As a general rule, I don’t have any plans to share a bunch of candy recipes here — the internet is already bursting with them.
But for taffy I’m making a wee exception. The trouble with making taffy or fruit chews is that even good recipes vary wildly, with so many confusing secondary ingredients that it can be hard to see the internal logic churning away underneath it all.
So, I’ve put together a stripped-down, no-bells-no-whistles “master recipe” for home cooking. Depending on what exactly you’re looking for, this may or may not make the world’s finest taffy. The point is to really lay bare the essentials of a solid taffy recipe.
This master recipe can also serve as a good bullshit detector: if you understand how the essential formula works, you can look at any ol’ taffy recipe you find and understand if the author knows what they’re doing and how likely it is that the recipe will work as advertised.
The recipe is at the bottom, but first let’s look at what each essential component is doing.
The six essentials of taffy
Essential no. 1: Sugar.
Fruit chews are candy, and candy means sugar. No surprises there.
Taffy is much less picky than some other candies about the type of sugar you use, but you’ll get the most predictable results sticking to refined or semi-refined sugar that is mostly sucrose.
Plenty of different sugars exist in the world of plants, but good ol’ table sugar from sugar cane is almost entirely sucrose. Sugar cane isn’t the only source of sucrose though: sugar beet, coconut palm sugar, other palm sugars, and maple sugar are all readily available candidates.
You can definitely use brown or semi-refined or “raw” or Turbinado or Muscovado or jaggery sugars. If you chose to go this route you will, of course, get much more flavour contribution from the sugar itself.
On top of that, the final product may be softer and stickier and sweeter, as there will be more sucrose inversion (i.e. conversion to fructose and glucose) and caramelization going on. Try to cook the recipe a few degrees higher than normal to partially compensate for this.
Can you make sugar-free or low-sugar fruit chews? Yeah, sure, probably.
You’ll likely have to substitute in a large quantity of either sugar alcohols like maltitol, sorbitol, and isomalt, or digestion-resistant carbohydrates like isomaltooligosaccharide [IMO] syrup. That will have a huge impact on your recipe and the final product, so good luck.
And fair warning: all of these ingredients are known to cause “intestinal distress” when over-consumed, and they may still spike your blood sugar if you’re diabetic.
Essential no. 2: Glucose syrup.
Taffy is one of those places where glucose syrup is a clearly superior choice over traditional confectionery doctors like cream of tartar or lemon juice.
Normally, doctors break the sucrose in the recipe down into fructose and glucose, giving you a product that is softer, stickier, throat-burningly sweet, and more likely to crystallize after all of the handling that taffy undergoes. Glucose syrup, on the other hand, will give you longer chew, more manageable stickiness, moderated sweetness, and will be much less likely to crystallize.
There’s a lot of confusion (as in, I used to be very confused) around corn syrups and glucose syrups in general, so here’s a bit of clarity.
Glucose syrup isn’t glucose?!
The name glucose syrup is a bit of a misnomer, as it’s usually not primarily glucose (AKA dextrose). Rather, it’s a complex mixture of carbohydrates that includes varying amounts of glucose, maltose, and longer oligosaccharides.
Typically, it’s made by treating starches with acid or amylase enzymes (derived from mould, bacteria, or malted grains) which break those long-chain starches down into shorter, sweeter, simpler sugars.
Think of it as an industrial scale version of the same processes that are used to convert starches into fermentable sugars in a lot of alcohol-brewing traditions, like malted barley and koji rice.
What’s this DE biz?
If you buy glucose syrup from a commercial supplier, it will be labelled with a DE number or “dextrose equivalent.” This is basically the percent of starch that has been fully converted to dextrose/glucose. 42DE syrup is the most common choice for confectionery purpose. It’s not particularly sweet — about 40% as sweet as table sugar.
Glucose syrup is not malt syrup or maltose.
Malt syrups like barley malt syrup or brown rice syrup or rice malt syrup are kinda-sorta like glucose syrup, but usually made using more traditional techniques that start with unrefined grains rather than pure starch. They are lovely and flavourful, but there’s a lot more going on in them than there is in glucose syrup and they can lead to unpredictable results.
