How to Sleigh the Holiday Season: Sugar Basics for Candy Making Beginners

I guess you could call this a sugar crash course 😉 . Alright, we’re gonna get serious about this whole sugar thing. I am posting two recipes that deal with the molten hot mess that candy making can be and I want to make sure all you lovelies are safe while making treats this year. I have read too many recipes that don’t really say how dangerous sugar can be let alone tell you how to properly handle it, not on my blog, no siree! Sugar is no joke and shouldn’t be taken lightly. This guide will walk you through how to handle sugar safely and other tips, and give you all the essentials you’ll need for candy making plus alternatives. Let’s get started!

This guide is focusing on working with sugar-based candies like candy canes, ribbon candy, and hard candy in general. These candies generally have to be handled and molded by hand. This is also a great guide for working with sugar in candies like divinity, marshmallows, and other things that use molten sugar but may not be handled directly.

If you are making candy for neighbors, friends, etc. this season, please see my guide on Making Food Gifts Safely.

Here are the categories for this guide (click to skip to that category):

Sugar Safety

Basic Sugar Dos and Don’ts

Tools and Equipment

I am releasing a really fun candy recipe this Saturday, so subscribe to get notified of when it’s out!

Sugar Safety

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You cannot tell how hot sugar is just by looking at it. With metal, you can see it get hot as it turns red, or water will steam and boil. When sugar is off the heat and ready to be candy, it will still be very very hot and it won’t be bright red, steaming, boiling, or giving any indicators of how hot it is. You need to use your common sense and patience as well as abandon the fear of failing. It’s okay to fail if it means keeping yourself from burns. If you want to know if you should touch it or if it is ready, take an ungloved hand and hover it over the sugar mixture, that will tell you real quick just how hot it is. If it is still flowing like honey or syrup, it is NOT safe to touch with your hand (gloved or not), wait until it starts to hold a shape when you move it instead of just turning into a puddle instantly, then it may be ready to handle with a cotton gloved hand. Don’t be afraid of the candy cooling too much, it has a long way to go before it is unusable (and your hands remaining usable for the foreseeable future is more important). Be patient and mindful of what you are doing.

NEVER eat the candy until it is completely hard like glass. The outside may feel cool, but the inside could be molten, DO NOT EAT until it is cooled.

If you think the candy is ready to be handled, just quickly tap the candy with a finger (that is gloved) and see if it’s hot. If you can’t touch it for longer than 10 seconds without having to pull your hand away, it is too hot to start messing with. You’ll get the hang of it.

Basic Sugar Dos and Don’ts

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  • NEVER touch or eat sugar that is still pliable in any way. Sugar can be really hot without having any indicators, so never touch or attempt to eat it until it is hard and set up. If you can still bend it (or if forms in a puddle easily) it is beyond hot to touch let alone eat. Read more about this in Sugar Safety above.
  • Keep a large bowl of ice water near you at all times. When first working with sugar it can be hard to not burn yourself. Keeping a bowl of ice water nearby ensures that if you get sugar on you, you can stop the burning by dunking it in ice water. Unlike other hot substances, you can’t wipe hot sugar off you very easily. It sticks to your skin and can take the skin with it if you don’t cool it down first and quickly.
  • Get a freaking thermometer. Yes, you can drop the sugar in some cold water and see if it’s done, but do you really want to go through all that effort of waiting for the sugar to be hot enough and find out your little water test didn’t work out and now the whole batch is ruined? Help yourself and get a thermometer. Also, candy thermometers can be used in a variety of ways for a variety of candies too so it’s definitely not a unitasker or solely for sugar-based work! More on this below.
  • Learn how to adjust the temperature desired based on your altitude and other factors. Since I live at a higher altitude, I have to decrease the final temperature on any sugar recipe by 9 degrees. The general rule is that for every 500ft above sea level you must subtract 1 degree from the final temp. So we are 4,600 ft above sea level which means if the candy should be done at 310°F, mine will be done at 301°F. You can also use boiling water for the same purpose (and to calibrate your thermometer). Water should boil at 212°F, if yours begins boiling at 216°F you should add 4 degrees to all recipes.
  • Don’t make candy on a humid day. You should never work with hard candy on a day that is above 35% humidity. It will make the candies soft, sticky, and they may never set properly. Check your cities humidity level the week you want to make candy to find a good non-humid day. If it is raining or snowing, don’t make candy that day!Sugar Course 1
  • Do not stir boiling sugar, EVER! Some recipes will say to stir the sugar until it dissolves while it is on the heat. At this point, the sugar is not boiling, but just beginning to heat up and is okay to stir. However, once the sugar is dissolved, don’t mess with the candy. This is why a good heavy-bottomed saucepan is so important as it can provide even heat to prevent hot spots and overall burning (read more about getting a proper saucepan below). Now, as with most things this rule isn’t so black and white. There will be recipes where you stir in ingredients while it is coming to temperature and boiling still on the heat, just make sure the utensil you are using to add is completely clean and dry and that you don’t try to stir it like you would other things, be gentle.
  • Do not add anything to the sugar mixture while it is boiling. Add all flavorings and colorings after the sugar has reached temperature and is off the heat. If making peanut brittle, you will add raw peanuts while the sugar is on the heat and coming to temperature (cooks the peanuts), you may add molasses for molasses hard candy before the sugar is done. If the recipe doesn’t state to put it in while the sugar is on the heat, wait until it is done to add ingredients.
  • Keep crystals under control. As the sugar heats up, dissolves, and eventually comes to temperature, it is going through lots of stages and changes. Adding ingredients or undissolved sugar crystals after the sugar has started to boil can cause the sugar to crystallize and set up (which makes grainy candy). It is important to stir the sugar mixture gently at the beginning to prevent undissolved sugar from becoming stuck to the sides of the pan. Since it is impossible to avoid some undissolved sugar from sticking to the pan it is important to wash the crystals down once the sugar is boiling with a wet pastry brush. This is also why you don’t want to stir sugar while it is boiling, it is very easy for crystals to form.
  • Read the recipe before starting and get organized. Anytime you make a recipe you should read it in its entirety before starting. This helps prevent mistakes and confusion, however, it is very important with sugar work. It can seem like the sugar is taking forever to get up to temperature, and the next thing you know it’s up to temperature and you have nothing ready and OMG I need to read what to do next. Read the recipe before getting started and make sure you have everything ready for the next step. Plus it’s important to have a ton of counter space, you’ll need it.
  • Cook the sugar over medium heat. Using high heat can cause the pan to heat unevenly which will cause the sugar to heat unevenly as well which can lead to burning. Low heat will take forever, so medium is a happy…well, medium!
  • Keep kids and pets under control and supervised at all times. Since sugar is so hot while it is coming to temperature and for a while after it is off the heat, be sure to keep pets out of the kitchen and inform kids of how hot the sugar mixture is and that they should never touch it (and/or keep them out of the kitchen too).

