This Halloween, Master Making Your Own Candy

Photo: Offset/Penny De Los Santos; Illustration: Allie Pakrosnis/Thrillist
Photo: Offset/Penny De Los Santos; Illustration: Allie Pakrosnis/Thrillist

With its hyper-exact temperature requirements, fussy tempering, and precision-like presentation, candy making can feel pretty darn close to potions class. But, with Halloween right around the corner, there’s no better time to get a little curious about something seemingly complex. For an expert’s take on how to get started, we spoke to Tracy Wilk of the Institute of Culinary Education. Plus, we teamed up with an equally complex beer, Sierra Nevada’s Hazy Little Thing IPA, to bring a few beer-inspired candy recipes into the mix too. 

Get the right gear

Luckily, you don’t need too many fancy gadgets to get started with candy making — and many home cooks may already have them in the kitchens. For melting sugar, you’ll want a heavy-duty pot with a thick bottom. This will cut down on heat loss, which can cause the sugar to recrystallize. A digital thermometer is necessary for getting the exact right consistency of sugar. “You can also use a ‘candy’ thermometer,” Wilk says, “but I find the digital thermometers to be more accurate.” (One with a metal insert will be more accurate than a laser, too.) A scale is helpful for weighing out ingredients, although in a pinch regular measuring cups will do. (This handy conversion chart will help clear things up, too.) 

Start simple

Working with sugar is tricky enough, so don’t dive head first into a 19-step recipe without getting a few basics under your belt. Lollipops make a good starting point since they can be easily adapted to involve more complex shapes and flavors. Wilk’s basic recipe, for example, only uses six ingredients, and one of them packs a ton of complexity into a simple recipe. (Spoiler, it’s beer.) 

Makes about 36 candies

315 grams light corn syrup
200 grams water
25 grams Hazy Little Thing IPA 
400 grams sugar
Flavor oils, as needed (Fruit-forward flavors, like lemon, will match the IPA best!)
Food coloring, as needed

Special equipment:
Lollipop mold and sticks 

1. In a medium saucepan, combine corn syrup, water, beer, and sugar. Place over medium heat and stir occasionally until it comes to a boil. If necessary, wipe down the sides of the pan with a clean pastry brush to keep sugar from sticking to the sides and recrystallizing. 
2. Once the mixture comes to a boil, cook without stirring until the mixture reaches 300° F. 
3. While the mixture is cooking, prepare lollipop molds and sticks. 
4. When the mixture reaches 300°F, immediately remove it from the heat and add flavoring and color.
5. Pour mixture into lollipop molds (with the sticks in place) and let sit for 20 minutes.

Learn the properties of sugar

The above recipe is so precise for a reason: cooking with sugar can be very temperamental. To get that even consistency, you need to avoid recrystallizing the sugar as much as possible — which can be triggered by agitating the mix (hence the no-stirring rule). As for that temperature, keep in mind that the properties of sugar change drastically based on how hot it gets. This chart shows the different stages and how to test for them to make sure you’re in the right spot. For lollipops to get that perfect “hard crack” texture, you’re aiming for the 295-310°F range. As if that’s not enough to consider, humidity is also a factor. “When it is overly humid out, cooked candy can react with the weather and begin to reabsorb moisture,” Wilk warns. “This will make your candy feel sticky, which you want to avoid.” A well-ventilated kitchen (or just waiting for a less humid day) will yield better results.

Courtesy of Sierra Nevada

Experiment with alcohol

This isn’t your school Halloween party any more, so you can make grown-up candies with a boozy finish — like we teased in our earlier lollipop recipe. Giving beer, liquor, or wine a more prominent role in your candies is actually pretty easy, too, according to Wilk. “Your best bet is to substitute the alcohol for the water in the recipe and the alcohol will typically cook off,” she says. After mastering lollipops, graduate to something a little more complex: beer marshmallows.  Adding in an unusual ingredient like Hazy Little Thing IPA can boost the candy’s complexity with a hoppy, fruity flavor. Plus, it’s easy to add the twist: “When you make marshmallows, you soak gelatin in cold water as the first step — instead you would soak the powdered gelatin in beer,” Wilk says. Add in a ghost-shaped mold and you’ll have a perfectly spooky Halloween treat.