Maltose syrups are the more refined, more industrial cousins of malt syrups. Despite containing very little glucose, they are functionally similar to glucose syrups in a lot of ways, and you can probably get away with substituting one for the other if you’re willing to play around a bit.
Glucose syrup is not HFCS.
Glucose syrup is not the same thing as high-fructose corn syrup, HFCS, or glucose-fructose. HFCS is made from glucose syrup that undergoes additional steps to turn the glucose into fructose, which is normally absent from glucose syrup.
Fructose is often pointed to as the “culprit” sugar whenever HFCS is vilified for causing obesity or metabolic disorders. I’m not going to wade into that particular shitstorm here, but I think it’s fair to say it’s a good idea to pay attention to your consumption of all sugars across the board.
Anyway, don’t use HFCS in taffy — it’ll cause some of the same problems with stickiness and over-sweetness as traditional doctors.
These are good choices.
In terms of the kinds of glucose syrups you might be able to find at a grocery store, there are a few good options:
- corn syrup
- potato syrup
- wheat syrup
- tapioca/cassava syrup.
Organic and non-GMO is best from a sustainability standpoint. Try to avoid brands that have HFCS/glucose-fructose, vanillin, salt, or molasses added, as these will impart flavour or throw off your recipe (usually by inverting the sucrose and making the end product too sticky and sweet).
These are bad choices.
Remember: just because it looks like syrup or has the word syrup in the name, doesn’t mean it’s a good substitute for glucose syrup.
- Agave syrup is mostly fructose.
- Liquid sugar and simple syrup are mostly just dissolved sucrose.
- Coconut nectar, maple syrup, and sorghum syrup are likewise mostly sucrose.
- Invert sugar syrup and trimoline and golden syrup and light treacle are fructose and dextrose.
- Honey and HFCS are also mostly fructose and dextrose.
None of these are likely to give you the results you’re looking for.
Essential no. 3: Solid fat.
Solid fats do a few key things in taffy recipes.
First and foremost, they shorten the texture and make for a cleaner bite, so that you can eat the taffy without it pulling out of your molars. Second, they help the taffy set up firmer, so that it doesn’t flow as readily once it reaches room temperature. Third, they impart a richer mouthfeel and in some cases additional flavour. Fourth, they are generally more resistant to rancidity than liquid oils.
The trick, of course, is that different fats have different strengths and trade-offs. Here’s a rundown of the most common.
Butter from cow’s milk is the original fat used in taffy. But, as fruit chews evolved as a distinct sweet, butter was almost entirely supplanted by more neutral solid fats that didn’t interfere or clash with fruit flavours.
If you eat dairy and don’t mind the buttery flavour, it’s still a viable choice. Unsalted is best, as it won’t cause as much sucrose inversion.
Refined palm oil is probably the most common non-hydrogenated fat now found in commercial fruit chews. It has a neutral flavour. Plus it’s solid at room temperature but liquid at body temperature, which gives it a nice melting mouthfeel.
Biggest drawback: the environmental and social impact it has in palm-growing regions. Do palm-farming communities, rain forests, and orangutans a favour and use organic, fair-trade, Rainforest Alliance-certified palm oil (like this one, just as an example). (RSPO certification is better than nothing, but definitely more flawed than Rainforest Alliance’s certification.)
Unrefined or virgin palm oil is generally deep red with a neutral-to-funky flavour — often with notes of unwashed carrots and toasted rubber. It’s probably best left for savoury recipes.
Palm kernel oil
Palm oil comes from the pulp of oil-palm fruits, whereas palm kernel oil comes from the nut-like kernel. Despite coming from the same crops as palm oil, palm kernel oil is a very different product.
While it does have a neutral flavour and good melting profile like palm oil, it comes with one big catch: as a lauric fat, it’s prone to developing a strong soapy flavour in the moist, high-heat environment provided by candy recipes. You can mitigate this by adding it late in the cooking process to limit the heating time.
Refined or deodorized coconut oil also looks like a great candidate for taffy, as it has a neutral flavour and similar melting profile to palm oil. (People also loooove seeing it on ingredient lists at the moment.)
