Fudge Making; It's Not THAT Difficult

I got a bee in a my bonnet a few weeks ago about fudge. Fudge isn't something that's ever been a big part of my diet. You try finding fudge that's made with organic dairy produce on the high street (Thornton's used to do some but the shop in my town stopped selling it suddenly). I've made what I'd call "cheat's fudge", or vegan fudge, with peanut butter, chocolate and icing sugar, but never real fudge. Proper fudge that's just sugar, butter, milk and a flavouring of choice.

I'm not even sure why I decided to give it a go, but I did and now I'm slightly obsessed.

I'd assumed that it was something hard to make. Something that required years of practice at mom's side in the kitchen, so I did a LOT of reading. All the marshmallow cream (whatever the hell that is... Americans), condensed milk or icing sugar using "cheat's fudge" recipe intros say it's difficult to make, and all of the expert blogs and articles I read implied the same thing. Fudge is hard science, it's chemistry and timing. There's no fudging with fudge!

Okay, so maybe to make the utterly perfect, show stopping fudges from professional small traders on the continent you need years of practice. But to make something that's consistently fudge-y and tasty, if not artisan grade? I've been doing this every other evening for about three weeks and, seriously, it's not that hard. Don't listen to the gate keepers!

Admittedly, my relative ease with this may be down to the epic amount of reading I did before hand. Fudge making IS chemistry. To do it right, you have to understand what's going on in the pan, why certain things happen. If nothing else, when it goes wrong you can work out why and correct for next time.

Of course, people have been making fudge and similar things like tablet and fondant for decades, centuries maybe, without understanding what is really going on at a microscopic level. They didn't even use thermometers; Real Old Fashion Homemade Fudge.

I followed the above recipe the first time I made fudge and it worked very well. The second time I tried I followed the advice "wait until it is cool to the touch" (not sure which site I read that on), because the soft-ball method makes me nervous.

Mistake. That is NOT a very specific way of doing things, and fudge is specific. Specific is the magic word.

I work in a kitchen. My hands have had decades of minor and some slightly major (and gross) burns, scolds and cuts, as well as spending a good portion of time being submerged in hotter-than-I-can-stand-for-more-than-a-second water. My sense of temperature is completely broken.

The syrup was still too hot and solidified far too rapidly, resulting in, basically, buttery sugar. Let me explain (see this great post for a more technical explanation).

To make fudge (as well as tablet and fondant), heat sugar and a liquid (milk, cream, water) to 114 to 115 °C (237 to 239 °F), which means much of the liquid has evaporated and the solution is "supersaturated" with melted sugar. Sugar, the stuff we use for baking and putting in tea or coffee (if you're a pleb), is sucrose. When heated it breaks down to smaller constituents, fructose and glucose, which are floating free in the syrup. They're full of energy, as they're so hot, and are not able to easily recombine to form sucrose crystals again. The fat in milk helps to block this process too.

This is important. For fudge, we want the glucose and fructose to re-bond to form sucrose crystals, but at a very specific (that magic word) time. The temperature has to be just right. Too hot and the sugar will reform very quickly, creating massive crystals, resulting in crumbly fudge. Too cool and the syrup will be too thick, the glucose and fructose won't have the energy to bond, so not enough sucrose crystals will form and it'll just be a gooey, chewy caramel. Tasty, but not fudge.

The perfect temperature to get the sucrose crystals forming is 43 to 50 °C (110 to 122 °F). To kick it off the syrup needs agitating, so that, basically, the glucose and fructose molecules can find each other. A little movement can solidify the whole damn thing at any point in the cooling process. It's a pain in the arse. So DO NOT touch the pan, spoon or thermometer once the heat is off. Don't be tempted to poke it, move it or anything once you've added your butter (or other fat) and flavours (if you're adding them at this point).

You'll just cause yourself problems.

