Once you start working with sugar, all the rules change. Take today’s project, for example. In the normal practice of food photography, the components of the composition fall into two categories: food and food props. If this photo were a normal food photo, the apples would be the stars, and the bowl would be the prop, albeit a colorful and flashy one. But once I point out that I made the bowl by hand, and not out of glass, but sugar, suddenly the world goes topsy turvy. The dish is the star, and the apples demoted to mere props.
It goes beyond that, though. The hours in which you play with sugar belong to another world, a sunnier, warmer place, a place where magic walks the earth and comes to cook at your side. Colors are brighter. Pots bubble and boil with a constant snap and pop, like thick, syrupy soda on some serious steroids. Things come into real, three-dimensional being, springing as much from an inner wellspring of imagination as from the hot, malleable sugar in your hands.
My goal is to make this brand of magic a little more accessible to the common foodie. To that end, I’m starting off with the easiest techniques that take the least amount of specialized, expensive equipment. The other main advantage of this approach is that I need to relearn how to do it all, so it’s probably best if we don’t all jump in the deep end together just yet. Stick with me and we’ll get to pulled sugar and blown sugar, but don’t worry: just because we’re starting with basics doesn’t mean things are going to be boring.
The first type of sugar I want to show you is Casting Sugar. Casting sugar is used mostly to make bases and supports for showpieces, but it can also be a quick way to form custom shapes. The sugar can be poured into a variety of different forms and molds, many of which you may have tucked away in your kitchen. Anything made out of silicone works wonderfully with sugar, and metal–as long as it’s well greased–does as well. I’ve used cake rings and frames, cookie cutters, silicone muffin pans and petit four molds, aluminum foil and even granulated sugar to make different shapes with different textures. Once you learn the technique, you’ll look at everything with new eyes, wondering what would happen if you poured sugar into it.
Before we begin, a reminder: boiling and melted sugar is very, very hot! Efficiency and awareness are essential to having a good sugar work experience, uninterrupted by accidents. Have a good block of time so that you aren’t rushed, and make sure to get all of your equipment and materials in order before you start and keep them in order as you work. And be careful, please!
That said, don’t be afraid of working with sugar! That’s a common but unnecessary reaction. Be cautious, but not fearful. If you’re careful, you’ll be fine. I have yet to burn myself working with sugar (knock on wood). And I’m the girl who made her lab partner turn on the Bunsen burner every day in Chemistry because she was afraid of lighting her hair on fire.
This formula is an average of several different casting sugar recipes I have in my books and notes. In general, the baker’s percentages are 100% sugar, 40 to 50% water, and 20 to 30% glucose. One book called for a great deal of tartaric acid solution to be added. We’ll discuss the use of tartaric acid in sugar at a later date, but for now I’ll just say that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to put it in casting sugar, so I went with the general consensus and left it out.
The next sugar formula I share with you will not have glucose in it, so keep an eye out for my next sugar post if you can’t get your hands on glucose any time soon. I bought mine at a local cake decorating supply shop. You can also buy small tubs of it at any craft store that sells Wilton cake decorating supplies, or you can buy better quality stuff online, which is what I plan to do in the next week or so.
(More information about sugar work equipment)
- A kitchen scale
- A good, heavy, medium-to-large saucepan, preferably copper (I use one with a layer of copper in the bottom)
- A small, fine-meshed strainer
- A natural bristle pastry brush in a glass of warm water
- A candy thermometer, digital is better but glass also works, as long as whichever one you use is accurate
1 kg high quality granulated sugar
500 g cold water
250 g glucose
food coloring (powder or paste), dissolved in a very small amount water or vodka
Before you begin, you want to make sure your saucepan is as clean as possible. Any impurities on the pan or in the sugar can cause sugar crystals to form–one of the two deadly enemies of sugar work, along with humidity. The best way to make sure your pan is totally clean is to scrub it with kosher salt and the juice from half of a lemon, which has the fantastic side effect of leaving you with a very shiny saucepan. Rinse very well after scrubbing.
Once your pan is spot- and speckless, combine the sugar and the cold water. Mix it together with your fingers. That way, you can feel when it’s all evenly mixed. Next, wash down any stray sugar crystals that have climbed up the side of the pan by dipping your fingers under running water and wetting down the sides of the pan. Once again, you’ll be able to feel what’s going on and be sure that you’ve gotten all of the crystals.