Bummer: it’s also a lauric fat like palm kernel oil, so can develop the same gross soapy flavours. Again, you can add it late in the cooking to limit this effect — but keep in mind that depending on how it has been processed and handled, some brands or batches are much more prone to going soapy than others. Find one that works and stick with it.
Virgin coconut oil has the same challenges as refined coconut oil, plus the added challenge of a strong coconut flavour. But if you’re going for that tropical vibe, it could work.
This stuff is ideal for taffy in a few key ways.
It’s very hard in its solid form, which helps taffy set up nice and firm. It melts higher than other tropical fats, right around body temperature, giving it that nice melting mouthfeel but also protecting it from melting prematurely on a warm day. And it lends additional opacity and whiteness to the final product, especially compared to coconut oil (which can lend a greyish cast).
Alas, the catch is a big one: that strong, insistent cocoa flavour, which in lower concentrations can often read as wet cardboard or a damp mop. Deodorized cocoa butter has less flavour, but it’s still quite distinctive compared to other deodorized fats.
You rarely see cocoa butter in commercial sweets for one simple reason: it’s more expensive.
No, just don’t. They bad.
They’ve been used in many, many commercial chews in the past because of their hard consistency and resistance to rancidity. But trans fats are rightfully on the way out of human diets in most countries, so don’t waste your time or your arteries.
It is technically possible to use liquid vegetable oils rather than solid fats in taffy recipes.
Your taffy will definitely be much softer, so compensate by cooking it to a higher temperature. It will also go rancid more easily in storage — which is why you rarely see them in commercial recipes for taffy — but if you plan on consuming your chews fresh then that’s less of an issue.
Finally, it’s worth noting that most taffy makers mix different fats to take advantage of different performance profiles and mitigate some of the drawbacks.
Essential no. 4: Emulsifier.
If you’re using any fat other than butter, you’re going to have to use a small amount of emulsifier to keep the fat from separating out.
(Butter gets a pass because the milk solids in the butter itself act as an emulsifier. By that same logic, if your recipe includes a significant portion of other dairy ingredients, you may be able to skip the emulsifier.)
Soy lecithin and sunflower lecithin are the most common emulsifier choices. If you’re unfamiliar with lecithin, don’t be scared: it’s naturally ubiquitous in fatty foods and you’re eating lots of it anyway.
Find lecithin at health food and supplement stores; it’s commonly sold as a nutritional supplement. Organic and non-GMO is better, and liquid or fine powder is easier to work with than granules.
Essential no. 5: Flavouring (and maybe colouring).
This is as huge topic, so I’ll just run through it briefly here.
Fundamentally, you want to flavour your chews with something that 1) introduces zero or minimal water to the final product, 2) is intense enough to convey the flavour without having a negative effect on the texture or consistency of the taffy, and 3) tastes good.
- Powdered spices. Cinnamon, cassia, cloves, and liquorice root are all classics. By mixing them with a small amount of fat or very-high-proof grain alcohol (not vodka), you can help release and disperse the flavours.
- Other powdered foodstuffs. Like freeze-dried fruit powder, instant coffee, matcha, and so on — as long as it is very finely textured.
- Homemade extracts or tinctures. You can sidestep textural issues by extracting flavours from low-water foods and spices using alcohol, glycerin, or vegetable oil. Extracts have to be very concentrated to work well.
- Essential oils. Many widely available essential oils are edible and delicious—in the correct concentration. Please do your homework here, because many harmless-sounding essential oils can be dangerous or even deadly if you consume too much.
- Manufactured flavours. Baking extracts. Commercial candy flavours. Natural or artificial — I won’t judge. You can even use Kool-Aid powder if that’s all you can find.
- Salts and acids. Finely powdered salts or fruit acids can go a long way in terms of boosting or complementing your flavours. Do some poking around to find out which acids are a good fit for which flavours — citric acid for citrus flavours, malic acid for stone fruit and berry flavours, and so on.