The butter will help prevent glucose crystals from forming too soon or too quickly, as well as add flavour. Some recipes also call for corn syrup to prevent crystals forming too soon. That's hard to come by in the UK and I don't think it's necessary if you're careful... it's not traditional either. Apparently golden syrup can work too, but again I think it's one ingredient too far.

Once the syrup has cooled to the right temperature it needs mixing hard for a long time. This will get the sucrose crystals forming, but will stop them from becoming too big. This is important. Big sucrose crystals make grainy fudge. Small ones, "micro-crystals" make soft, creamy fudge.

As the syrup is beaten it will start to turn more opaque, lose its gloss and become matt. That's the micro-crystals forming! This is the part that comes down to experience more than any other part. Keep mixing too long and the fudge will solidify in the pan. It'll be deliriously good, but stuck in the pan. Stop mixing too early and too large crystals will form as it cools, making the fudge hard and brittle.

Not to worry; these problems (and others) can be fixed most of the time by going back to the hob.

If it's solidified in the pan, but has the right texture just warm it up a little, don't let it get back above 50 °C or you'll lose more water and make caramel. Keep stirring and once it's a bit more malleable pour/squash it into your mould. I use a silicone loaf or round. Silicone "tins" are the bomb. Seriously. Get yourself one. Nothing sticks to them and they give cakes a lovely sheen.

If the resulting candy is grainy and hard put it back on the heat, add more water and go through the process again. Take it up to 114 °C, let it cool back down to 50 °C, etc.

If these don't work then the mess can still be utilised. It can be melted down into a sauce for cakes and icecream, thrown into other recipes, sprinkled on cakes, stirred into coffee or hot chocolate, or just eaten because, frankly, it's still yummy, flavoured sugar-stuff. I made some chocolate and fudge scones with a "solidified in the pan" batch that I couldn't be bothered fixing. They're divine. I've eaten three this morning... plus so many fudge testers.

So, while I don't think fudge making is as hard as is made out, it does require some know-how, a fair bit of practice to be consistent and patience. Eugh... so much patience! I am easily distracted >_<

I urge you to do some further reading before embarking on fudge making, but after that just go wild!

Big Bake Theory, The Science of Fudge Making < if you read no others, at least read this one. It's excellent.
Ricardo Cuisine, For Successful Fudge Every Time
Science of Cooking, What's Special About Fudge
Science of Cooking, The Marble Slab Paradox
Science of Cooking, What's Going On?
Crafty Baking, Fudge (a primer)
Crafty Baking, Candymaking Problems and Solutions

Still here? You read all of that? I'm serious. That stuff is important. Go on, go read it all. Read it and understand it.

Right then. Remember;
  • Stir your sugar and chosen liquid until it starts bubbling.
  • Get the syrup up to soft ball stage, 114 to 115 °C (237 to 239 °F).
  • Turn off heat and add additional fats and flavourings.
  • Let it cool down to 43 to 50 °C (110 to 122 °F). In my experience, 45C is about best, but it depends on the additions to the basic recipe.
  • Beat it until it's opaque and not shiny (this can take practice)
  • Put it in a mould/tin and let it cool. Don't poke it.
  • Try not to eat it all yourself in one sitting.

For a basic recipe;
  • 500g (2.5 cups) granulated sugar. Caster will work, but granulated is better... I haven't worked out why.
  • 180ml (3/4 cup) milk
  • 50g (3tbls) butter
  • 1tsp vanilla

Poke around the internet for flavour ideas, experiment, use different fats. I made a glorious (if overly almond flavoured) vegan batch using almond milk and 35g of Pure vegetable oil spread (reduced because spreads have more water in them than butter). I'm going to try some with coconut oil and milk too.

Go ahead. Give it a go! It's not as difficult as everyone makes out. It's also a lot of fun. I don't understand all the "cheat's fudge" posts that proclaim real fudge is such a hassle to make. If you enjoy faffing about in the kitchen then fudge is a lot of fun to make, even when you mess it up.

You don't even need a thermometer! Although it does make everything a lot easier...
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