How did I find myself falling in love with toffee, typically one of my least favorite desserts, and perhaps my sworn enemy on this Earth?
By making it from scratch. Over and over and over again.
Toffee had never been high on my list of preferred treats. And a chipped tooth after one unfortunate toffee-eating incident hasn’t helped with its overall likability either.
But when you have to make toffee for baking and pastry school in order to ace your sugar work class, or at least make it well enough to get a passing grade, earning your diploma kind of depends on it!
So, toffee and I had to set aside our differences so we could learn how to like each other.
It may have been all the sugar dust in the air, but I gradually began to see the lovely beauty behind toffee’s hard exterior.
I get so giddy when I gaze upon the gorgeous, deep amber hue of the candy as it sets in the pan.
We soon became best friends – and just like besties do, toffee even told me some of its most cherished secrets on how to make it perfectly every time.
It took a few tries and a lot of patience, but it finally warmed up to me.
Here are three life lessons I’ve gained from our sweet friendship:
Lesson #1: Corn Syrup Will Be Your Savior
I have been personally traumatized by more failures than I care to admit, when the butter and the sugar separate and refuse to mix together to form a solid component.
I hate seeing that pool of butter on top of the sugar in the pot… it’s an obvious sign of a broken toffee that is incredibly difficult to fix.
Like any cooked sugar recipe, making the toffee mixture is a delicate process that can turn against you in an instant when you do something (or even say something) it doesn’t like.
Separation and crystallization may occur if the heat doesn’t remain even, if you stir too often (more on that below), or if the ratio of ingredients is off.
One of the key ways to prevent this from happening is to add a little corn syrup to your recipe. The corn syrup helps to bond the ingredients together, lowering the risk of poor results like separation or an unintended crumbly, brittle texture.
Lesson #2: You Can Stir, But Use Severe Discipline
You should stir constantly in the beginning as the butter and sugar melt together to form a homogenous mixture. But as soon as it starts bubbling, drop the spoon.
At least for a little while.
Too much agitation may cause the mixture to crystallize or separate, but too little stirring may cause the mixture to heat unevenly and burn.
The latter is a highly likely outcome due to the addition of butter in toffee recipes. While the components in butter help to promote browning and the release of volatile flavor compounds, they are more delicate and prone to burning. Without stirring, the bottom and sides of the mixture will brown too quickly, and may potentially burn.
You’ll only need to stir the mixture one to three times while it comes to the correct temperature, but no more than that.
For the best results, stir OCCASIONALLY, and use a CLEAN SPOON every time!
If you use the same spoon in between stirs, any dried sugar particles on the old spoon may cause the mixture to seize.
Yup, it’s that picky.
Lesson #3: Temperature Matters
You can’t simply go by color alone when determining how long to cook toffee.
There are different temperature ranges that affect the final hardness of the product. The texture may be too soft if you cook the mixture for too little time, and it may be too hard and bitter, perhaps even burnt, if you cook it for too long.
The best way to determine the temperature of the mixture is by using a thermometer. This little tool completely eliminates any guesswork. Just be sure you have one that registers at higher temperatures!
For optimal hardness, toffee should be cooked in the lower range of the “hard crack” stage, ideally between 290 and 300°F. You can learn more about these stages in our article on making caramels.
You may see some minor fluctuations in this recommended range from other sources, but I would advise against going any higher than 305°F as the absolute max.
No more chipped teeth, please!
Okay – so you have your ingredients, a thermometer, and a newly discovered sense of confidence. Let’s make the perfect homemade toffee!Print
Do you know how to make the perfect toffee from scratch? We share all the secrets to achieve the best texture, taste, and color.
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 2 sticks (8 ounces) room temperature unsalted butter, cubed
- 1/4 cup water
- 2 tablespoons light corn syrup
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- Use a rimmed quarter-size baking sheet for thicker toffee (1/4 inch thick) or a rimmed half baking sheet for thinner toffee (1/8 inch thick). Line it with a silicone mat or aluminum foil. Spray the liner and sides of the pan very lightly with nonstick cooking oil spray. Set aside.
- Combine all ingredients in a clean 3-quart saucepan. Place over medium heat to dissolve the sugar and melt the butter, stirring constantly with a heatproof spoon or spatula.
- Once the ingredients are completely melted together, continue to stir constantly until the mixture begins to boil.
- Once the mixture comes to a boil, remove the spoon and decrease the heat to low. Continue cooking, stirring only one or twice with a clean heatproof spoon or spatula each time until the mixture becomes dark golden in color and reaches a temperature between 290 and 300°F on a digital or candy thermometer. This will take about 25-30 minutes.
- Immediately remove the pot from the stove and pour into the prepared pan, using a clean heatproof spoon or spatula to spread the melted toffee mixture across the pan. If using a half baking sheet, the toffee will not cover all of the sheet.
- Let cool at room temperature, for about 2 hours. Once completely cooled, invert the pan onto a clean work surface to remove the toffee. Break into single-serving-sized pieces and serve.
