I tried making peanut brittle last night with very interesting but not entirely successful results. Maybe some candy experts can help.
I looked up several recipes and was surprised to see very different methods. Some called for using sugar only; some called for sugar and water; and some for sugar and corn syrup. I think the reason for adding water is to slow the heating of the sugar so it doesn't go from golden to burnt too suddenly. The sugar-and-corn syrup approaches have you add baking soda at the end, warning that it will bubble up. The sugar-only methods did not call for baking soda. The sugar-and-corn syrup method called for using a candy thermometer until the proper temperature was reached (295 degrees), while the sugar-only method merely called for reaching the desired color. The sugar-only method called for not stirring -- except for one that did -- and the sugar-and-corn syrup method called for frequent stirring. And, oh yes, one other thing. Some recipes wanted you to add the peanuts at the beginning, and some at the end.
First I tried the sugar-and-corn syrup method. Following instructions, I started at medium temperature until the sugar melted, then turned up to high and stirred frequently. I started checking the temperature with a candy thermometer. The mixture began to color to golden brown, but I was only at 250 degrees. I backed off the heat a little and contintued. By the time I got to the correct temperature, the mixture seemed too dark --over-cooked. When it had cooled, it did, in fact, have a burnt flavor. But not too much. Just enough to be on the other side of good.
Then I tried the sugar-only method. The Mark Bittman-NY Times recipe was a little puzzling. In the intro paragraphs, he says, "... sometimes carmelized sugar burns or becomes...lumpy. A couple of tips can help you avoid these pitfalls... Add a little water.. which slows the cooking process...allow(ing) you to stir out lumps... Veterans -- and the brave -- will do without water and without stirring...just shak(ing) the pan occasionally to move the melted sugar off the bottom.... *Stirring dry sugar almost guarantees lumps*..."
Then, in the body of the recipe, he instructs, "Stir occasionally." So, to stir or not to stir? I stirred. I got lumps. In fact, it appeared that my sugar never really melted -- it never achieved what I would call a thick and syrupy liquid -- it looked pretty much like sugar the whole time. When I tried to turn it out onto the pan, it couldn't spread at all -- I had hard, sugary balls with peanuts in them.
Next, I went back to the sugar-and-cornstarch method, figuring if I just used my eyes and nose instead of being a slave to the themometer, I'd be fine. (I appreciated how well the mixture melted.) I took it off when it appeared golden brown -- far sooner than the 20 minutes suggested in the recipe. This batch looked great, but had an off-flavor. Huh!
I've been very successful at making a Passover carmelized matzo treat that seems very similar, except it uses butter and brown sugar, melted and poured over matzo and baked for 15 minutes. The result is a delightful carmalized matzo.
Tell me, oh wise candy-makers... What method do you use? Why didn't my sugar melt? Why do we add baking soda when using sugar and corn syrup? Do you add vanilla, as some recipes say to do? And why, oh why, didn't any of my methods work? I await your guidance.