Some folks seem to have trouble making fudge. While the process is a little time-consuming and requires paying attention to a few details, it's not complicated; fudge is just a mixture of milk, sugar, salt, butter, and some kind of flavoring. The tricky parts are how long to cook the mixture and how long to beat it.
My Grandmother's Recipe
Although she didn't make it often, my grandmother was unusually gifted at making fudge. Upon discovering our doctor loved fudge, she promised to bring him some. The next time she visited his office, she brought two pounds of peanut butter fudge. Later that evening, he called. “I’ve eaten all of it. I’m sick as a dog. But it was worth it.” Nana did not get the impression he had shared his goodies with anyone.
The three of us—my grandmother, my mother, and I—sat around the table, looking at one another. All of it? Peanut butter fudge is very rich, particularly when Nana made it. A person might eat one or maybe, two pieces. Not two pounds. Looking at the doctor, one would never think he was a secret candy fiend.
Let's look at the fundamentals of fudge-making before turning to the peanut butter fudge recipe. As mentioned above, basic fudge is made of sugar and milk, along with a little salt and butter, plus whatever ingredients are needed to give it a specific flavor.
The Basics of Making Fudge
- Boil the milk, salt, and sugar until the mixture reaches a certain temperature and consistency.
- Take the pan off the stove, add butter—usually—and beat.
- Once the mixture cools a little, add any other required ingredients—usually including vanilla.
- Continue to beat until the mixture thickens sufficiently. Now pour the mixture into a buttered pan.
- Let the fudge cool for just a few minutes, then cut it into squares, leaving it all in the pan. Let the fudge sit and get cold. Leaving it overnight is fine. Then turn out the fudge, breaking it up along the cut lines.
How to Tell Whether the Mixture Has Boiled Enough
While boiling, the use of a candy thermometer is standard practice to ascertain whether the syrup mixture has reached the right temperature. But I'm going to be a cooking heretic here; I don’t trust the thermometer. Instead, I prefer to test the mixture in cold water to see if I get a certain shape. (We’ll talk more about that in a moment.)
Humidity's Effect on Cooking
Why would a working thermometer not be reliable? Weather can affect the candy, particularly humidity. Humidity can retard the progress of the cooking. When it is humid, the temperature should be a little higher. At high altitudes, the temperature should be a little lower. (Of course, a humid day on a high mountain could complicate matters.) It is always best to double-check the thermometer’s readings with the water test because the right consistency, not the temperature, is the goal.
The Water Test
What is the water test? Once candy has cooked to its proper consistency, a tiny quantity of the mixture, dropped into cold water, will produce a particular kind of result. Fudge, toffee, and hard candy are all different from one another. A toffee must cook longer than a fudge. A hard candy must cook longer still. When making fudge, if, with your fingers, you can form a soft ball from the syrup dropped in the water, then the fudge has cooked enough.
When doing the water test, it is advisable to take the pan off the stove, so the mixture does not continue to cook. Below is a list of various outcomes depending on the type of candy being cooked. Soft ball and medium soft ball are the stages sought for most fudges.
The temperatures listed for each result are calibrated for sea-level conditions. The Celsius temperatures are approximate conversions.
- Thread (230° to 234° F; 110º to 112º C) The syrup creates a thin thread of two or three inches that will then disintegrate.
- Soft ball (234° to 238° F; 112º to 114º C) The drops can be pushed together with the fingers to obtain a ball-like shape that flattens out. When going for one of the ‘ball’ stages, always use your fingers to try to form it.
- Medium soft ball (238° to 240° F; 114º to 115º C) The ball just holds a spherical shape. The sphere may seem a little irregular.
- Firm ball (244° to 250° F; 118º to 121º C) The ball holds its shape better and is firm but not hard. Should a fudge mixture cook too long, a firm ball stage will usually do for fudge. The candy will be harder than desired, but most times, it will still taste all right.
- Hard ball (255° to 265° F; 124º to 129º C) The ball is firm and hard, though it may still be a little pliable. The texture tends to be chewy. Think taffy.
- Soft Crack (270° to 290° F; 132º to 143º C) The syrup will separate into threads, though not the soft ones of the thread stage that disintegrate. These are fine threads that are not yet quite brittle but will break.
- Firm crack (290° to 300° F; 143º to 149º C) Getting into the brittle range. Think toffee and butterscotch.
- Hard crack (295° to 310° F; 146º to 154º C) The threads are hard and brittle. Notice the temperatures overlap with Firm Crack.
Once the temperature reaches 315° F, 157º C, and beyond, the sugar is burning. Burnt sugar is also a stage sometimes desired. It can be used for flavoring. Think caramel.
