In lessons 15 & 16 we got to use the highly temperamental ingredient sugar. We learned how to gauge all of the different stages of sugar both by eye and by thermometer. We played with thread stage, soft ball (to make fudge), firm ball (for meringues), hard ball (used for divinity, nougat, and rock candy), soft crack (for nougat, torrone), hard crack (for brittle), light caramel and dark caramel. It is important to watch the sugar closely as you’re cooking it because it goes from one stage to another very quickly and you can easily cook it too far.
So far, the stage we’ve used the most is soft ball. When you’re cooking sugar, you will see it come to a boil with quite fast popping bubbles. As it nears soft ball the bubbles start popping much slower and seem syrupy. Another ways you can tell the sugar has reached soft ball is by taking a little bit and dropping it into a cup of cold water. If the sugar forms a ball under water, but flattens when removed, it is at soft ball. If the ball stays round when removed from the water, it has already gone into hard ball. Or if these methods aren’t working for you, you could always just stick a candy thermometer in the pot and see when it reaches 235 degrees, which will be soft ball.
We’ve also played a lot with caramel. When making caramel it is very important to take your pot off the heat and flash it with some cold water as soon as it is at the color you want or the caramel will keep cooking in the pot and will overcook.
Although difficult at first, I highly suggest trying to resist the urge to pop a thermometer in the pop so that you can start gauging what the different stages look like because after just a couple of times seeing the different stages by eye becomes second nature.