When it comes to candy making, I tend to favour confections that can be made without a candy thermometer, and ideally in the microwave. Haystacks, cheater’s fudge, lazy caramels, and gin balls are a few of my favourites treats to make, eat, and give, but this year I’m adding peanut brittle to my repertoire (and to my gift boxes).
Peanut brittle is the perfect candy for anyone looking to build their candy-making confidence. The ingredients are cheap, the recipes are short, and the procedure gets one used to working with a pot of molten sugar syrup.
I do not have an original recipe for you. I use this one from Allrecipes, and it is perfect. What I do have are some suggestions on how to use peanut brittle to pump yourself up and get excited about candy making, as well as some tips on how to nail your very first batch.
All brittle recipes pretty much follow the same format: Boil sugar, corn syrup, water, and salt together until the solutes dissolve, then add some peanuts. Keep cooking and stirring until you reach the “hard crack stage” (around 150°C), then stir in butter and baking soda to give the brittle its lightly aerated texture.
If you’re not familiar with the various stages of candy making (or the cold water test), I’ve got great news: Making peanut brittle is an excellent way to familiarise yourself with all that, as you’ll be aiming for the very last stage of the candy-making journey.
When you boil sugar syrup, you’re driving off water and increasing the concentration of sugar. A candy with a lot of water and low sugar concentration will be soft and malleable (or liquid!), and a candy with little water and a high sugar concentration with be hard and brittle. (See? It’s all starting to make sense already.)
How to do the cold water candy test
You can detect these stages with a thermometer, but I recommend familiarising yourself with the cold water test (which is literally performed by drizzling a little syrup into cold — but not ice-cold — water).
It’s nice to have a candy “doneness” detection method that doesn’t rely on an external piece of equipment (especially if you’re working at high altitudes), and drizzling hot, boiling syrup into cold water can help you conquer any fears you have around working with hot boiling syrup. (If you’re using a thermometer at high altitudes and feel most comfortable working with an end temperature as a goal, subtract 1°C from every listed temperature for each 152.40 m above sea level.)
Let’s go through each stage, one at a time.
Thread stage (110°C–112°C)
Cooking your syrup to this stage and temperature will give you a nice, thick syrup for pouring over ice cream, fruit, or cake. There’s still a lot of water hanging around, and — when drizzled into cold water — the syrup forms a loose thread that will not ball up in way, shape, or form.
Soft ball stage (112°C-118°C)
This is the stage you aim for if you’re making soft pralines, fondant, or fudge. At this slightly higher temperature, the syrup will keep its shape in the cold water, enough for you to shape it into a soft, malleable ball. Remove it from the chilly water, however, and it will flatten in your (much warmer) hand.
Firm-ball stage (118°C-120°C)
This is what you want when you’re making chewy caramels. The syrup will form a firm ball in cold water, but it will keep its shape when you take it out and hold it in your hand, where you can squeeze, flatten, and roll it into other shapes.
Hard-ball stage (120°C-130°C)
This is where you want to be when you’re making divinity, nougat, marshmallows, and gummies. The syrup will look thick and ropey as you drizzle it into the cold water, where it will form a hard ball. Again, the ball will hold its shape when removed, and you can still squish it into other shapes, but the ball will feel harder and won’t give in to your whims so easily. It can be difficult to tell the difference between hard and soft balls if you’re completely new to candy making, so use a thermometer in tandem with this method until you get a feel for it.
Soft-crack stage (132°C-143°C)
Finally, we’re done with balls. Soft-crack is what you aim for when you’re making taffy. The syrup will form flexible threads when drizzled into cold water, and you should be able to take them out of the water and bend them a bit before they break. It will also calm down a bit in the pot. Instead of big, airy looking bubbles, you’ll have smaller, thicker bubbles that hang out a little close together.
Hard-crack stage (148°C-155°C)
Finally, we’ve reached the last stage, the stage you want to reach if you’re making brittle (or lollipops, or toffee). It’s the easiest stage to identify, which is what makes peanut brittle such a good recipe for easing yourself into candy making. At this stage the syrup will immediately form hard, brittle threads when drizzled into cold water, and you’ll be able to snap the threads when you fish them out (let the threads hang out in the cold water for a few seconds to avoid burning yourself).
How to make the perfect peanut brittle
As you can see from the above, these stages are given in temperature ranges, rather than exact end points. I’ve made this peanut brittle several times now, and it’s come out a little different each time, even though both batches reached the hard-crack stage somewhere in between 150°C and 155°C.
The difference between the batches came down to colour, and I’ve realised that I prefer a slightly darker, hotter brittle that’s just a little bit past that “blonde” moment you get at the beginning of the hard-crack stage. Pick a recipe and try it out a few times, using the ice water, a thermometer, and your eyes, and record the temp and colour of each batch until you find your favourite.
Once you’ve reached the hard-crack stage (and your desired colour), you have to work fairly quickly to get your syrup onto a silicone baking mat or heavily-greased cookie sheet. (Do not try and use wax paper — the wax will melt and then cool with the candy, fusing the paper to the brittle.)
Remove the pot of syrup off the heat, and stir in the butter and baking soda. The baking soda will decompose when it meets the hot syrup, releasing carbon dioxide, which will get trapped by the candy as it cools, giving your brittle that classic, lightly aerated texture (this is what differentiates it from a lollipop). Pour everything on a silicone baking mat (or heavily-greased cookie sheet), and stretch it out with two forks to form a big rectangle that’s about half an inch thick. Let cool completely, then snap, serve, eat, and give.