Techniques – #S for Sugar Syrup Hack
Indian cuisine calls for various stages of sugar syrups for various sweets. Estimating the consistency of sugar syrup demands great skill. Even a few seconds difference can alter the consistency and doom the recipe.
Sugar syrup is very tricky, even for experienced chefs. Generations of chefs have believed sugar melts. Many have used candy thermometers to track this melting temperature and estimate different stages of sugar syrup. Most have relied on their experience as the consistency frequently goes wrong, even when measured with candy thermometers. They have blamed these variations on impurities or imprecise measurements. It was only very recently that scientists found Sucrose (Table sugar) does not melt at a particular temperature. Instead, it decomposes over a range of temperatures. The decomposition depends not only on the intensity of heat but also on the duration of this heat. Low and slow heating can turn sugar into caramel, just the same way as fast and furious heating.
In India, chefs do not rely on a thermometer but on touch, to estimate the consistency. This demands a great deal of skill. For ages, cooks have struggled to master the consistency the traditional way, with their hearts in their mouths, as it is so easy to go wrong.
For generations, this is how chefs in India were cooking and estimating the stages of sugar syrup:
Add equal quantity of sugar and water in a pan and bring to a boil. Stir once and leave it undisturbed. After a few minutes, if you touch the syrup, it will be sticky. This is called the sticky stage. This syrup is used for soaking sweets like Gulab jamun.
On continued heating, the syrup passes through the stages below :
Hold a drop of syrup between your forefinger and thumb, it will form a string but will immediately break, when you move the forefinger and thumb gently apart.
Hold a drop of syrup between your forefinger and thumb, one string will be formed between your fingers when you separate them. This is the consistency needed for ladoo, jalebi and mysore pak.
Hold a drop of syrup between your forefinger and thumb. Two strings will be formed between your fingers when you separate them. This is used for sweets like badusha and hard burfis.
When you drop a bit of syrup in water, it will set into a soft ball.
When you drop a bit of syrup in water, it will set into a hard ball. If you drop the ball on a plate, it will sound like a stone hitting the plate. This is the consistency used for Chikkis.
Caramel: On further heating, you reach the caramel stage. This is rarely used for Indian sweets. Any further heating browns the sugar and eventually turns it to carbon.
Jaggery also melts the same way. We needed a way to deskill the way to estimate the stage of the syrup.
We believed deskilling sugar syrup held the key to many families of Indian sweets. After all, sugar syrup is just a glue to stick ingredients together. This glue is made in differing strengths for different desserts.
A Gajar halwa is carrots held together by a very weak syrup. A Kaju Katli is just cashew paste bound by a weak syrup. A boondi laddoo is just boondi stuck with weak syrup. A Mysorepak is just gram flour set with weak syrup. A coconut burfi is grated coconut held with a medium strength syrup. Common Chikki/ brittle is just nuts set in a strong syrup.
The strength of this glue (sugar syrup) varies with its water content. We tried pressure cooking measured quantities of sugar with water, hoping the standardised cooking conditions would let us control the consistency of syrup by just varying the cooking time/ number of whistles.
We started with the traditional recipe of 1 part of sugar to one part of water, but it took too long. After numerous trials, we settled on 1 part of sugar to 1/4 part of water. We cooked it under controlled conditions and tried to match the syrup consistency with number of whistles. Later, we extended it to jaggery. The table below summarises the experiment.
We were trying to crack the Holy Grail of south Indian sweets, Mysorepak (gramflour fudge). The traditional recipe calls for equal quantities of gram flour, sugar, water and ghee. As in all OPOS recipes, we wanted to minimise the use of fat and after many trials, settled on a ratio of 1:1:1/4:1/4 for Sugar:Roasted gram flour: Water: Ghee
The following recipe was proposed:
Mix 1C sugar (200g), 1/4C water, 1/4C ghee. Cook at high heat (900 W) for 4 to 7 whistles. Release pressure. Mix in 1C (100g) well roasted gram flour. Pour in a greased plate & cut.
This simple recipe generated over 200 validations. It was raining Mysorepaks for a long time.
This technique unlocked a huge variety of burfis, mysorepaks, katlis, chikkis and other sugar syrup based sweets. Soon, we extended the same logic to jaggery.
Jaggery syrup is impossible to standardise because Jaggery itself is not standardised. It is not industrially manufactured. At best you can use this table as a starting point and estimate the stages based on the jaggery you use. Remember both sugar and jaggery are hygroscopic. They easily absorb water from the atmosphere. This will vary their consistency. Always use bone dry sugar for consistent results.
The sugar syrup hack holds the key to a huge range of Indian sweets!