Makes about 40 marshmallows

100 grams water
85 grams Hazy Little Thing IPA, chilled
18 grams gelatin powder
265 grams sugar
190 grams corn syrup
256 grams cornstarch
340 grams powdered sugar

1. Pour the IPA into the bowl of a stand mixer bowl and sprinkle the gelatin over it. Let this stand for about 5 minutes to bloom and soften.
2. Separately, combine the sugar, corn syrup (100 grams), and water in a saucepan and begin to heat to 230˚F. 
3. Meanwhile, add the second half of corn syrup (90 grams) to the already bloomed gelatin.
4. Once the cooked sugar mixture reaches 230˚F, pour the mixture into your stand mixer bowl and whip at medium speed until lightened or to a temperature of 86˚F, about 5-7 minutes.
5. Immediately transfer the mixture to a sprayed and plastic wrap-lined quarter sheet pan, making sure to also spray the plastic wrap on the surface.
6. Gently smooth the surface of the marshmallows and cover with sprayed plastic wrap. Set for 1 hour at room temperature.
7. Remove the marshmallow slab from the pan by inverting the pan onto a cutting board dusted with a mixture of cornstarch and powdered sugar. Cut the slab into 3-centimeter/1-inch squares and toss in powdered sugar mixture. 
8. Store in a sealed container.

Photo: Offset/James Ransom; Illustration: Allie Pakrosnis/Thrillist

Ease your way into the tricky stuff

Once you’ve mastered sugar-bending, use those skills to branch out. Certain candies like smooth, soft caramels or tempered chocolate are definitely tricker than just pouring melted sugar into molds. That doesn’t mean they’re impossible, they’ll just require slightly more care. For soft caramels, precision matters, so this is a case where having a candy thermometer is helpful, since you can keep it immersed the entire time you’re cooking. Not stirring is especially important here, and you’ll want to do the water drop test to make sure you have the right consistency (that means dropping a small amount of the cooked syrup into water — it should form a ball that flattens out slowly when removed).

Tempering chocolate is also notoriously annoying. A doubler boiler is the simplest option, which you can make at home using a metal or glass bowl above a pot of hot (not boiling) water. However, make sure the actual work surfaces and inner bowl are completely dry, or it’ll mess up the chocolate’s consistency. Other tips: Use small chunks of chocolate for an even temperature, and work slowly so you don’t overheat it. Once you’ve gotten it down, show off all your newfound skills with this buttercrunch recipe, courtesy of Wilk:

Makes about 20 pieces

224 grams butter
336 grams sugar
56 grams light corn syrup
42 grams water
4 grams salt
Tempered dark chocolate (as needed)
135 grams chopped nuts of choice

1. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter and then add the sugar, corn syrup, and water or beer. Cook mixture over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture reaches 300°F.
2. At 300° F, remove from heat and pour onto a silicone baking mat and spread to the edges. The thickness will depend on the size of your mat, but ideally it should be about half an inch.
3. Let cool slightly, then using an offset spatula, coat one side of the toffee with tempered chocolate and top with chopped nuts. 
4. Once the mixture is set and hardens, break into bite-sized pieces.

Try flavors beyond sweet

Consider changing up traditional flavors so you don’t end up with an all-sugar blast. Try mixing sweet and savory ingredients, or even dusting candies with sour powder (or use a sour oil). Crumbled nuts or pretzels on the final creation add saltiness that gives it a fuller flavor. Spice up the normal flavor profiles with a pinch of chili powder or wasabi for an extra kick. For a more conventional twist on a recipe, try swapping in different sugar sources, like maple syrup or honey. Just sub in ¾ cup syrup for 1 cup sugar, and adjust the max temperature about 25 degrees lower to account for its lower caramelization temperature. For a truly gourmet taste, try going floral. Rose water adds a fragrant finish to chocolate, and Hazy Little Thing IPA works as an aromatic with a punch thanks to its hoppy complexities.