{science lesson} How To: Make Brittle Without a Recipe

I recently made some brittle real quick like and brought it to a party, and everyone was like “What is this CANDY CRACK? And HOW did you make it?!” But it was just some brittle and it took like 15 minutes to make and I didn’t measure anything or use a recipe or even go to the store. That is the secret of brittle. It takes like 15 minutes and you don’t have to measure or use a recipe or even go to the store.

I find it funny that there are so many recipes for brittle that say things like “3/4 cup sugar, 1/4 cup water, 1/2 cup nuts” and so forth. First of all, the water measurement is totally pointless, because to get sugar to caramelize into brittle, all the water has to boil off first. So let’s say you start with 1/4 cup of sugar and 1/2 cup water. That will make brittle after the water all boils off and the sugar can caramelize. Now let’s say you start with 1/4 cup of sugar and 19 cups of water. That will STILL make brittle, eventually, after several hours when all the water boils off. For you see, the sugar can’t caramelize until ALL THE WATER BOILS OFF. This is science!

The second thing is that you do not need a candy thermometer as many recipes call for. You know why? Because you have EYES. When the sugar makes its magical metamorphosis into brittledom it TURNS BROWN. If you use a thermometer to make brittle you are either a masochist or you can’t tell when something clear turns brown. If the second thing describes you then make it with a friend who can visually discriminate between different colors better than you, and problem solved.

So here is what you need for brittle. You need some sugar. How much, ish? Well I don’t know, how much brittle do you want? I usually throw around a cup in a heavy pot. But I certainly don’t measure it. Add some water. If you add 19 cups of water you will wait a very long time so just add a bit of water so the sugar is like really wet sand. It’s OK if it’s not really really wet or if it is really really wet because it is all going to go away. Turn on the flame on medium high and don’t stir it. Wait for science to occur. We will get back to that in a minute.

Meanwhile, once it’s over heat, you have a few other tasks to take care of. Don’t worry, because the magic of caramelization takes awhile–like 10 minutes or more. Start by getting out a piece of parchment paper and putting it on a flat pan. Set it aside. If the pan is wonky find a different pan because wonky will make brittle that’s thicker in parts and thinner in parts. Of course if that happens you should pretend you did that on purpose.

Now you need to dig around in your freezer and around your kitchen to figure out what you’re going to put in the brittle. Usually nuts are the first thought. But that’s probably because I have a lot of different kinds of nuts in my freezer. You can do citrus zest, candied fruit or candied ginger chopped up, coconut, and the like. It’s good to do a mixture. It almost never turns out poorly no matter what you put in it, unless you put fresh things in like raspberries or raw hamburger meat. So don’t put fresh things in. The hot sugar will make them gross. Also hamburger in brittle is gross. Why are you putting that in? You are not using common sense.

How much of these non-fresh mixed things should you put in? I’m going to go with “a handful.” Should you chop them? I don’t know, how big are they? How lazy are you? These are the questions you can ask yourself to make these decisions. Usually I chop larger nuts into smallish but not tiny pieces. But you can also just roll over them with a rolling pin or leave them big. Again, whatever you do, you must pretend that’s what you meant to do and not just something you did out of laziness.

OK! Now your sugar and water is bubbling away on the stove and you have a pile of chopped or non-chopped nuts and maybe something else. You need to check in on the sugar every once in awhile because when the water boils off and the temperature rises, the magic science will happen. The sugar will start to get a little yellow. At this point you should throw in your nuts and stir them with a wooden spoon or silicone spatula but only enough to mix them in and not more. You will want to stir it and mess with it more but you should not do any of those things. This is because of a different kind of science called crystallization. If you agitate the sugar too much it will start to form crystals, and then your brittle will be cloudy and your friends will shun your crappy unprofessional brittle and you will probably lose your job and have to become homeless. All because of SCIENCE. So you see, science can work for or against you. It can also ruin your life.

But I digress! You have carefully stirred in your accoutrements and the sugar is still darkening. Wait until it gets to be a pretty dark amber brown color. It will look darker in the pot than it actually is. Remember, you are not stirring it. You are perhaps swirling it a tad. That should be OK. Turn it off and carefully pour it onto the parchment. Grab the sides of the pan and move it all around to distribute the brittle. Wait until it gets hard. That will happen pretty fast. Break it into shards. Bask in the glory.

I need to mention that there is another kind of science that can work against you in this process which is called BURNING. Did you know the scientific term for “burning” is “burning”? I thought there would be a cooler, science-ier word for it but Google says no. Google also says that “science-ier” is not a word but I don’t care what they say. Anyway, caramelized sugar is really hot. How hot? I don’t know, because I already mentioned that I’m not using a thermometer, but I will say it is hella hot. It also sticks to you so it’s hard to get off your skin quickly and it latches on the continue burning you. So be careful.

That was a very long description for something that I said was easy to make. The how-to, in sum, for those who dislike incessant rambling:

  • Prepare a piece of parchment on a flat pan.
  • Put some sugar and a bit of water in a pot over medium high heat.
  • When it turns brown turn off the heat and add nuts and other stuff.
  • Pour it onto a parchment and move the pan to distribute it.
  • Wait until it hardens and crack it up.
  • Be careful the whole time because it’s hotter than you think.

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11 Responses

  1. Radha says:

    Hmmm. I just tried this. After the water boiled off, I ended up with sugar crystals and nuts. Not so yummy. What did I do wrong?

    Also, my housemates all claim that there should be butter in brittle. What do you think?

    • Karen says:

      I am sorry to hear that! If you ended up with crystals, it sounds like the sugar was too agitated/stirred too much, because that is how crystals form. Also what kind of sugar did you use? I have a feeling in your house you might be using some kind of organic/raw/non white sugar… which could also be the problem. It has to be your standard C&H white sugar to work.

      Re: butter, if you’re talking about a traditional peanut brittle you get at Christmas time- yes, butter/cream/etc is involved. That kind is milky brown in color and richer in flavor, but this non-dairy kind should come out a clear amber as in the picture, and is more often used as a garnish.

  2. Fig says:

    This is the best science lesson I have read all day, and if I were not suffering from what I am told is a cold but in reality may be the hantavirus, I would make it.

  3. Fig says:

    No, not really. I’m just melodramatic when I’m sick. And I VOW to make this when I’m better to make up for inadvertently making you feel sorrier for me than is warranted.

  4. Marghi says:


  5. Becky says:

    Why does the brittle not get cloudy when you stir in the nuts? Stirring in nuts is a whole lot of agitation. Why does it not cause crystallization?

    • Karen says:

      @Becky you just have to stir them in as gently as possible so it doesn’t crystallize. If you’re worried about it, you can lay the nuts out on the tray and pour the caramel mixture over, OR you can pour down the caramel and sprinkle with the nuts!

  6. Jayme says:

    This is great, you are great. Hilarious and informative!

  7. Shane says:

    From experience, the first step is to dissolve the sugar in the water, stirring over a very gentle heat, before stopping stirring turning it up and watching it brown. I think that’s why the early posters might have got crystallized brittle.

  8. Corinne Romaine says:

    Oh, my! Your instructions were PERFECT! This was just what I was looking for…I wanted clear brittle sprinkled with chopped pistachios and sea salt to decorate a dark chocolate fudge cheesecake. I “experimented” just now, and couldn’t be happier with the results! I did stir the sugar and water just until the sugar was pretty much dissolved…then only gave the pan an occasional “swirl” as it was boiling…not a crystal to be found! The results were clear as glass and beautiful…THANK YOU!