Tips for making English toffee: the path to superior buttercrunch

I have to admit, I’m the Grinch when it comes to decorated Christmas cookies. Rolling out dough has never been my favorite baking pastime. And while I’ll put up with rolling pastry when the end result is a warm slice of berry pie, sugar cookies shaped like reindeer just don’t have that same allure. Which is why, at this time of year, my thoughts turn to homemade candy: especially crunchy, Heath bar-like English toffee studded with chocolate and toasted nuts.

“I don’t make candy,” you say? Well, why ever not? It’s much simpler than just about any cookie you can make; it dirties one (count it, one) pan; and a little goes a long way. Make three or four or five different candies — say, English toffee, brittle, bark, fudge, and caramels or marshmallows — and you can easily fill a dozen gift bags.

Tips for making English toffee via @kingarthurflour

Not only that: most candy can be made, wrapped, and stored for at least a couple of weeks prior to serving or giving it away. When you’re pressed for time (and who isn’t right about now?), a pantry stash of homemade candy is a lifesaver.

Unexpected guests? Send them home with a mini gift bag of homemade English toffee or fudge truffles (which you just happen to have on hand thanks to your exquisite pre-planning).

English toffee or American buttercrunch? Whether you prefer your homemade toffee demure or decadent, these tips will help you succeed. Click To Tweet

Now, let’s get down to brass tacks. What’s the one thing that stops most people from making candy that starts with cooked sugar syrup, like this English toffee?

Tips for making English toffee via @kingarthurflour

Fear of boiling syrup.

People tend to be scared of hot syrup — and for good reason, since it can render a painful burn if you’re not careful.

But do you avoid using a knife for fear of cutting yourself? Never boil pasta because of its billowing steam? Handling a pot of simmering butter and sugar is worth the extra care when the end result is a delicious batch of holiday candy.

Tips for making English toffee via @kingarthurflour

Nut-studded, chocolate-enrobed Dark Chocolate Buttercrunch is America’s version of English toffee. And honestly, if I had to pick my favorite homemade candy — this is it.

The recipe couldn’t be simpler: Simmer butter, sugar, water, salt, and a touch of corn syrup; then combine the dark-gold syrup with toasted nuts and chocolate chips. Cool, break into pieces, and share with family and friends — all of whom will wax poetic about the joys of buttercrunch!

I always start with the buttercrunch recipe on our site, but over the years I’ve discovered some handy tips and have developed a few delicious modifications. Interested? Read on. Tips for making English toffee via @kingarthurflour

Intensify flavor with espresso powder

While English toffee is already deeply caramelized and richly flavored, I like to add a teaspoon of espresso powder to the sugar for an extra note of flavor. I find the slight bitterness of espresso helps offset the sugar’s sweetness, and its very mild coffee flavor is a fine complement to the candy’s caramel notes.

Tips for making English toffee via @kingarthurflour

Use a light-colored saucepan

Some people enjoy “blonde” toffee with just a hint of caramel; others cook their syrup to just short of burned, for candy with assertively caramelized flavor.

While you may gauge the syrup’s stage with a candy thermometer, your eyes are important too. Is the syrup pale as a palomino pony? Amber like maple syrup? Dark as autumn oak leaves? With experience, you’ll learn just how dark you like your candy — but you can only do this if you use a light-colored pan, one that doesn’t hide the syrup’s true color.

Tips for making English toffee via @kingarthurflour

Prevent spill-overs: Grease the pan

There’s nothing like the sight of bubbling syrup climbing up, up, up the sides of your saucepan. Is it going to stop — or spill over?

Help that syrup stay where it belongs by greasing the inside of your saucepan with vegetable oil pan spray before you start. Just like fairgoers grappling with the famous greased pole, syrup has difficulty climbing the sides of a greased pan.

Tips for making English toffee via @kingarthurflour

Low and slow

Simmering the syrup for English toffee to the requisite 300°F temperature can (and should) be a slow process — up to 20 minutes or so. Don’t hurry this gradual transformation; syrup that doesn’t reach 300°F, or close to it, will make candy with timid flavor and chewy (not crunchy) texture.

Think you can save time by bringing the syrup to a full rolling, popping boil in order for it to darken more quickly? Think again. You’re just setting yourself up for separation anxiety: i.e., the butter separating from the sugar and forming a recalcitrant oily mass — purely as a result of your haste!

Simmer the syrup vigorously, but don’t cook it at such high heat that it looks like it’s jumping out of its skin. Not only do you risk separation; it’s very easy to create a smear of burned sugar on the bottom of the pot, which can and probably will turn the syrup (and your candy) bitter.

When I make buttercrunch, it typically takes about 15 minutes over medium heat to bring the syrup to 300°F. It goes slowly at first, but towards the end the temperature rises quickly; I watch it fairly closely once it gets to 280°F or so.

