I’m going to assume that at some point during your life, you’ve had the opportunity to try candy floss, cotton candy, fairy floss, or whatever you happen to call it in your local dialect. “Sugar spider”? Sugar spun into strands so thin, that it turns soft and fluffy, and it dissolves into nothing the moment you put it on your tongue.
I’m also going to assume that you didn’t make that candy floss at home. Because although your mum or dad wanted you to have a good time, they never bought you a candy floss machine, because they’re too expensive, life’s not fair, and besides, sugar is bad for you, so you had to eat it at the fair.
Fast forward to the 21st century. Candy floss is now sold in buckets made of more plastic, by weight, than the candy they contain. Boo.
On the other hand, candy floss making machines are now reasonably affordable consumer items, but if you’re like me, you figured that you’re probably going to use it once or twice, and it will only be gathering dust from then on – making the candy floss so expensive per serving that you’re better off buying it ready-made. So you end up not buying a candy floss maker, and if you have kids, you tell them life’s not fair, and besides, sugar is bad for you, so you should eat candy floss at the fair.
Or should you?
A kilo of sugar, costing 60p here in the UK, makes just over 30 servings. The owner of the candy floss stand at the fair isn’t afraid of a tidy mark-up!
Also, a serving of candy floss contains about 30 grams of sugar, about as much as a serving of the leading soft drink – hovering at the maximum recommended daily dose of around 25 grams for an adult**. Thanks for raining on my parade, WHO.
I might as well stop writing this blog post right now. Just when I’ve come this far writing it, and you’ve come this far reading it. But we don’t have to actually eat any of the candy floss we make. We can just look at it. Maybe only smell it. Maybe just have a small nibble, no more. Sure we can.
Various approaches to making thinly-spun sugar
At its most basic, candy floss is nothing more than sugar that’s heated until the sugar crystals soften and flow together; and is then subsequently stretched into thin strands while it cools to the point where the sugar goes solid again.
There are various ways to achieve this.
An old Chinese recipe is Dragon’s Beard candy; soft sugar is shaped into a ring which is repeatedly stretched, folded and dusted with starch to prevent the strands from fusing back together. The method is somewhat similar to making hand-pulled noodles.
Then there’s a method which involves covering your entire kitchen in newspapers and using a fork to flick hot sugar over a pair of wooden spoon handles. This method produces strands quite quickly. It doesn’t require any starch, but it is quite sensitive to getting the temperature just right, makes for relatively course spun sugar, and quite a bit of the sugar serves no other purpose than to make your newspapers and your kitchen sticky in no time flat. There’s something interesting about this method though, as the sugar is not stretched by hand, but by acceleration and inertia.
The modern candy floss maker was invented in the late 19th century by Nashville candy maker John C. Wharton and dentist William J. Morrison, the latter of whom clearly had no conflict of interests. The following diagram shows roughly how it works:
Sugar is placed in a perforated, spinning drum. The sugar is course enough and the holes in the drum are fine enough that the sugar stays in the drum while it is solid. The drum is heated, causing the sugar to melt, which allows it to be flung out of the drum through the holes, forming strands of molten sugar. Having left the drum, the sugar is no longer heated and quickly sets back into solid form. Since there are lots of holes in the drum, many strands will form. The collection bowl prevents the sugar from flying all over the place and getting everything sticky.
What makes this tricky is that the sugar has to be course enough and the holes have to be fine enough – and while we’re at it, the candy floss seller at the fair offers various colours and flavours. Though we can certainly build our own candy floss maker, it will just as well end up collecting dust, not to mention that we will very soon get to the point where buying one is cheaper.
So we’ll simplify. We’ll make do with what we have. For the spinning drum, we’ll start by getting a tin of about the right size. From there on, we’ll get to the business of making candy floss, MacGyver style.
Yes, I know you can read. Don’t be pedantic. It’s close enough.
At this point, we’re mostly interested in the tin, but we’d miss an opportunity if we didn’t also use the contents later on. Such pretty pictures of healthy fruit and veg printed on the tin. And the compound word “Multi-vitamin”. The WHO will be pleased.
So let’s reserve that candy. Find another container for it, preferably air-tight – we don’t want humid air to get to it because the candy will get all sticky, since sugar attracts moisture. Anything ranging from a humble plastic bag with a knot in it to a posh glass jar with the word “sweets” embossed on it will do.
We’ll need to make a small hole in the base of the tin, as precisely in the centre as we can. To get to the centre, trace the outline of the tin on a piece of paper.
Cut out the circle as precisely as you can and fold the circle exactly in half twice. The centre of the circle is where the folds meet. With the tin turned upside-down, place the circle back on the base of the tin.
Flatten your circle, align it carefully and mark the centre of the base through the paper with a sharp pointed object.
Now break out your rotary tool. Isn’t cooking fun?