Start the sugar over a medium flame, and increase the heat later. Cooking sugar is tricky to do just right. I’m very out of practice, so mine isn’t turning out quite perfectly at the moment, but I’m getting better at it again already. One concern is the amount of time it takes to cook the sugar from start to finish. Too short a cooking time and you’ll end up with brittle sugar. To long a time and the sugar will melt too completely and won’t hold its shape. You want to aim for twenty minutes from start to finish, although anything from 12 to 30 minutes will work, though not ideally.
As the pan heats up, the sugar will slowly dissolve in the water, moving in shimmery, opalescent waves beneath the surface. During this time, just leave it to heat up on its own.
When the sugar first starts to boil, the bubbles will be small, quick, and snappy.
At this point, turn off the heat (or take the pan off of the heat if you don’t have a gas range) and skim any foam or impurities off of the top of the sugar. I was surprised that mine wasn’t too bad at all. A good thing, except it didn’t make for a very instructional photo.
Add the glucose and turn up the heat, higher this time.
This is the point at which you have to really start worrying about crystal formation. You have two options for washing down the sides of the pan, now that’s it’s much too hot to do it with your fingers. The most common technique is to use a pastry brush dipped in water.
Another option is to cover the pan with a lid, but leave it cracked open so that the steam flows up the sides and washes down the crystals without your help. I read somewhere, though, that you have to be careful with this method because it can slow down the cooking process by trapping steam in and keeping the temperature from rising as soon as it normally would, so keep your eye on your cooking time.
I like to do both: wipe down the pan with the brush, then cover it with the lid while I wait to hear it hit soft ball stage. One of the huge benefits of practicing sugar work on a regular basis is learning to tell what stage the sugar is at by sight and sound, a useful skill if you ever make things like caramel, chocolate mousse and Swiss meringue. Below soft ball, the tiny bubbles are fast and have that snappy popping sound I described before. At soft ball, they become increasingly slow and large, and the bubbling loses the “snappiness”. Once I hear the shift, I take the lid off and wash down the sides of the pan with the brush again.
You’ll want to start monitoring the temperature now. Our ultimate destination is 315°F, and after the slow climb to the 240°F range, the temperature will now rise much faster. This is when it’s nice to have a digital thermometer with a temperature alarm set for five degrees below your target temperature, but for some reason I don’t really mind watching boiling pots as long as it’s sugar that’s boiling in them. More important is to have an accurate thermometer, because differences of just two or three degrees can cause more trouble than you’d think.
The bubbles will gradually get slower and larger, but your main gauge of where you are in the process at this point will be your thermometer. Now it’s time to think about how you want to color your sugar. If you want to make it all one color, you can add the coloring about ten or fifteen degrees before the sugar is done and shake the pan to incorporate it. Otherwise, you can add the coloring at the end if you want different shades or a marbled effect. One piece of advice that I (re)learned through experience today: if you want to divide the sugar up to make it a few different colors, don’t pour it into cold pans or containers. Mine cooled off far too quickly, which made coloring and pouring it a real pain and sabotaged some of the plans I had.
First, as a sort of warm up, I did a couple simple shapes using large copper Easter cookie cutters I’d oiled with canola oil and set down on a Silpat laid over a marble cutting board.
This chick turned out not to be the best choice. See how narrow the connection between its body and its foot is?
Now see how little sugar I was able to get through the gap into the foot. If I had been pouring from pan with a little pour spout, I might have been able to guide the sugar in there better.
Aluminum foil is one of my favorite ways to give cast sugar some life and texture. Any pattern you give to the foil will form on the underside of the sugar. Make sure to use it shiny-side up for the best, smoothest patterns. If you oil the foil, it comes away easily once the sugar has cooled, but if the sugar is meant to be the base of a showpiece or something similar, you can also leave the foil on, reflecting even more light back through the sugar. This is a great technique for making blue-green marbled sugar look like water, as I did in my dolphin showpiece.
Cake rings–two or three inch bottomless metal rings used in professional bakeshops–are really useful for pouring perfectly round shapes, whether straight onto a Silpat or oiled marble, or onto oiled aluminum foil like I’m doing here. Unfortunately, I don’t own any cake rings myself (something I’ve wanted to fix for years), but I do have a nine-inch springform pan. I used it without it’s bottom, well-oiled both opened and closed in case some of the sugar leaked through at the place where the ring opens and closes, and turned upside down because the sides were straighter at the top than the bottom, where the base notches in. If you don’t have a springform pan, you can just pour a round shape free form and call it an artisan bowl.
