Recently, I made a goal to improve my sugar ribbon technique. The goal was to create sugar ribbons with thin stripes, satiny shine, and minimal grains. I wished to achieve this with sugar, not isomalt.
Over the course of 2 weeks, 8 batches of sugar, and over 40 pulled ribbons, some success:
My patience and ability to withstand the occasional shatter was also tested. Let’s go backwards…
Disclaimer: Proper equipment and safety is a requirement in working with boiling sugar. Temperatures easily exceed 300 degrees Fahrenheit and above, and the use of open flame & gas results in the risk of burns & fire.
For a basic recipe as a starting point, see Professional Baking by Wayne Gisslen, now available online on Google Books.
I compared numerous recipes using a spreadsheet. Recipes compared were from the following library books:
- Sucre d’art, by Stéphane Glacier
- Sugar Artistik, by Louise & Othmar Fassbind
- Professional Baking, by Wayne Gisslen
- The Advanced Professional Pastry Chef, by Bo Friberg
- The Art of the Confectioner, by Ewald Notter
- Plus various recipes from college
The basic recipe contains granulated sugar, glucose, and acid. I found similarities and patterns are found in ratios, batch weight, and temperature.
The Effect of Temperature:
I noted in the books, final boiling temperatures varied from 300F to 340F.
Higher boiling temperatures result in:
- Better shine
- Better ability to hold shape and firmer consistency
- Required warming to a higher temp under the lamp to work with
- Increased force/energy to work with
- Increased yellowing/caramel colour
Time also plays a special role. I am still figuring this one out. My experiments resulted in inconsistent results in shorter vs. longer boiling time.
Longer exposure to acid can soften the sugar as well, so the timing of when the acid is added plays another factor.
The Effect of Acid:
For an in-depth look at the effect of acid on sugar, see this research article from the Center for Advanced Food Science and Technology, Korea University, “The Effect of Organic Acids on the Hygroscopity and Browning of Sugar Candies”
To summarize, acid inverts (also known as hydrolysis) sugar by acting as a catalyst, speeding up the split of sucrose (common granulated sugar), into glucose and fructose.
The effect of acid on pulled sugar art:
- Reduces crystallization
- Increases attraction to moisture/ stickiness
- Increases softness/fluidity and elasticity
- Darkens colour
Glucose also prevents crystallization, as noted in the article.
The challenge for me was determining the cause of grains.
In my trials, grains appeared immediately upon pulling the sugar, done shortly after boiling and cooling. This led me to believe the ingredients or recipes themselves were the factors.
From my research, there appear to be multiple possible causes of grains. This includes, but is not limited to:
- purity of the ingredients
- cleanliness of the equipment
- length of time the sugar is boiled
- temperature the acid is added
Batch upon batch resulted in grains. I tried to eliminate factors one by one. Frustration began to settle in and I really began to question. Were the textbooks fooling me? Were they leaving information out? Where the images photo shopped? Did their cameras have filters and lenses that only focused on the grain-free portions of the ribbon? Was isomalt used? Was the purity of the sugar, glucose or water itself the issue?
I began modifying recipes, which created some interesting results.
The lessons I learned – slight adjustments in acid, quantities, and temperature make a huge impact on final results. There is no one correct recipe. It is more practical to take a base recipe and adjust it accordingly. This is due to the numerous combined variables of time, temperature, quantities, environment, and ingredients.
I finally adjusted a recipe to achieve acceptable results. In this recipe, a common quantity of sugar, glucose, acid was used. The acid was added somewhat earlier, and then the batch was boiled to a higher temperature:
I interpreted these adjustments as:
- Longer exposure time to the acid allows more time for the acid to act on the sugar
- Higher temperature allows for a firmer sugar, counteracting the softening nature of the acid.
It is important to boil the sugar until the correct consistency – to slow moving molten bubbles. The boiled sugar should not be fluid, but instead a honey-like viscosity. It is not only about reading the thermometer, but also reading the consistency of the sugar.
The consistency of the sugar should not be too firm or too soft:
- A sugar too firm results in difficulty in sticking strands together, breakage while pulling, difficulty in folding, and greater time & temperature to warm up
- A sugar that is soft is easier to pull and form ribbons, but will not hold shape well, absorb moisture easily, and loses shine quickly.
It is better to err on the side of a stiff sugar consistency rather than a soft one. Ambient temperature and humidity also play a factor. The ideal consistency is a sugar where:
- Initial strands barely adhere to each other without excessive heat
- The ribbon pulls without excessive breaking or cracking
- The ribbon sets shape quickly without the addition of cool air (depending on thickness).
- The ribbon holds shape overnight, without deforming.
- When a piece is broken, the ribbon appears as round ropes stuck together:
When shaping, start with a minimum of 6 strands, and up to 10. I find 8 is ideal. 8 doubled up twice results in a ribbon with 32 strands. A finished 64-plus strand ribbon is possible, but may require a set of two hands because of the width.
Start with strands even in size, shape and weight. Aerate just before forming strands.
The thinner the ribbon is pulled, the greater the shine:
Shine is also affected by:
- Proper aeration
- Quantity of acid
- Temperature the sugar is cooked to
- Storage and exposure to humidity
- Temperature the ribbon is pulled at
There are unlimited possibilities in pulled sugar. For inspiration, check out Stéphane Klein, one of the greatest masters of sugar art of our time (warning: some images NSFW).