- Store at room temperature in an airtight container for up to two weeks.
- Prep Time: 10 minutes
- Cook Time: 30 minutes
- Category: Candy
- Method: Stovetop
- Cuisine: Dessert
Keywords: toffee, butter, sugar, vanilla
Cooking by the Numbers…
Step 1 – Prep and Measure Ingredients
Line a rimmed quarter-size baking sheet (about 13 by 9 inches) with a silicone mat or aluminum foil. Spray the mat and sides of the pan with nonstick cooking spray. Set aside.
A quarter baking sheet will yield toffee that is about a 1/4 inch thick. You can use a half baking sheet (about 18 by 13 inches) if you prefer thinner toffee.
Set out a thermometer, a clean, 3-quart saucepan (preferably heavy-bottomed to prevent scorching), and multiple clean, heatproof spoons.
Cube the butter and let it come to room temperature. Using room-temperature butter as opposed to cold butter helps the mixture to melt and combine quickly.
Measure out the sugar, water, corn syrup, vanilla extract, and salt.
The addition of water also helps to combine the ingredients, as the sugar will dissolve easily in water.
Step 2 – Combine, Melt, and Boil the Ingredients
Combine all of the ingredients in the saucepan.
Stir constantly with a heatproof spoon or spatula to fully melt and combine the ingredients. Continue stirring constantly until the mixture comes to a boil.
Step 3 – Continue Cooking
Turn the heat down to low, and immediately remove the spoon or spatula.
Lowering the heat is very important! This will prevent the mixture from burning, and will gently heat and slowly caramelize the mixture for better texture and color. It will also lower the risk of the mixture separating or crystallizing.
If you start seeing sugar crystals forming around the edge of the pan above the syrup, you can brush those areas with a damp pastry brush.
Stir the mixture once or twice as the mixture continues cooking, but note that you do not want to stir constantly. Stirring a caramel constantly once it has boiled may cause the mixture to separate or crystallize. However, stirring once or twice is necessary to redistribute the heat and prevent the mixture from burning.
Be sure to use a clean spoon every time you stir to prevent the mixture from crystalizing!
Cook the mixture until it reaches the lower end of the hard crack stage, between 290 and 300°F on a digital or candy thermometer.
This will take about 15 to 25 minutes, depending on the strength of the heat from your burner.
You will need to check the temperature routinely throughout the cooking process once the mixture starts to gain some color. Just like with the spoon, you will need to clean off the thermometer to remove any hardened sugar before you resubmerge it in the mixture.
Step 4 – Pour into Pan and Cool
As soon as the mixture reaches the preferred temperature range, immediately remove the pot from the heat. Very carefully pour the mixture into the prepared pan, and quickly use a heatproof spatula to spread it across the pan.
Let the mixture cool completely at room temperature for about 2 hours. The pan and the toffee should be cool to the touch before moving on to the next step.
Step 5 – Break and Serve
Invert the pan on a clean surface or large cutting board to remove the toffee. Using the back of a spoon, break the toffee into single-serving-sized pieces, about 1 1/2 to 2 inches long.
Serve and enjoy!
Store the toffee in an airtight container at room temperature. The pieces typically won’t stick together when stored at room temperature away from any source of heat, but you can use pieces of parchment or wax paper in between each layer as a safe precaution.
The toffee will keep for up to two weeks.
Use It ALL Up!
Consider this recipe as a simple base for a variety of different applications.
And if you’re like me and not the biggest fan of plain toffee on its own, I find that it’s even better with some toasted chopped nuts mixed into the base just before you transfer it to the baking sheet, or spread with melted chocolate on top after it cools, or both – a page taken from our vegan pecan chocolate toffee recipe. This is also a great article to get even more tips for making toffee at home.
How do you like to enjoy your toffee? Do you prefer it plain, mixed with nuts, or covered in a layer of chocolate? Do you think you’ll make it as a gift for your family and friends? I want to hear all your brilliant ideas in the comment section below!
Want even more candy recipes to satisfy your sweet tooth? Give us top hats and call us Willy Wonka! We have plenty more for you to choose from, starting with these top favorites:
Photos by Nikki Cervone, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Originally published by Shanna Mallon on June 23, 2009. Last updated on December 16, 2021.
Nutritional information derived from a database of known generic and branded foods and ingredients and was not compiled by a registered dietitian or submitted for lab testing. It should be viewed as an approximation.
About Nikki Cervone
Nikki Cervone is a full-time cheesemonger and specialty foods buyer living in Pittsburgh. Nikki holds an AAS in baking/pastry from Westmoreland County Community College, a BA in Communications from Duquesne University, and an MLA in Gastronomy from Boston University. When she's not nibbling on her favorite cheeses or testing a batch of cupcakes, Nikki enjoys a healthy dose of yoga, wine, hiking, singing in the shower, and chocolate. Lots of chocolate.