Candy Magic

How to Make Candy Magic at Home

The F&W guide to transforming sugar into this season’s most crackly, chewy, creamy, and covetable treats.
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Candymaking is chemistry at its absolute coolest. In the span of just 60 degrees on a candy thermometer, sugar syrup can turn from wispy strands to gelatinous balls to brittle shards, yielding sweets that range from rock candy and fudge to gummies and lollipops in the process. Here, classic candies get the gourmet treatment—no artificial dyes or unpronounceable stabilizers—just good old-fashioned sugar, water, and some knockout flavor combinations to take your candy crush to a sweet new level.

What's the grooviest ingredient in your pantry?

Sugar is straight-up wild, man—at least when you turn up the heat. Granulated sugar (sucrose) is composed of fructose and glucose molecules, which, at room temperature, are all stuck together in a neatly organized pattern. But expose sugar to heat, and those molecules separate, leaving the molten sugar syrup in a woozy, unstable state.

Sugar has an affinity for its natural, orderly crystalline structure; if left to cool undisturbed, the molecules will realign, stacking into chunky, distinctly visible crystals, like the Peppermint Rock Candy. Stirring the cooling sugar syrup interrupts this process; the sugar forms tiny crystals that are too small to be detected on the tongue, resulting in candy with a smooth and creamy mouth-feel, like the fudge at right. Introduce air to the equation, and the texture changes completely, yielding the crackly Pistachio- Rose Brittle; stirring in fat also leads to changes in texture (see "Totally Tubular Texture," below).

While certain ingredients do impact the texture of candy, the most important factors in the formation of different candies are temperature and time (see "The Six Sugar Stages," below).

Fudge can be finicky; stir too little or too late, and it can go grainy. This version overcomes that obstacle with a surprise ingredient—marshmallows. Their gelatin coats the sugar crystals as they form, resulting in an ultra-creamy texture. Enhanced by the deep, roasted flavor of espresso, dark cocoa adds a rich chocolate flavor that's perfectly balanced with malted milk powder and creamy white chocolate.

White Chocolate Swirl Malted Milk Fudge
Credit: Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Torie Cox / Prop Styling by Christine Keely

Why do gummies melt in your mouth, but lollipops shatter if dropped?

It's all about water—or the lack of it. Sugar and water are the build-ing blocks of candy; the longer and hotter they're cooked, the more evaporation occurs. The less water, the more concentrated the sugar solution, which allows the sugar molecules to tightly pack together into a compact, hard candy, like the Red Hot Lollipops. While a candy thermometer is the most reliable tool for testing temperature (scroll down for our favorite model), veteran candymakers swear by the venerable cold-water test. Literally cooking by feel, this method involves dropping a small dollop of the hot syrup into a glass of very cold water, letting it cool slightly, then touching it to determine the texture. The resulting feel is assigned to one of six stages, the gospel of candymaking.

The Six Sugar Stages

Thread Stage (215°F TO 230°F) Soft, loose, short strands

Soft-Ball Stage (234°F TO 240°F) Soft, pliable, sticky ball

Firm-Ball Stage (245°F TO 250°F) Firm, malleable ball

Hard-Ball Stage (252°F TO 266°F) Solid ball that will flatten if pressed

Soft-Crack Stage (270°F TO 290°F) Long strands that are firm but flexible

Hard-Crack Stage (295°F TO 310°F) Stiff strands that are firm and brittle

Kumquat Riesling Gummies

Bright orange kumquats give these gorgeous gummies their all-natural sunny glow and a puckery, sweet-and-sour flavor. To play up the tartness, a citric acid coating adds a burst of sour flavor and a craveable quality. Kung Fu Girl Riesling has notes of white peach, mandarin orange, and apricot that balance the tang.

Get the Recipe: Kumquat-Riesling Gummies

Credit: Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Torie Cox / Prop Styling by Christine Keely
Red Hot Lollipops

Say goodbye to red dye no. 5—these scarlet suckers are naturally colored with dried hibiscus flowers. Lollipops owe their clarity and hardness to a lengthy cook time; the resulting evaporation allows the sugar molecules to pack tightly together, yielding these long-lasting treats. Cinnamon oil (and optional cayenne for spice lovers) brings warming flavor to these lollipops.

