallization can ruin the mix and turn it into a grainy and lumpy mess. Plus, it only gets stickier when consumed.
Butterscotch is usually more pliable than toffee. That’s why it makes a great drizzle. It’s creamy and velvety without being too runny.
5 – Flavor Profile
Toffee tastes like a primary caramel base with rich buttery undertones. In a way, it’s a classic balance between bitter and sweet.
However, caramel itself is slightly sweeter since the syrup has more time to concentrate. That’s why a lot of recipes call for salted caramel to turn the sugary taste down a notch.
Meanwhile, because butterscotch isn’t cooked as long as toffee, it’s more muted. Some people like to give the flavor profile a little punch by adding vanilla and salt.
It’s hard to describe how taffy tastes since it’s rarely served plain. Most brands give it a twist by using an extract like banana, coffee, chocolate, berry, licorice, or even minty lemon.
The four caramelized candies have a very close flavor profile range. After all, they share the bulk of their ingredients, so it’s expected to find only subtle differences.
6 – Ideal Pairing
Toffee works with both savory and sweet dishes. It also pairs well with butterscotch, but it could be a bit too sweet for some people.
Because of its velvety-like texture, butterscotch is a great drizzle for ice creams, cookies, tarts, and even orange-based desserts!
Caramel can do the same thing by complementing the bitterness of cold coffee. Since it’s runny, it can blend easily with the caffeinated drink without having to heat or stir vigorously.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that the regular caramel sauce that we’re talking about is different from the syrup pumps you see in coffee stores. Those pumps are even more fluid to avoid clumping at the bottom of the cup.
Saltwater taffy, like the distinguished candy it is, pairs with the widest range of flavors among our four competitors. So, if you see an unconventional combination of taffy, don’t shy away from giving it a shot!
7 – Shelf Life
It might be an unexpected twist, but extremely high sugar concentrations can actually help slow pathogen growth. That’s because it binds to the water content and leaves unsuitably dry conditions for the microorganisms.
Yet, it’s always a good idea to monitor the sugar-to-cream ratio in all your candy recipes.
Fresh toffee is good to go for up to two months, assuming that you store it in an airtight container away from heat.
Homemade butterscotch can be safe for consumption for around three days at room temperature. If you keep it in the fridge, it can last for around three months.
Similarly, caramel requires storing in a cool place.
Meanwhile, taffy is a bit more resilient. It can survive a week or so without refrigerating.
If it spoils, it’ll show plenty of warning signs, too. It’ll lose its shape’s integrity and turn tasteless. You might even be able to spot mold growth.
Store-bought sauces and candies will typically last longer than homemade ones. So, take your pick here between freshness and longevity.
Substituting Toffee With Butterscotch, Caramel, and Taffy
It’s always convenient to know what confections you can use interchangeably. The issue here is that even items with highly similar ingredients can give you different results when added to any given recipe.
So, is it possible to swap toffee for butterscotch, caramel, or saltwater taffy?
Because of the drastic variation in texture, it wouldn’t be a particularly good idea to use butterscotch (or caramel, for that matter) instead of toffee.
If you’re looking for something to replace toffee, saltwater taffy might be a better fit.
It’s a softer version of regular American toffee. For all reasons and purposes, you can substitute one for the other in a pinch.
However, swapping butterscotch and caramel in dessert recipes could work just fine in most cases. After all, caramel sauce is only slightly more watery than butterscotch.
Here are a few frequently asked questions about toffee, butterscotch, caramel, and taffy:
Q: Why is it called saltwater taffy?
A: Unlike popular belief, taffy has salt and a bit of water, but not literal saltwater. People have been saying “saltwater taffy” for so long that it’s become a common misconception.
The weird name traces back to 1883 when a boardwalk candy store in Atlantic City flooded with saltwater. The store owner, David Bradley, joked about his soaked stock, and ever since, the name has become a norm.
Q: Do you have to stir caramelized sugar when making toffee?
A: It’s also a common misconception that you need to continuously stir caramelized candy syrups till they’re done cooking. That can be the wrong choice for many reasons.
For one, it could ruin the texture by causing large molecules to collide and crystallize. Plus, it can make an unnecessary mess.
Instead, you can stir occasionally to make sure the syrup doesn’t stick to the pan bottom.
Q: How can you keep toffee fresh longer?
A: If you store toffee wrong, you not only risk microbial contamination, but you’re also ruining the texture. To keep the moisture to a minimum, layer wax paper under the toffee in an airtight container.
Whenever you’re cooling any food, avoid the danger zone around 140℉ to reduce bacterial growth. This health tip can apply to the majority of fresh products, not just toffee candies.
That’s a wrap on our toffee vs. butterscotch, caramel, and taffy comparison!
They’re all incredibly delicious treats that trace back to one divine ingredient: caramelized sugar.
The way you cook and process the caramelized sugar is what makes the distinction between one candy and the other.
In a way, butterscotch is toffee that still hasn’t finished cooking. Meanwhile, the caramel is the most fluid of the bunch.
However, if you’re looking for the closest resemblance to toffee, saltwater taffy might be the one to go for.
Just remember to brush those teeth to keep the cavities away!
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.