Before the sugar was done cooking, I had my aluminum foil crumpled, straightened out and brushed down thoroughly with oil, and my springform ring oiled, closed and pressed down into the foil, which I then folded up around the outside. I colored some of the sugar yellow and some red, then poured them both into the center of the ring and let the sugar spread out to the edges. Using two colors gives the sugar even more life and movement.
Next, I let the sugar cool until it held its shape, but I was still able to easily bend and form it.
I released the springform pan and carefully pried it away from the edge of the sugar in the few places that were still trying to hold onto it, more from heat than from a lack of enough oil.
I took the shape, foil and all, and set it on top of a shallow soup bowl with a wide rim (you’ll be able to see it better a few photos down).
Then I used my fingers to press the center down into the shape of the bowl, being careful not to press too hard too fast or burn my fingers.
Once the sugar was more or less cool and holding its shape on its own, I turned the bowl upside down and set the sugar bowl upside down on top of it. Then I peeled back the foil slowly.
I was very careful to oil my foil well (I’ve neglected to do that well enough in the past), but I still had a few places where the foil stuck on the first pass.
Fortunately, all of those little pieces came off easily for me. (It may have helped that my sugar wasn’t entirely cooled yet.) If yours don’t, you can try to get them off by chipping away at them with a paring knife.
Because my sugar bowl was still a little warm, I turned it and the real bowl back right side up and let it cool supported until it got to room temperature.
So, there you have it: a fully-functional serving bowl made entirely out of sugar. You just wouldn’t want to put anything wet in it. Unless, of course, you wanted to freak your guests out with a melting, dissolving bowl on the buffet table. In which case, send me photos!
Seriously, though, you don’t even have to stick to fruit bowls. You can make all sorts of cool serving bowls and plates and even cake pedestals from sugar. I’ll hopefully be showing you some other options along those lines in the near future.
Here’s the bottom of the bowl, so you can see the texture–
What is that person doing???
Oh no, stop stop stop!!!!
Aaahhhh! Who on earth would do such a thing? I spent a couple hours making that bowl! And I was going to take more photos! And…
Huh, I think that’s my hand holding the murder weapon, actually.
Why would I commit such a senseless act of violence against my beloved sugar bowl? Because this is actually another sugar technique, and I’ve sacrificed my little creation in the name of education. (You didn’t know you were going to get to learn even more today, did you?) In Sucre d’art, l’envers du décor (Sugarworks, Behind the Scenes) by Stéphane Glacier, it’s called Sparkling Sugar. The method is much the same as what we’ve just done, only you can let the sugar cool flat before breaking it. Once the sugar is totally cool, give it one good tap with something heavy like a sturdy pair of kitchen shears. Try to crack it in just one stroke to avoid shattering it into little unattractive bits. The sugar can then be used to give depth and dimension to showpieces, hiding supports or just filling out empty areas in the composition. You can hit the pieces with the flame of a blow torch to make them even more translucent and shiny.
But now that my bowl is gone, where am I going to keep those apples? I can’t just leave them on the counter or the cutting board. They’ve already experienced the opulence of living in a handmade sugar bowl!
Well, maybe if I take some scraps and melt them down in a Pyrex measuring cup in the microwave…thirty seconds at a time until the sugar is pourable again…use some granulated sugar as a dam to keep the base thick, I can put this here…
…and this here…
…and these here…
…and then hold everything in place until things cool down…
…and now my apples can have their very own “showpiece” to hang out on. Hey, it’s a more stylish address than the cutting board!
And that’s the final sugar lesson I want to leave you with for today: if you work with sugar, play with it. Things are going to go wrong. Pieces will break, shapes won’t turn out how you were imagining them, colors will mix into shades you never dreamed of. But the true art of it all is rolling with the punches. At each and every moment, think about what you can do with what you have, and if you’re creative about it, you might even like the end product than what you set out to make.
If you do try this out, take pictures and show me! I’d love to link to anything inspired by these lessons.
Other Sugar Work Posts at Pie of the Tiger:
Cadbury Creme Brul’egg
Sugar Work Equipment
Sugar Work (Pastry School Flashbacks)
Battlestar Galactica Cupcakes with Sugar Decorations