Get the Recipe: Red Hot Lollipops

Credit: Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Torie Cox / Prop Styling by Christine Keely

Sweet Supplies

Making candy at home doesn't require a separate pantry full of gear, but these special tools and items will make the process easier.

Candy Thermometer

Your grandmother's retro candy thermometer (likely hiding in the back of your kitchen drawer) will work perfectly for these recipes; if you'd like to level up, we recommend the clip-on Taylor stainless steel paddle thermometer, available at amazon.com.

Silicone Molds

While you can let the Kumquat-Riesling Gummies set in a 9- x 5-inch pan and cut them into squares, the shimmering half-sphere gummies require a special silicone mold. We prefer the 140-cavity mold by Palksky, available at amazon.com.

Candy Sticks

We used 4-inch compressed cardboard sticks for the Red Hot Lollipops on and Peppermint Rock Candy, available at your local craft store or at michaels.com. For a more classic look, wooden sticks are available at amazon.com.

Parchment Paper

By their nature, the Vegan Coconut-Ginger Caramels are sticky. While regular parchment paper makes a perfectly fine wrapper, to ensure an extra-clean release, LaGrange parchment is coated with food-safe silicone and is available at amazon.com.

Silica Gel Packs

If you plan on storing candy for an extended length of time, consider purchasing silica gel packs, which when popped into storage containers will absorb moisture and keep your candy structurally sound and looking beautiful. Find them at amazon.com.

Like stalactites, these shimmering clusters of peppermint-flavored crystals take time to form. It's a captivating (and sweet!) science experiment that's beautiful to behold as the candy comes to life on your kitchen counter. Clothespins might seem like an odd tool to use in candymaking, but they are perfect for suspending the lollipop sticks in the sugar solution.

Get the Recipe: Peppermint Rock Candy

Credit: Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Torie Cox / Prop Styling by Christine Keely

Totally Tubular Texture

Whether you like it gooey-chewy or crackly-crunchy, texture plays a huge role when it comes to enjoying your favorite candy. Chewy candies like caramels and gummies owe their smooth, satisfying texture to interlopers. Known in the candy circuit as "interfering agents," these ingredients (such as corn syrup, fats, and acids) alter candy texture by butting in and preventing sugar crystals from reforming in an orderly fashion. Acidic ingredients, such as lemon juice and cream of tartar, damage the chemical bonds, preventing the molecules from re-attaching and causing graininess. Fats like butter and cream also interfere with crystallization, keeping caramels soft and satiny.

On the crunchy end of the spectrum, the Pistachio-Rose Brittle has a surprising ingredient to credit for its crackly texture: air.

While some candies, like saltwater taffy, are aerated manually, honeycomb toffee and brittle are aerated through the magic of chemistry. Adding alkaline baking soda to naturally acidic sugar produces thousands of tiny bubbles; these carbon dioxide pockets get trapped in the solidifying candy as it cools, creating a sponge-like, porous texture.

Vegan Coconut Ginger Caramels

In candymaking, fat of any kind hinders crystallization, resulting in a softer texture. For these ginger- and chile-spiked caramels, plant-based fat from coconut replaces the typical butter, resulting in creamy, chewy caramels that are perfect for anyone on your gift list. Thai chile brings complex, fruity heat to these fragrant caramels; substitute a pinch of crushed red pepper, if desired.

Credit: Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Torie Cox / Prop Styling by Christine Keely

Brown sugar pulls double duty in this brittle: slightly acidic, it combines with alkaline baking soda to produce the thousands of tiny bubbles that are crucial to this brittle's airy texture. It also gives this candy a deeper caramel color and flavor with a shorter cook time, resulting in a more tender snap. Quality saffron is key to both the flavor and color of this vibrant, crisp brittle that has great crunch. A striking contrast of green pistachios and pink rose petals makes it a visual treat, too.

Get the Recipe: Pistachio-Rose Brittle

Pistachio Rose Brittle
Credit: Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Torie Cox / Prop Styling by Christine Keely