When using a thermometer, Fannie Farmer’s recommends heating it first in hot water. Specifically, put it in the water and then slowly bring the water to a boil. Then it is ready to use in the candy pan. After use, Fannie Farmer’s recommends putting it in hot water to cool slowly.
The Beating Process
The beating process is the next tricky part. The beating makes it thicker and creamier. Some cookbooks will tell you that when the mixture loses its ‘gloss,’ it is ready to pour into the pan. In truth, it does not lose its gloss, or at least not enough to make much difference in its appearance. Once you have made fudge a few times, it is fairly easy to feel when the mixture is getting heavy and wants to harden.
Electric Mixer vs. Spoon
Once you do know, you may want to use an electric mixer instead of a wooden spoon. (Always use the wooden spoon when the mixture is on the stove.) Beating manually can be hard on the arm. But if you have never made fudge, I would not recommend the electric mixer until you have a true sense of what the mixture feels and looks like.
Once the fudge has been beaten sufficiently, pour the mixture into a buttered, square cake pan. (A round pan won’t hurt, but you will have some odd-shaped pieces.) It is nice to have a rack on which to allow the pan to cool.
Two important points:
- If you beat and beat and the mixture doesn’t thicken, it may need to cook some more. Pour it back into the pan and return to the stove.
- If, after pouring, the mixture remains too soft, it may still need more cooking and/or beating.
Basic Fudge Tips
- Candy should be cooked in a heavy, flat-bottom pan. The pan should be deep enough that the mixture can boil without boiling over.
- A fudge syrup should be cooked over medium heat, nothing higher. This is to prevent the milk from scalding and the mixture from catching. When in doubt, turn down the heat a little. Candy that is made with water rather than milk can be cooked over heat set a little higher.
- Use a wooden spoon rather than a metal one to prevent crystallizing.
- Have something to place the hot pan on when it is removed from the stove. I use an old wooden cutting board rather than risk damaging the counter or the table. A wooden board provides an excellent surface for the beating process.
That is the general outline. Let us now turn to the peanut butter fudge recipe.
- 3 cups of white sugar
- 1 1/2 cups of milk
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 3 tablespoons of peanut butter
- 2 tablespoons of butter, preferably unsalted
- 1 1/4 teaspoons of vanilla
Note about peanut butter: If you have a peanut butter where the oil separates, rising up and away from the thick peanut-y part, and must be stirred before using, pour off the oil. Do not stir it in. That oil will just get in the way. Better yet, go buy a peanut butter that does not separate.
- 3-quart saucepan
- Wooden spoon
- 8- or 9-inch baking pan
- Measuring cups
- Measuring spoons
- Candy thermometer (optional)
- Small cups for water
- Put 2 or 3 small cups of water in the refrigerator. These will be used to test whether the syrup mixture has reached the soft ball stage. Butter the pan into which the cooked mixture will be poured. Set the pan to one side.
- Now, mix in a saucepan the sugar, salt, and milk. Place the pan on the stove over medium heat. Remember, be careful about letting the heat get too high. You need to stir the mixture, not constantly, but regularly, with a wooden spoon. Bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat if the mixture threatens to boil over.
- If using a candy thermometer, when it reads 232° F (110º C), it is nearing the soft ball stage. Do a first water test. Likely it will not be quite ready yet. From here on keep a very close eye on the mixture.
- Once the mixture has definitely reached the soft ball stage, take it off the stove. Add the butter and the peanut butter. Briefly allow them to melt into the mixture. Then, with your wooden spoon, stir them in and start beating. Many candy recipes tell you to let the syrup mixture sit for a while and cool. Don’t let it sit for longer than 2 to 4 minutes before you start beating. Partway through the beating process, once the mixture has cooled a little, add the vanilla. Continue to beat until the mixture feels fairly heavy.
- When the mixture is ready, pour it into the buttered pan. Let it sit for a few minutes. Next, cut it into squares with a sharp knife. To clean the candy off the knife, dip it in water regularly as you go. Once you are done cutting, leave the fudge in the pan until it is truly cold. Once cold, turn it out of the pan and carefully, along the scored lines, break it apart into pieces. Place the pieces on a plate or in a box. It keeps well in the refrigerator for a few weeks.
- Enjoy! Remember, you don’t have to eat the fudge as fast as my grandmother's doctor did.
Better Homes and Gardens. Cookies and Candies. New York. Meredith Press. 1966.
Collett, Elaine. The Chatelaine Cookbook. Toronto, Canada. Maclean-Hunter Publishing Company. 1965.
Perkins, Wilma Lord. (Revised by.) The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. Boston. Little, Brown and Company. 1965.
© 2019 Teddi DiCanio