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The Science of Non-Sticky Nougat Candy

If made well, it can have a pristine white color and be light and fluffy. But, nougat is probably one of the more daunting candies to make. Luckily, a little bit of practice can make perfect, especially if you:

  • tightly control temperature (hello cheap reliable IKEA thermometer 👋);
  • pour your sugar syrup in at just the right whisking speed;
  • use the right types of nuts (sorry walnuts);
  • and do not rush doing your dishes!

Nougat is a cooked egg white foam

Nougat is a sweet delicacy, made from whipped egg whites, mixed with a hot sugar syrup, often with dried nuts or fruits mixed through. As long as you store it well, it can be stored for months without risking spoilage, thanks to the high sugar content (and thus low water activity).

Nougat relies on the unique feature of egg whites that allow them to be whisked into very light and airy foams. They have their proteins to thank for this property. The proteins in the egg whites can surround air bubbles very well, ensuring they don’t escape again after you’ve worked hard to whisk them in. It’s the air bubbles that also give nougat its white color. The small bubbles reflect light in countless directions, making the nougat white.

One of the few ingredients that somewhat approaches the strong foaming functionality of egg whites is aquafaba. We haven’t (yet) tried making nougat with it, but have used it to make French meringues.

A relative of marshmallows & meringues

Nougat is a close relative of both marshmallows and meringues. All of them are made by whipping egg whites into a light and airy foam, before somehow stabilizing that foam:

Of its relatives, nougat has most in common with Italian meringues. Both use hot sugar syrups to stabilize the egg white foam.

Sugar syrup of the exact right temperature

One of the most crucial aspects of making good quality nougat is making that sugar syrup. The hot sugar syrup determines the final quality and structure of the nougat.

You make the sugar syrup by bringing a mixture of white refined sugar (sucrose), corn syrup (also called glucose syrup) and some water to the boil. By doing so, you dissolve all the sugar crystals in the water. This ensures the final nougat is soft and smooth instead of gritty.

Next, you need to cook that sugar syrup to a specific temperature well above the boiling point of water (100°C/212°F). By doing so, you’re evaporating a lot of water. As a result, the hotter the sugar syrup becomes, the more concentrated it is. By concentrating the sugar syrup you’re making it thicker and more viscous. This is crucial for your final nougat. You want a syrup that’s thick enough to make a firm nougat, without being so firm, the nougat becomes crunchy.

We’ve covered the science of cooking sugar syrups extensively here, which we’d recommend reading if you’d like to understand nougat making in more detail!

If not, it can become sticky!

Getting the temperature correct of the nougat is important. If you don’t cook it to high enough temperatures, it becomes quite sticky. The sugar syrup still contains too much moisture, not enough has been evaporated.

If you cook it for too long though, the nougat can become very crumbly and brittle. It can even become a little crunchy. The nougat no longer contains enough water to remain moist. A sugar syrup that’s been cooked too hot also becomes very challenging to pour into the whipped egg whites. It will be so hot and viscous that it easily sticks to the equipment.

Note that so far we haven’t mentioned a specific temperature. This is because the exact temperature depends on the recipe you’re using and the texture you’re after. Generally, it’s around 150-160°C (302-320°F). Also, we’d recommend not using a candy thermometer. They tend to be clunky and prone to breaking (at least in our case). Just use this cheap, simple, and very effective IKEA thermometer.

If you’ve accidentally overheated your sugar syrup, not all is lost. When the sugar syrup is hotter than your target temperature you’ve essentially evaporated too much moisture. Simply add back a little water, be careful, it can splatter, bring back to the boil and reheat until you’ve reached your target temperature.

The composition of the sugar syrup is crucial too

Most sugar syrups for nougat making aren’t made with just pure white refined sugar. Instead, a lot of them also contain corn syrup. Both serve slightly different roles in the nougat.

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Let’s start with the regular sugar. Sugar is made of a molecule called sucrose. It dissolves well in water, but at high concentrations, it is prone to crystallization. Cooled-down sucrose solutions aren’t very sticky and you can make a nice ‘short’ texture nougat.

Corn syrup on the other hand makes candy that’s a lot more sticky and ‘stretchy’. That’s because corn syrup is actually a mix of molecules. It contains small sugar molecules such as glucose, but also contains a lot of larger molecules called polysaccharides. Glucose is more sticky and prone to moisture than sucrose. However, corn syrup as a whole is far less prone to crystallization due to the presence of those larger polysaccharides. It also helps prevent the crystallization of sucrose. Together, they make a good team!

