Were you washing down the sides with a wet pastry brush?
Sometimes under cooking is the cause of crystallization however I always had the problem with old sugar. Sometimes sugar gets contaminated with water and that can ruin your caramel - whenever I did sugar work I always tried to make sure I had brand new unopened sugar on hand. I hope that helps.
I'm interested in this as well. I have successfully made caramel several times. The only times I've ever had crystallization problems were the only times I tried the "washing down the sides" thing that seems to be the 'correct' way.
Whenever I let it boil away untouched–no stirring, no washing–I've had perfect results. Washing down the sides consistently ruins the batch. What is going on?
Formulation problems can cause, or at least exacerbate, crystallization problems, as well as can technique. It's difficult to know where to start troubleshooting without knowing the ingredients and what the end product is going to be. Begin with the recipe:
Sucrose (table sugar) readily crystallizes, especially in high concentrations. Two tactics that can prevent unwanted crystals are the use of an acid and the inclusion of glucose in the mix. The acid helps to split sucrose, a double sugar, into its two component parts, glucose and fructose, which are far less likely to crystallize. Corn syrup, which is basically glucose, mixes with sucrose and physically interferes with the formation of crystals.
It is important to know that crystals beget crystals. Attempting to wash down the sides of the pan may or may not work. Far better not to splash anything up there in the first place. Carefully add your ingredients to the bottom of the pan, water first, and bring them to a boil. Then put a lid on and allow the pan to sit undisturbed for 5 minutes. The steam from the boiling water will condense and dissolve any crystals that have formed on the side of the pan.
Another place you can get tripped up is when pouring the syrup from the pan. The stuff that adheres to the bottom will be more concentrated than the average. Scraping the contents off the bottom of the pan can cause problems with delicately balanced mixtures.
Undercooking or overcooking will affect the consistency of the final product and in the case of caramel, the flavor. But not crystallization. I have to challenge the idea that old sugar is any different than fresh. Any excess water will boil off long before caramelization can begin. Witness that many caramel recipes dissolve the sugar in water at the beginning of the process.
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