Don’t forget: The more intense the flavour, the less you will need to use, and the more likely you are going to be happy with the final texture of your chews. If you want to use a less intense flavouring — and hence introduce more oil, alcohol, or glycerin — you can offset the softening effect somewhat by cooking the syrup a few degrees higher.
Essential no. 6: Your muscles (AKA pulling).
As I talked about in my previous post about the history of taffy, the pulling technique is one of the defining characteristics of this candy style. Pulling introduces air into the chew, making it whiter and more opaque, more biteable, and less sticky. It also helps to evenly distribute the colour, flavour, and fat.
With that said, it’s not actually that technical; it’s just a bit of a workout.
How do you pull taffy? Wait for it to approach room temperature, so it’s firm enough to handle. Pick it up and stretch it out between your fists. Then, fold it over itself and stretch it out again. Repeat, over and over, a million times.
Well, 20–30 minutes is usually plenty. You’ll know you’re done once you’re sweating, and the candy is opaque with a satiny sheen. If it still looks translucent, greyish, or dull, it’s probably not done.
The technique is dead simple, but it can go sideways and end with you covered in a sticky mess. Here are a few tips to avoid that:
While they aren’t strictly necessary at home and can make the taffy-pulling a little trickier, food-safe gloves are strongly recommended. They keep knuckle hair and other unmentionables out of the candy, and will also save you from getting friction blisters, which can and do happen.
Food service gloves are too wimpy and will quickly tear; try using heavier-duty general purpose gloves made of a food-safe, unpowdered material.
You’ll want to rub a thin layer of oil or fat on your gloves before you start.
When I say thin, I mean vanishingly thin — too much, and it will transfer to the candy and stop the candy from adhering to itself when you fold it, a situation which will quickly devolve into you desperately chasing 8,000 disintegrating ropes of taffy.
It’s easiest just to use whatever fat you used in the recipe itself. If the candy starts sticking to the gloves, you may need to re-up the oil more than once.
Temperature and rest
In addition to waiting until the batch approaches room temperature to start pulling, you’ll probably want to set the candy down for a minute or two periodically to dissipate some of the heat generated by your hands and the pulling. You’ve find it firms back up quickly under rest.
Do you ever make bread? You’ll want to take a cue from that and handle the candy like you would handle sticky bread dough: with a light, lively touch that doesn’t give the taffy time to stick to you.
Still having trouble?
If the candy is still hopelessly sticky and impossible to handle, you’ll need to toss it and start again. Cook the next batch a degree or two or three higher, or add less flavour and colour to the batch.
If it’s really firm and too difficult to pull, you can save it. Gently warm the batch under a heat lamp or in a warm oven, then try pulling it when it’s still warm. The final product will be firmer and harder to chew, but it’ll still be candy so what are you complaining about?
Basic taffy or fruit chews (for home kitchens)
- Small saucepan or saucier with lid (fill no more than half to allow for sufficient headspace during boiling)
- Wooden spoon or silicon spatula (never metal)
- Kitchen scale with one gram increments (optional but recommended)
- Accurate kitchen thermometer
- Large silicon baking mat (or non-porous, sanitized, heat-proof counter top, very lightly greased)
- Kitchen scissors
- Non-stick uncoated parchment paper
- Large mug filled with hot water
- 275 grams glucose syrup (¾ US cup + 2 tbsp / 54%) • any light-coloured corn syrup, tapioca syrup, wheat syrup, or potato syrup;
- 140 grams granulated sugar (¾ cup / 27%) • refined white sugar is the most predictable
- 60 ml distilled water (¼ cup / 12%) • tap water will do
- 35 grams solid fat (¼ cup / 7%) • palm oil, cocoa butter, coconut oil, or unsalted butter are recommended;
- ~0.1 grams powdered or liquid lecithin (one pinch or drop / 0%)
- concentrated flavouring to taste
- optional: salt or food acid to taste • pulverized in a mortar or high-powered blender
- optional: colouring as needed
- Combine sugars. Mix the glucose syrup, sugar, and water in a small sauce pot. Cover with a lid, and bring to a light boil over medium-high heat. Try not to get the sugar stuck to the rim or walls of the pot.