Honey can replace corn syrup

Instead of corn syrup, you can also use honey. Honey is also a mix of small sugar, such as fructose and glucose. Honey does not contain those larger polysaccharides. Using honey has the added benefit of adding extra flavor to the nougat.

thermometer
Our recommended thermometer

How to make nougat (candy)

As you’ll see in the recipe below, making nougat only takes a few steps:

  • Whisk up egg whites
  • Cook a sugar syrup
  • Pour the hot sugar syrup into the egg whites, while whisking
  • Fold in some (roasted) nuts

We’ve already discussed the first two steps. So let’s have a quick look at what happens after.

Sugar syrup cooks the egg whites

Egg whites contain proteins that hold onto air bubbles. They aren’t strong enough to do so permanently though. Over time, the air bubbles will be able to collapse. This is where the hot sugar syrup comes in. The hot syrup cooks the egg whites. Allowing them to unfurl and more permanently surround the air bubbles.

How to prevent chunks & threads of sugar

Once the hot sugar syrup cools down, it will turn quite hard. As such, you need to pour it while it’s hot. The cooler it becomes, the harder it is to pour. Once the sugar syrup touches a bowl, or the egg whites, it will cool down more quickly. If you pour the sugar syrup too fast, it might get shocked and instead of mixing in, it will form large firm lumps of sugar.

As such, gradually pour the sugar syrup into the bowl, while whisking at a medium/high speed. It’s even better if the sugar syrup gently flows down alongside the bowl. That way, it won’t be whisked away by the beaters and truly gets a good chance of being folded into the egg whites. Due to the temperature to which you cooked the sugar syrup, it can form threads, much like you make when spinning sugar. You decrease the chances of this happening when it touches the egg whites before it touches any beaters.

large chunk of sugar in nougat
That chunk is a hard chunk of sugar. No way we were going to be able to break that up again. We poured too fast and too high a speed.

A tip on adding nuts

Most classic nougats contain roasted nuts to add some crunch and flavor. You’d add nuts once all the sugar syrup has been mixed in and you’ve got a nice firm, but still warm foam. You want to nougat to remain warm enough so you can still remove it from the bowl. It’s why you don’t want the nougat to cool down too quickly. As such, keep the roasted nuts warm (not hot) before adding them.

Cleaning up nougat

Your nougat is done, it’s safe and sound in the tray. It will need to continue to cool and dry out a little more, so it’s best to wait at least a few hours before eating it. Store it away from moisture once it has cooled down, especially if you live in a humid climate.

That leaves just one more job: clean up. And we’ve not forgotten about that last tip we mentioned at the start: be a little patient. Don’t try to scrub your pots and tools to remove all the nougat. Instead, soak everything in water for at least 30 minutes. The sugar and eggs both dissolve well in water, but, since they’re so dry, it can take a while for them to do so. Once you’ve soaked for a while, it should be an easy clean-up!

So, make that nougat, soak all the dishes, and take a rest (or make something else ;-)!

Nougat

Nougat

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 45 minutes

Light and soft nougat, with a firm bite. You can make it plain, or mix in some nuts and/or (dried) fruits.

Ingredients

Sugar syrup

  • 150g granulated sugar
  • 50g corn syrup
  • 30g water

Egg white foam

  • 1 egg white
  • 1 tsp icing sugar

Nuts

  • 60g roasted almonds
  • 60g roasted pistachios

Dusting

  • 50g corn starch
  • 30g icing sugar

Instructions

  1. Prepare a baking tray with parchment paper. Mix the corn starch and icing sugar for the dusting and cover the parchment paper with a thin layer. This will help the nougat to dry and firm up.
  2. Optional: roast the nuts in a pre-heated oven at 180°C (350°F) until a nice light brown (approx. 8-15 min).
  3. Add the sugar, corn syrup and water to a pot and bring to a boil. Stir to dissolve the sugar.
  4. Then, refrain from stirring and continue boiling until it has reached 158°C (316°F)*.
  5. While the syrup is cooking, whisk your egg whites with the icing sugar into a foam that will hold when you hold it upside down.
  6. When your sugar has reached temperature, take it from the heat and immediately pour it into the bowl with egg whites while mixing at a moderate speed (too slow or very fast may cause clumping of the sugar and sugar being swirled everywhere).
  7. Once you've added all the sugar syrup, increase the speed of your electric mixer and continue whisking until it has lost its initial extreme heat but is still warm and flexible.
  8. Fold in the roasted nuts, best if they are still warm so they don't cool the nougat down too quickly.
  9. Spread the still warm nougat out onto the prepared tin and dust lightly with some of the corn starch + icing sugar mix.
  10. Leave to set for a couple of hours to let it firm up.
  11. Once cooled down, store in an airtight container to prevent it from becoming sticky.

Notes

*Accidentally cooked the sugar to a higher temperature? Just add back in some water (be carefuly, it may splash) and reheat to the correct temperature. Read why that works here.

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