Tools and Equipment

The two most important tools you’ll need, no questions asked, is a good saucepan and a candy thermometer. If you are going to try and get away with not getting something for making candy, do not let it be one of these things.

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Heavy-Bottomed Saucepan

Now, what does heavy-bottom even mean? I didn’t know pans even had bottoms let alone that they should be heavy 😳 . Okay, all jokes aside, heavy bottom means a thick bottom (heh) that will make sure there is even heating across the pan. The reason having a good pan with even heating matters is because once the sugar starts to boil you can’t stir it or it will get angry and you’ll have a bigger headache than trying to get triplets to calm down from a sugar high. Even heating ensures that the sugar you can’t stir doesn’t get hotter in some areas than others and burn while you’re waiting for it to come to temperature.

When looking for a heavy bottom saucepan, get something that is at least 3-3.5 quarts (or double the size of all the ingredients) because candy will boil and grow in volume when it gets super hot and that is not a mess you want to have on your hands. Get a pan that is either pure copper (wow my wallet hurts just thinking about that) or something stainless steel (an aluminum core on the bottom is fine). DO NOT use something with a nonstick coating like Teflon because it won’t hold up to the heat of the sugar and it will be the worst thing you have ever cleaned. I got this pan from Bed Bath & Beyond for $25 (with 20% off). I like the pour spout on it (makes getting the sugar out a little easier), and it comes with a nice lid, that I have never used.

Candy Thermometer

This is also super important because getting the sugar to the right temperature can be tricky and having a candy thermometer makes it a million times easier (most professional candy makers use a thermometer so what makes you so special that you don’t have to use one? 😛 ).

I got my thermometer from Wilton at Micheal’s for $7 (using a 50% off, can almost always get a 40% off coupon from their site).

When using a candy thermometer it’s important to place it where it’s not touching the sides or the bottom of the pan directly, but it should be touching a large portion of the candy (not just the foam or bubbles). Candy thermometers should always be read at eye level for accuracy.

Candy Gloves

Now if you are going to be making any hard candy that requires you to ‘pull’ it, you’ll need some gloves to protect your hands from the heat. I got these cotton work gloves from Amazon for $6, but there are other options out there (I’m 5’1″ and 115lbs and these fit my small hands perfectly). Check your local hardware or tool store for them as well as online. Just wash the gloves after getting them so they are food safe.

I wear a pair of cotton work gloves and some plastic food-safe gloves on top to help with the heat while I’m pulling the candy (if your plastic gloves are melting the candy is waaay too hot for you to be pulling/touching the candy directly. This process can be a little hot so you can wear a second pair of gloves (like winter mitten) underneath the work gloves and plastic gloves to help with the heat.

If you’re worried about the heat, I recommend getting some heat resistant leather wielding type gloves to pull the candy.

Wooden Spoon

A wooden spoon makes it a lot easier to mix in flavoring and color once the candy has come off the heat. The sugar will come off readily in hot water making it easy to clean and it has no chance of melting from the heat.

