{top tip} Getting Accurate Candy Temperatures Without A Thermometer

In my home kitchen, I use a lot of shortcuts and tricks gleaned from my checkered pants past. From time to time I will pull one out of my toque and share it with you! If you have questions or requests, leave them in the comments and I’ll tackle them in a future post.

You’re all set with a fudge, caramel, penuche, or candy recipe, and as you read the directions more closely you learn you need a candy thermometer. But it’s Thanksgiving/Christmas Day/post-apocalypse so there is no way you’re getting one today! What to do? Don’t fret: you don’t need a candy thermometer to get accurate temperatures, just a little know-how and a bowl of ice water.

On a candy thermometer, and in most recipes, you will get measurements in 2 forms: a numeric temperature and a stage (e.g. “soft ball”, “hard crack”, etc.) Obviously, if you don’t have a thermometer you should just forget about the number and focus on the stage, because the names of the stages correspond to a physical matter state. In other words, if it’s called “soft ball” stage, that means the mixture should get to a point where it forms a soft ball at room temperature.  (While this may sound intuitive, to many people it’s not.) So to get your candy recipe just right, you have to figure out what stage you’re in. All it takes is a spoon, some ice water, and a few tries.

Heat the mixture as directed. While it’s coming to a boil, set a medium-sized bowl of ice water and a small metal spoon (like a normal spoon you would eat ice cream with) next to the stove. When the mixture has been bubbling for a few minutes, do your first test. Dip the spoon into the mixture and get a little bit on the spoon (1/4 tsp to 1/2 tsp.) Dip the mixture-coated spoon immediately into the ice water and plunge your hand in to grab the now-cooling sugar mixture. Roll it around between your fingers and thumb and see what it feels like. If you’re looking for…

  • Thread: It should form fine threads that disintegrate in the water within seconds
  • Soft ball: It should form a ball that holds together but still feels a little squishy and can be flattened when you press on it
  • Firm ball: It should form a ball that holds its shape, is a little sticky, and about as firm as a store bought caramel
  • Hard ball: It should form a ball that’s hard to the touch yet pliable (if you threw it on the floor it wouldn’t shatter)
  • Soft crack: You should be able to separate it into threads that are hard but not brittle
  • Hard crack: You should be able to separate it into threads that will crack cleanly with a snap

This process will take a few tries at least, but you can see (well, feel) it moving through the stages to give you an indicator of how close you are. It’s kind of like a science experiment.

It bears mentioning that when I learned this process from a French chef, he insisted that only wusses used spoons – real pastry chefs used their FINGERS to dip the sugar instead of a spoon. The thought is that if you dip your fingers in the ice water and then the syrup and back into the water really really quickly you won’t get burned, but my experience tells me that’s not entirely true. If you do it enough, you will build up some nasty burn calluses and wear them as a badge of honor. So unless you have, like, a prosthetic hook hand or are reasonably masochistic and/or made of asbestos, I would not recommend that technique.

**thermometer photo by katerha on Flickr

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16 Responses

  1. Adeline says:

    Thank you for this great tips. It is so very informative. I love candies so much, especially dark chocolates.

  2. These are priceless tips! Thank you so much!

  3. becky says:

    thank you. i needed this today.

  4. Samm Warfel says:

    Please help! I tried to make hard ball and pours it into a metal pan too soon and now I have firm ball, is there anything I can do to make it harder?

  5. Samm says:

    I had to start over unfortunately. But After that fiasco my brother bought me a thermometer Haha. So all is well. thanks you though!

  6. Gay says:

    I want to make toffee but it says to cook until it reaches 300 degrees with a candy thermometer. I don’t have one and it doesn’t mention anything about stages just degrees. Please help

  7. Zaynab says:

    Thank you so much!
    I have to make caramel apples soon and it says it have to reaches 200 degrees how much is that? 🙂

  8. Katee says:

    I am making marshmallows soon it says if you dont have a candy thermometer then do a rolling boil, what is a rolling boil?

    • Karen says:

      @Katee that’s when the mixture is boiling with really large and vigorous bubbles. Not just the little bubbles. Like, boiling really HARD.

  9. Sienna says:

    I need 350f but I don’t have a thermometer and there is not stage on the recipie what do I do

  1. December 22, 2011

    […] this recipe or play with the spices to your liking. If you don’t have a candy thermometer, here’s a guide to help you get to soft ball stage without […]

  2. April 26, 2017

    […] Second, an instant-read thermometer isn’t strictly necessary for cooking sugar, although you can get a thermometer like that from any kitchen supply store and most hardware stores, and it does make the whole process much simpler and more reliable. You can always go old-school with the water tests. […]