- Dissolve thoroughly. After a minute or so of cooking, lift the lid carefully, stir gently, and confirm that all of the sugar has completely dissolved. If any sugar remains, return the lid and boil for another 30 seconds. The goal is to allow the steam to wash any rogue granules of sugar down into the syrup. A single granule of undissolved sugar can make the whole batch crystallize like fondant, which you do not want. (Alternatively, you can use a wet pastry brush to wash down the sides of the pot. That’s the traditional method, but I find the steam method is more reliable and less messy.)
- Add the fat and lecithin. Once all of the sugar is dissolved, set aside the lid and add the fat and lecithin. Stir to incorporate, making sure at all times that any utensil that touches the syrup does not have any undissolved sugar on it.
- Cook to 118°C / 244°F. Stir gently every once in a while. If you prefer firmer chews, you can cook it two or three degrees higher. (If you live above 300m / 1000 ft elevation or the current conditions are very humid, see the note below.)
- Add optional salt or acid. Once you’ve reached 118°C / 244°F, immediately remove from the heat. Add in any powdered salt or acid, and stir to incorporate.
- Pour onto the baking mat. The hot syrup won’t spread as much as you might think, but give yourself plenty of room to work and make a mess.
- Allow to cool partially, then add flavour and colour. This is a judgment call you’ll have to make yourself. You want the candy to cool as much as possible so that you don’t damage or flash off (evaporate) the delicate volatile compounds in your flavouring of choice. But, if you wait too long, the candy will start becoming too firm to effectively add the flavouring; this is especially true with liquid flavourings. My advice? Check the surface of the candy with your spatula until it starts to get difficult to spread, then quickly work in the flavouring and colouring. Between 60–80°C / 140–176°F is ideal. (
Tips on flavouring here. )
- Leave it alone. At this stage, the taffy will look like a gooey disaster and you’ll think you’ve botched it. You haven’t. Unlike hard candy, taffy needs to approach room temperature to be firm enough to handle. Go watch a few Youtube videos.
- Pull! Once the taffy is cool, you can finally start to pull it. If you’re working on a silicon mat, you can fold it in half like an omelette a few times to get the process started before picking it up. If you’re working on a countertop or marble slab, you may need to sacrifice some of the sticky candy to the counter; if so move to a new, clean, lightly oiled section to work. Pull for 20-30 minutes until light, opaque, and satiny. (
Detailed tips on pulling here. )
- Cut and wrap. Using very lightly oiled scissors, divide the candy into more workable quarters or thirds then roll and stretch it into finger-thick ropes. Cut the rope into even pieces, then immediately wrap each piece in a square of parchment paper, twisting off both ends. Store them in an air-tight container to stop them from getting soft and sticky from humidity.
- Crystallization. You’ll see some recipes and videos online that get you to treat the cooking syrup like a landmine that’s about to go off, lest you shock it into crystallizing. This taffy is really not that sensitive to crystallization, thanks to the high proportion of glucose syrup. As long as you are careful not to let undissolved sugar get into the batch, you’ll be fine.
- What’s the mug of hot water for? I find it handy for holding utensils and the thermometer probe when they’re not in use; this helps prevent sugar grains from finding their way into the batch, and also stops your tools from getting gummed up with too much candy.
- Using coconut oil? Withhold coconut oil (or other lauric fats like palm kernel oil) until the final minute of cooking; you may end up with a greasier product, but at least the batch won’t be ruined. (Details here.)
- Colour or flavour too wimpy? You can usually get away with adjusting either during the pulling process by adding more, little by little, and working it through. Taffy can soak up a surprising amount of colouring; I suggest either going light overall or colouring a portion of the taffy more intensely and adding it as a stripe in the final candy.
- Adjusting for altitude and humidity. For each 300 m above sea level, reduce the finish temperature by 1°C. (Or, for each 1,000 ft, reduce the finish temperature by 2°F.) At very high altitudes you may need to experiment a little with target temperature to get a satisfactory result. On very humid days, you can combat stickiness by cooking the candy a few degrees higher; it will subsequently soften as it is exposed to the air during pulling.