Take the necessary health-and-safety precautions – be sensible. As drill slippage is expected, using a high-power electric drill for this project is most certainly not sensible. If you don’t have a rotary tool, you’ll likely be able to buy a cheap one. They’re around ten pounds on eBay. Rotary tools typically come with small cutting discs and sanding discs and one or more drill attachments including the mandrels that allow you to mount those cutting discs onto the tool.
The hole of one of your cutting discs probably gives you a good idea about the size of the hole you’ll need to drill; you may be able to drill your hole slightly smaller. Do you see where this is going? We can now attach our tin to the rotary tool and take it for a spin.
If your tin is wildly off-balance, you may have to try again. Keep in mind that for various reasons, your tin is unlikely to ever be 100% perfectly balanced. If you’ve closely followed the instructions above, it’s probably fine. To finish off our contraption, all we need to do is to drill lots of little holes…
So now we’ve got a candy floss making contraption. If you don’t feel like drilling hundreds of holes, you could also try the alternative, mesh-based version (the mesh is cut from a 1-pound sieve):
After cutting a start, I could cut most of the gaps with scissors, so this version is probably a bit quicker to make – but it’s also more likely to leave your contraption having sharp edges, strips of metal and sharp mesh wire. You really don’t want to get sharp bits of metal stuck in your insides (or anyone else’s for that matter), so you’ll have to make sure to sand down the edges and you should probably double-check there’s no bits of metal left inside. The point is, be safe.
As you can see, we’re hanging our spinning drum from our rotary tool. Now all we need to do is to heat our sugar. If you’ve tried using a candle, you’ll have noticed that the air displacement from spinning our tool will blow it out. But we don’t need to heat our candy or sugar in our contraption. We just need to warm it. So instead of modifying our contraption to provide the heat, we’ll melt the sugar on the hob (what a concept!) and that allows us to keep our contraption pretty minimalist.
So get your happy little candies on the hob, on low heat. Playing candy crush in advance is entirely optional; I choose not to.
We could use regular sugar, by the way – but it has a slightly higher melting point than candy, around 160°C (320°F) as opposed to about 150°C (300°F) ***. This is due to the glucose syrup usually present in hard candy. As a result of the higher melting point, plain sugar may take on a slight caramel taste. But we’ve got candy available anyway – we might as well use it. Once it’s just molten turn off the heat and leave to cool for a few seconds – we want to stay as close to the hardening temperature as possible, otherwise our candy floss won’t harden.
Hold your candy floss contraption in one hand, lowered in a bucket or similar. Hold your saucepan of liquid candy in the other hand. If you’re shooting video, hold your camera in your other, other hand.
As for your paper cone… they’re probably not much use with this contraption as it’s so hands-on. But should you choose to do so, you can make paper cones really easily by rolling up a regular sheet of printer paper as tightly as possible, starting at a corner and holding the opposite corner under the tap once you’re two thirds in, then rolling them up further and letting them dry.
I didn’t have my third hand available, so forgive me for posting a bit older video I made:
Compared to the drilled contraption used in the video, it seems the mesh-based version seems to result in slightly courser candy floss, though while experimenting I noticed that a less course candy floss can be obtained by mixing in plain sugar.
As for clean-up, the easiest way is to just dunk your whole contraption in a container of water until the remaining sugar has dissolved. Don’t try that with a store-bought candy floss maker. And at the size, storage is no issue; you might even store paperclips and rubber bands in it, though drinking straws won’t fit.
The little contraption described above allows you to do all kinds of candy floss experiments. The obvious thing to do is to try all sorts of exciting flavours such as orange, cherry, mint, caramel, coffee or nam pla. The sky is the limit.
You can compress and shape it into a melt-in-the-mouth, felt-like texture – maybe as part of a dessert. Remember that sugar is hydrophyle, it attracts water – so candy floss doesn’t keep for long.
Far less obvious is to try to make sugar-free candy floss or lower-sugar candy-floss, though I’ve personally not had a lot of success with this; I found pure Xylitol as well as sugar-free mints did seem to pull threads, but they didn’t crystallize back from a thick syrup into hard floss strands, but you may have more luck with other sugar substitutes, different hole sizes, a mix of sugar and non-sugar or indeed a different contraption altogether. It might be possible to make candy floss that’s actually good for your teeth. It will likely also clean out your system. And perhaps, in the end, we’ll keep the WHO happy too!
A final note: Instead of using a candy tin, I also tried making candy floss using a perforated paper cup. It was easier to do than making a contraption out of tin, but it wobbled a lot and hot sugar splattered all over the kitchen, possibly due to the sloping edges of the cup, so I wouldn’t recommend it.
Have you made candy floss? Please share your experiences below!
** Ideally. See page 4.WHO recommends reducing the intake of free sugars to less than 10% of total energy intake (strong recommendation); WHO suggests a further reduction of the intake of free sugars to below 5% of total energy intake (conditional recommendation) which amounts to about 25 grams. So occasionally going over 25 grams isn’t all that much of a drama. Woo hoo!
*** I keep saying that sugar melts. That’s not entirely accurate. Sugar doesn’t melt; it decomposes.