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Many people have something that comes naturally to them in the kitchen. Full disclosure: Candy wasn’t mine. While I now boil sugar syrups with ease and whip up marshmallows on the reg, this wasn’t always the case.
In pastry school, I was regularly seeking help from a friend who was a candy natural (I would return the favor by showing her how to crimp the edges of her pies). That same friend and I had lengthy discussions about fudge while I researched this article: “Hey, hi, how are you… Let’s talk about fudge now please.” I made way too many batches and may be responsible for some cavities in my immediate loved ones in the near future.
But it was worth it: Fudge is so fun to make and a really great lesson in exactly how sugar works. Oh, and it’s an excellent gateway candy to future candy adventures.
Let's do this together:
- What is fudge?
- Ready your thermometer.
- Prep your equipment.
- Ingredients and how they work together.
- Cook, stirring; boil, stirring.
- Cool down.
- Finishing and storing.
(Or skip straight to the recipes.)
Fudge is made by boiling sugar, dairy, and flavoring to the soft ball stage. After it reaches the appropriate temperature, the mixture is left to cool. When it reaches the second, cooler temperature, it is agitated. This agitation causes the mixture to crystallize, which gives fudge its structure, all while maintaining its signature, creamy texture.
It should be noted that while fudge is often associated with chocolate, it can be made in a variety of flavors—and chocolate is not a necessary ingredient to this sugar-based confection.
Fudge is very easy to make at home, but it requires an accurate thermometer for getting the results just right. If the fudge is overcooked, it will be crumbly, grainy, and/or brittle. If the fudge is undercooked, it will be very soft and won’t hold its shape well when cut (though I’ll say right here and now that it’s still really yummy this way, so always better to err on the side of undercooking when it comes to fudge: Melt it into your coffee, blend it into a milkshake, warm it up and make actual hot fudge). When I say over- or under- cooked, I’m talking about single degrees: 1 degree too hot can be grainy, 1 degree too cool can be loose. So it’s very important to have a good thermometer and to give it a quick test before you get started.
You’ll want to ready the container you’ll be putting the finished fudge into (all three of the recipes included with this article use an 8- by 8-inch baking dish; you can use a 9-by-9 in a pinch, but just remember the pieces will be shorter).
I prepare it by lightly greasing the pan and then lining it with parchment (the layer of grease helps keep the parchment in place). I fold the paper and cut the edges to make it fit flush against the sides of the pan, leaving an excess on either side to help me pull the finished fudge out of the pan later. Grease the surface of the parchment well with butter (my recipes all use a tablespoon of butter for this).
You’ll also want to ready your electric stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Butter the inside of the mixing bowl (my recipes use an additional tablespoon butter for this). Note: If you don’t have a mixer, butter the inside of a heat-safe bowl and ready a large wooden spoon: You can mix your fudge by hand instead!
Finally, you’ll need a relatively large pot. While the recipes won’t take up much room in the pot, they will bubble vigorously and are prone to bubbling over. Make sure your pot will have plenty of space for the mixture to bubble, and grab a heat-safe utensil ready for stirring (a Silicone spatula is best).
And, of course, your accurate candy thermometer!
Fudge will always contain the following:
- Dairy (milk, cream, butter, or a combination)
- Corn syrup
This is the same ingredient list that comprises soft caramels, just in different ratios. One main difference is the quantity of corn syrup (if you’re worried about using corn syrup, read this). Corn syrup prevents (or at least drastically reduces) the other sugars present in the recipe from forming the crystals that create a grainy, unpleasant texture. When you make caramels, you want to avoid crystallization, which can make the should-be-smooth caramels gritty and grainy and so corn syrup is added in decent quantities (crystallization can still happen, but the corn syrup really helps).
Fudge, on the other hand, needs to crystallize eventually (at the end of the process). So fudge recipes contain less corn syrup; instead preventing crystallization, the corn syrup sort of just slows the process down. There’s just enough corn syrup in the recipe to control the crystallization: The fudge will be less likely to crystallize during cooking, and will crystallize more slowly when agitated, forming smaller crystals (for a smoother, creamier texture).
When it comes to dairy, the main thing to note is fat content. Too much fat can destroy the delicate balance of the fudge ratio. A good way to understand is by comparing the chocolate, vanilla, and peanut butter fudge recipes included in this article.
- The chocolate fudge uses milk as the base: This lower-fat dairy allows for the addition of chocolate and cocoa powder. Butter is then added for richness in the proper quantity.
- Similarly, the peanut butter fudge has a decent quantity of peanut butter in it, so milk is used as the base, and less butter is added.
- The vanilla fudge, on the other hand, uses cream as the base, and therefore has no added butter in the fudge itself (just butter used for greasing the pan and the bowl).
