Candy is a frivolous thing with no other purpose than to delight, and that's why it's so wonderful. But for many home cooks, candymaking is becoming a lost art. They think of candy as complicated and technically difficult, but the truth is that a lot of candies are quite simple to make. When the holidays come around, along with the usual assortment of cookies, I like to give homemade candy, and peanut brittle is one of the quickest, easiest candies to make. With just a few ingredients, most of which I have on hand, I can make wonderful homemade peanut brittle in less than an hour and a half from start to delicious finish.
Baking soda and butter make a more delicate brittle
Baking soda adds bubbles—millions of minuscule ones that make the brittle more porous. Take the syrup off the heat before adding the baking soda so it doesn't foam out of the pan.
Sugar syrup is the foundation of candymaking. To make peanut brittle, the sugar syrup must be cooked to what is called the hard-crack stage. That means that the syrup solidifies when cooled, breaks easily when snapped, and no longer feels sticky. At this stage, the syrup will register between 305° and 310°F on a candy thermometer.
The trick, though, is to make a candy that's truly brittle so that it breaks when you bite it, rather than a hard candy that must be sucked like a lollipop or toffee. By adding baking soda to the sugar syrup, you unleash a zillion minuscule air bubbles that give the candy a porous, delicate texture. Butter also helps to make the candy tender and easier to chew, as well as adding its own rich flavor.
Raw peanuts give better flavor
The peanuts toast and even pop a bit as the sugar syrup turns a rich, light-golden color. They'll flavor the syrup as they cook and make the brittle taste nuttier.
For candy with a rich peanut flavor, use raw nuts: the Spanish variety (with red, papery skins) or blanched raw peanuts. Raw nuts can be added relatively early in the cooking process. They'll flavor the syrup as they cook and give the brittle a nuttier taste. Look for Spanish or blanched raw peanuts in well-stocked supermarkets or in health-food stores.
If you use roasted nuts, however, add them at the end of the cooking time. If added too soon, roasted nuts could burn and leave the candy with a bitter taste. Warm roasted nuts first in a 250°F oven. Adding cold nuts to the hot syrup could cause it to seize and crystallize. Also, if the nuts are salted, omit the salt in the recipe.
Other nuts—particularly soft-textured ones like pecans, cashews, and walnuts—are more susceptible to burning, which can make the candy bitter. If you want to make brittle with any of these nuts, add them when the sugar syrup has almost finished cooking, at around 290°F.