Bench Scrapers

These are also pretty essential. When the candy first comes off the heat you’ll need to move it around to help cool it down. You cannot simply just do this with your hands even if gloved (the candy will stick so badly and be very hot). Bench scrapers allow you to move the candy around safely (still with gloved hands) and you can scrape them against each other to get off any sugar that’s sticking.

I got mine from a local restaurant supply store for a few bucks, but there are a ton of options online and in stores. Get something with a nice wood handle (won’t melt or transfer heat as easily and is easier to clean than plastic).

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Marble Slab or Thick Sheet Pan

Now, if you’re going to be making candy regularly or have money to spare, I highly recommend getting a marble slab (or granite, they are similar for this purpose) to help with candy making. It is great for cooling down hot sugar for things like candy canes/ribbon candy, and it can be used to temper chocolate, or to keep the butter in pastries cold as you work with them. The board should be at least 18″X18″ for adequate room to work.

Look for cheap marble slabs from local countertop installers (the sink cutout is a perfect size) and see if they will sell you it for a few bucks. I got mine off craigslist and did a few tests to make sure it was marble and then sealed it with food safe sealer before using. If you have a local stone yard, you may also luck out and find some marble. Call around, look around, and maybe you can snag something for cheap. Some recommend floor tiles from a hardware store, but I’m not sure how food safe that is.

If you have marble counters tops I would not recommend using them. They can become stained, scratched, and a whole big mess. So I wouldn’t recommend using really nice and expensive countertops for some candy.

If you can’t afford a marble slab or aren’t sure if you even like making candy, a large well oiled rimmed baking sheet can also do the trick. The candy will take a bit more time to cool and be ready to pull, but that’s okay. I use two rimmed baking sheets together for thickness and then place them on my heat proof wooden cutting board while working with the candy. I place a Silpat mat inside to help with sticking and so I don’t scratch the pan underneath. You need to be extremely careful to not scratch the sheet pan as you work.

Other surfaces that could work are oven safe platters, heat resistant cutting boards, and anything that is food safe, heat resistant, and not easily scratchable.

The marble slab and the sheet pan (or any candy making surface you use) should be well oiled with a soy-based vegetable oil. The oil will help prevent the candy from sticking and it will have a high enough smoke point to handle the heat from the sugar initially. Plus, it is very mild in flavor so it will not affect the taste of the candy in any way.

Heat Source

If you are molding candy by hand (i.e. candy canes, ribbon candy, hard candy, etc.) it is important to get a heat source to keep your candy pliable as you form it. There are several options as a heat source, some better than others.

A heat lamp or space heater will keep the candy very warm and does not need to be reheated or messed with while working (like other options below). They will just keep on being hot making them very reliable and easy to use.

A pizza stone preheated for 45 minutes at 200°F can also be a great heat source if you already own one. The stone will keep its temperature for a bit and you can place a sheet pan on top of it and then work with your candy on the sheet pan. It will lose temperature after about 10 minutes, in which you can place it back in the oven to warm a bit while your candy sits in the oven and warms too (just flip your candy every minute to prevent sticking).

An oven set to 200°F can also be used, but is a little less reliant and will make the candy making process longer and harder. Basically, you will place the candy in the oven for 3-5 minutes, flipping it every minute before pulling it out to work on it for about 3 minutes before it needs to go back in to warm up. It’s a bit of a hassle and can make candy break or be thicker than desired, but with some practice, it would work.

I usually use the oven to keep part of my candy warm while I pull/color/work with another part. Then I use a pizza stone to keep everything warm when I’m forming the candy (like pulling and cutting a piece off for ribbon candy). If my stone becomes too cold while I work I’ll pop it and my candy back in the oven until they are ready to go again (flipping the candy occasionally and taking it out to continue working if it becomes warm enough until the stone is also ready).

I would keep the oven on at all times because if your heat source fails you the oven can save the candy. I have had moments where I thought the candy was too far gone, popped it into the oven and it saved it!

Practice

Yes, this is cheesy, but you’ll need to practice to make this perfect. Molten hot sugar is not like many other ingredients you work with on a daily basis. It’ll take a bit of practice and reading and following the recipe carefully to pull it off, but I believe in you! 🙂

That’s all I have! You should now be ready to make candy and have a blast doing it! A really fun candy recipe is coming out this Saturday, subscribe so you don’t miss it!

Thank you so much for reading and I hope you have a wonderful day!!

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**None of the images used in this post belong to me. They are free to use images from Canva.**

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I love cooking, photography, DIY projects and generally seeing what mess I can get myself into. I am very sarcastic and an annoyingly glass half-full kind of person. I like to make everything an adventure and a half and I hate blogs that are boring, so if mine ever is you better let a girl know. I don't know… do you know how hard it is to try and explain yourself in a little paragraph? Poke around a bit on here and I'm sure you'll learn who I am in no time! Thanks for stopping by.

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