I am not a fearful cook. I’ve been whipping up one thing or another since I could see the top of the stove, but there are certain techniques for which I am aware I have no natural knack. Working with sugar is definitely one of these. It is both complex and mercurial in nature; however, my own lack of skill does not keep me from admiring and respecting those who do have it. So I dug around a little to see what I could find out about this aspect of cooking that truly is an art form.
Like any form of art, there are various kinds of sugar work. I’m only going to cover a couple of them, the first being basic confectionery, something that I feel is a little more accessible to the average home cook. Working with sugar at this level is based on the six primary stages of sugar, with each stage varying by the temperature used to bring the sugar to the desired state. These run from the Basic Thread stage (230-235º, for things such as basic rock candy) to the Hard Crack Stage (300-310º, which will produce a rich, buttery toffee) , and everything in between, including caramel, taffy and fudge. An excellent reference on the subject – and one that I strongly recommend if you’re thinking of venturing into these deep culinary waters – is Sugarbaby by Gesine Bullock-Prado, a master sugar artist and baker. She gives the best possible perspective on working with sugar in all its forms, while simultaneously emphasizing the respect one has to have for this potentially hazardous technique.
The second one I wanted to touch on (mostly because it knocks my socks off almost every time) is what is commonly referred to as Sugar Art. These are the sculptural pieces often seen on desserts at high-end restaurants and hotels, at weddings and in sugar work competitions. And yes, those are a real thing; the Oklahoma State Sugar Show has been taking place for many years now, and folks from all over the world show up to show off. There are all sorts of categories for judging, and sugar art is one of them. Often the pieces are in the form of animals or plant life of some sort, but can also include abstract pieces as well.
You may be familiar with some of the competition shows on the Food Network as well. While I’m not particularly interested in how far a team can carry their eight-foot-tall sculpture from one table to another while a panel of “judges” tsks at their lack of “technique” (what?), I am always amazed by their ability to handle the mercurial nature of cooked sugar. You have to be able to handily juggle extremes of hot and cold, very often with the smallest (if any) margin of error. It only takes one second too long, one degree too high or low, too much pressure applied to one piece…and you’re starting all over again. I feel confident in saying that I simply cannot handle that kind of stress.
As I said before, I have nothing but the greatest respect for these people who have both the deft touch and the infinite patience required to pull off such a task. I think I have almost talked myself into giving this whole sugar work thing a shot – although I will probably just stick with making caramels and fudges! I would love to hear about your experiences working with sugar (and if you have any advice for a novice confectioner!); be sure to leave a comment below.