When it comes to candy making, I tend to make candies that can be made without a candy thermometer, preferably in a microwave oven. Haystacks, liar's fudge, lazy caramel and gin balls are some of my favorite snacks to make, eat and give away, but this year I will add peanut crunch to my repertoire (and my gift box).
Peanut brittle is the perfect candy for anyone who wants to build confidence in candy making. The ingredients are cheap, the recipe is short, and this procedure makes people accustomed to using a pot of melted syrup.
I did not give you the original recipe. I use this one from Allrecipes, which is perfect. I do have some suggestions on how to use peanut brittle to cheer yourself up and get excited about candy making, and some tips on how to pin your first batch.
Almost all crunchy recipes follow the same format: boil sugar, corn syrup, water, and salt together until the solute is dissolved, then add some peanuts. Continue cooking and stirring until it reaches the "hard cracking stage" (about 300 degrees Fahrenheit), then add butter and baking soda to give the shortbread a slightly aerated texture.
If you are not familiar with the various stages of candy making (or cold water testing), I have good news: crisping peanuts is a great way to become familiar with all of them, because your goal is the final stage of the candy making journey.
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When you cook syrup, you drain water and increase the concentration of sugar. A candy with a lot of water and a low sugar concentration will be soft and malleable (or liquid!), while a candy with a small amount of water and a high sugar concentration will be hard and brittle. (See it? Everything is starting to make sense.)
You can use a thermometer to detect these stages, but I recommend that you become familiar with the cold water test (actually by pouring a little syrup into cold but not icy water).
It's great to have a method of detecting the "doneness" of candy that does not rely on external equipment (especially if you are working at high altitudes), and pouring hot syrup into cold water can help you overcome any fear of hot boiling around Syrup. (If you use a thermometer at a high altitude and feel most comfortable when working with the final temperature as the target, subtract 1℉ from each listed temperature for every 500 feet of altitude.)
Let us complete each stage one by one.
Boil the syrup to this stage and temperature to get a nice thick syrup that can be poured on ice cream, fruit or cake. There is still a lot of water lingering around. When the drizzle rains in the cold water, the syrup will form a loose line and will not form a ball in any way, shape or form.
If you want to make soft pralines, soft sweets or soft sweets, this is your goal stage. At this slightly higher temperature, the syrup will retain its shape in cold water, enough for you to shape it into a soft, malleable ball. However, take it out of the cold water and it will flatten in your (much warmer) hands.
When you make chewy caramel, this is what you want. The syrup will form a solid ball in cold water, but when you take it out and hold it in your hand, it will maintain its shape, where you can squeeze, squash and roll into other shapes.
When you make artifacts, nougats, marshmallows, and gummies, this is where you want it. When you pour the syrup into cold water, the syrup will look thick and sticky, where it will form a hard ball. Similarly, the ball will retain its shape when taken out, and you can still squeeze it into other shapes, but the ball will feel harder and will not easily yield to your whims. If you are completely unfamiliar with candy making, it is difficult to distinguish the difference between a hard ball and a soft ball, so use a thermometer in combination with this method until you feel it.
Finally, we finished the ball. When you make toffee, soft cracks are your goal. The syrup will form flexible threads when it is poured into cold water, and you should be able to take them out of the water and bend them slightly before they break. It will also calm down in the pot. You will have smaller and thicker bubbles instead of large air bubbles that look very close to each other.
Finally, we have reached the final stage, if you make shortbread (or lollipop or toffee), the stage you wish to reach. This is the easiest stage to identify. This is what makes peanuts brittle. This is a great way to make sweets easily. At this stage, the syrup will immediately form a hard and brittle thread when it is poured into cold water, and the thread can be broken when it is taken out (allow the thread to hang in cold water for a few seconds to avoid scalding yourself).
As can be seen from the above, these stages are given in the temperature range, not the exact end. I have made this peanut brittle several times now, and the result is a little different each time, even though both batches have reached the hard cracking stage between 300 degrees Fahrenheit and 310 degrees Fahrenheit.
The difference between batches comes down to the color. I have realized that I prefer a slightly darker, hotter brittleness, which is just the "blonde" moment at the beginning of the hard cracking stage. Choose a recipe and try it a few times. Use ice water, a thermometer and your eyes, and record the temperature and color of each batch until you find your favorite.
Once you reach the hard cracking stage (and the color you want), you have to spread the syrup on a silicone baking mat or a cookie sheet coated with a lot of grease fairly quickly. (Don't try to use wax paper-the wax will melt and then cool with the candy to make the paper brittle.)
Remove the syrup pot from the heat and add the butter and baking soda. Baking soda breaks down when it encounters hot syrup, releasing carbon dioxide, and when it cools, it will be trapped by the candy, giving your shortbread a classic, slightly aerated texture (this is the difference between it and a lollipop). Pour everything on a silicone baking mat (or a cookie sheet with a lot of grease), then use two forks to pull it out to form a large rectangle about half an inch thick. Let cool completely, then snap, serve, eat, and give.