Flavorings are usually added from the very beginning of the fudge process, with the exception of extracts and ground spices, which are added at the very end of cooking. Additions like chopped nuts, sprinkles, or chocolate chips can be folded into the batter after it's agitated or sprinkled on top of the fudge before it has cooled.
It is important for some sugar syrups to never be stirred once they come to a boil, as this can immediately begin crystallization. Fudge is a different story. Due to the large quantity of dairy enrichments, it’s important to stir throughout cooking to prevent the bottom from scorching and the whole batch from cooking unevenly.
It’s also important to start the process over relatively low heat; I place the pot on the stove and turn it to medium-low. Stir it constantly at the beginning to help combine the mixture (and evenly distribute flavoring ingredients like peanut butter, chocolate, or vanilla bean), and also to help the sugar dissolve.
Once the mixture is visibly smooth—meaning the sugar is dissolved, the chocolate is melted, the peanut butter is melted, etc.—then turn the heat up to medium. If you haven’t already attached the candy thermometer, attach it now and bring the mixture to a boil. Once the syrup is boiling, you don’t need to stir constantly, but you should be stirring very frequently. Make sure you get the sides and base of the pot to avoid scorching or sticking.
Continue to cook, stirring, until the mixture reads 235° F on the thermometer. The mixture will come up to 220 to 225° F very quickly—and the last few degrees much more slowly. Keep a close eye on it. It can be smart to allow for 1 to 2 degrees of carryover cooking, but if your thermometer is accurate and you work quickly, going right to 235 is no problem. A fudge overcooked by just a few degrees can have unfortunate results (grainy, crumbly, brittle), and a fudge undercooked by just a few degrees will be very soft and won’t hold its shape.
When the mixture reaches the proper temperature, stir in any extracts and remove the pot from the heat.
Pour the mixture into your prepared, buttered bowl. Attach the candy thermometer to the side of the bowl, making sure it’s as submerged in the mixture as possible. At this point, do not stir the mixture at all. If your recipe has added butter, it's often added now, to begin the cooling process. Dapple it evenly across the surface of the fudge and let it melt/rest undisturbed; it will get incorporated during agitation.
You'll notice that some candy recipes (including some fudge recipes) will have you pour the mixture directly from the pot into the prepared baking dish and cool it to room temperature. These recipes rely on a natural crystallization: The mixture will slowly form chains of sugar crystals while it cools. Fudge made in this way forms larger crystals, resulting in a firmer fudge. It’s not brittle or crumbly, at least not unpleasantly so.
By cooling the fudge prior to agitation (like in the recipes included in this article), on the other hand, you'll get much smaller, finer sugar crystals and a finished fudge with a smooth, creamy texture.
Cool the mixture until it reads 120° F on the thermometer—no stirring. This can take 1 to 1/2 hours.
After the fudge cools to the appropriate temperature, it is ready to be agitated. For ease and evenness, I like to use my mixer. I attach the bowl directly to the mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and mix the fudge on medium speed until it reaches the appropriate texture.
What exactly is the appropriate texture? Good question. This is the hardest part about making fudge—and it gets easier with practice! During mixing, the fudge will lighten in color and lose its shine, becoming more matte in appearance. It will also thicken noticeably.
My test is to lift the paddle out of the fudge and let it fall into the bowl. The mixture should be thick and should hold its shape when it falls. In a mixer, this will take 3 to 4 minutes. You can absolutely mix the fudge by hand: Just be sure you pour it into a heat-safe bowl to cool, then mix with a wooden spoon or Silicone spatula vigorously; by hand it will take 4 to 6 minutes.
Pour the finished fudge into the prepared pan and spread into an even layer. If the mixture is very firm, you can also place a piece of plastic wrap over it and press it to the edges with your hand. Let the mixture cool at room temperature until fully set and crystallized. This will take 45 minutes to 1 hour. Try not to move or agitate the fudge while it sets, as this can make the surface crack slightly.
When the fudge is set, use the excess parchment to pull it out of the pan. I like to cut my fudge into 1-inch squares. Some recipes will suggest “scoring” the fudge before it cools to help it cut more evenly. If you believe you may have overcooked the fudge, I’d recommend this. If your fudge is properly cooked, however, it will cut perfectly at the end.
Cut fudge has a long shelf life, but is very prone to drying out. It’s ideal to wrap each piece or store them in a very airtight container. Fudge will keep at room temperature for up to 2 weeks, or it can be frozen for up to 3 months (thaw before eating).
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
- 2 1/2 cups sugar
- 1/4 cup light corn syrup
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup whole milk
- 2 tablespoons good-quality cocoa powder
- 4 ounces good-quality dark chocolate, finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 3/4 cups sugar
- 1 1/2 cups light brown sugar
- 1/4 cup light corn syrup
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/3 cups whole milk
- 1/2 cup smooth peanut butter
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract