Simply speaking, making candy is boiling sugar in water. What dictates which type of candy you are cooking is the point when the water stops boiling. There are seven stages of candy making: thread, soft-ball, firm-ball, hard-ball, soft-crack, hard-crack, and caramel. Different types of candy—from fudge to lollipops—need to be cooked to different stages. As the water boils, the higher the temperature and greater concentration of sugar, creating very different types of confections.
Determining Each Stage
A candy thermometer is a necessary tool for making candy at home. Each stage occurs at a different range of temperatures, so keeping an eye on the thermometer will help you know when the sugar has reached the correct stage. If you don't have a candy thermometer, or would like to use an additional technique, you can try the cold water method. Each stage can be determined by what the syrup's consistency is when dropped into cold water.
If you are using a candy thermometer and live in a higher altitude, you will need to do a bit of calculating: for every 500 feet above sea level, subtract one degree Fahrenheit from the stage's required temperature.
Soft-ball stage refers to a specific temperature range when cooking sugar syrups, occurring between 235 and 245 F. In addition to using a candy thermometer, this stage can be determined by dropping a spoonful of hot syrup into a bowl of very cold water.
In the water, use your fingers to gather the cooled syrup into a ball—if it has reached soft-ball stage, the syrup easily forms a ball while in the cold water, but flattens once removed from the water.
Soft-Ball Stage Candies