If you don’t have a thermometer, you’ll need to do the “hard crack” test. Dribble some syrup into ice water, and let it set for 10 seconds. Fish the hardened candy out of the water and test its texture. Is it crisp, not chewy? Does it snap cleanly, rather than bend? It’s ready.

Tips for making English toffee via @kingarthurflour

For better crunch, add baking soda

If you’ve ever added baking soda to simmering sugar syrup you’ve experienced the “excitement” of that sudden billow of bubbles. What’s going on? The base soda is reacting with the acid sugar, plus heat, to make tons of tiny bubbles. Those bubbles remain trapped in the syrup as it cools in the pan, yielding toffee whose consistency is lightly crunchy rather than hard: think light-textured American-style biscotti vs. rock-hard Italian-style.

Do you have to add baking soda to buttercrunch? No, not at all; in fact, our base recipe doesn’t call for it. But if you’re looking for candy whose crunch is light rather than “toothsome,” do add a teaspoon of baking soda (you’ll find that option offered in the recipe).

Tips for making English toffee via @kingarthurflour

Go beyond the English toffee basics

Buttercrunch can be absolutely plain: just pour the syrup into the pan and Bob’s your uncle, you’re done. But most of us like to gussy it up, Heath bar-like, with chocolate and/or nuts. Here are some things to keep in mind.

Tips for making English toffee via @kingarthurflour

Whatever nuts you choose — I use sliced or slivered almonds, or diced pecans — be sure to toast them to bring out their flavor. See the difference in color between toasted and untoasted nuts?

Vary the nuts

I use pecans and almonds interchangeably. Flavor-wise, they’re both good fits. Want to use walnuts? Macadamias? Pistachios? Totally your choice.

Whatever you choose, it’s best to toast the nuts first to bring out their flavor. I bake them for about 8 minutes at 350°F in my toaster oven, but use whatever method’s your favorite; your goal is golden-brown nuts.

Also, dice the nuts fairly fine, since this makes it easier to break the candy into smaller pieces.

Tips for making English toffee via @kingarthurflour

I’ve been known to grind the toasted nuts and press them onto the top of the hot candy, for a smoother appearance without any compromise in flavor. (If you think you need it, put a layer of parchment between you and the nuts/toffee to protect your fingers as you press.)

As for chocolate, the Baking Police say go right ahead, use milk chocolate or white chocolate (or no chocolate) if that’s your preference. Bailey’s Irish Cream chips? Genius!

Control the balance of toffee, chocolate, and nuts

Do you like a thin layer of toffee sandwiched between a generous amount of chocolate and nuts? Or do you prefer a thicker layer of toffee, with the other elements providing a welcome counterpoint without taking over? The choice is yours.

Our original buttercrunch recipe calls for toffee enrobed in a generous amount of both chocolate and nuts, top and bottom.

Tips for making English toffee via @kingarthurflour

I prefer a less decadent version: I cut the amount of both chocolate and nuts in half, using chocolate chips below the toffee, nuts on top.

Tips for making English toffee via @kingarthurflour

For toffee with chunks of chocolate embedded in the bottom, I use whole chips (left, above). For a more even layer of chocolate, I process the chips briefly in a food processor (right, above); I don’t want them ground to powder, just broken up.

Tips for making English toffee via @kingarthurflour

I pour the syrup into a 9” square pan rather than freeform it onto a baking sheet, so the layer of toffee is uniform. Lining the pan with a parchment “sling” makes it easy to lift the candy out once it’s set.Tips for making English toffee via @kingarthurflour

Now, some folks like nuts on the bottom, chocolate on top, with perhaps a scattering of nuts atop the chocolate.

Some people stir the nuts into the syrup before pouring it into/onto the pan, then sprinkle chocolate chips on top, smearing them to cover as they soften and melt.

And yes, some folks eschew either chocolate or nuts entirely; really, this is all up to you. Don’t imitate the old carthorse trudging its well-traveled milk route; use your imagination!

Tips for making English toffee via @kingarthurflour

Whatever you choose to make in your kitchen this holiday, if you wrap it up and give it with love you just can’t go wrong.

Here are the candies I’m making over the next couple of weeks: Microwave Peanut Brittle, Choco-Mallow, Peppermint Crunch Bark, Apple Cider Caramels, and Deluxe Chocolate Truffles. How about you — any candy-making in your near future?

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. Donna

    I make English Toffee ALL the time,year round because we all love it. I don’t use cornsyrup at all, I bring my bubbly toffee to 285degrees & I use REAL butter to grease.my 11×17 sheet pan. Once it’s cooled & set I pour my melted chocolate on & crushed nuts. I set it in fridge for like ,5 min for chocolate to set, place a sheet of parchment on counter ,& flip my toffee out carefully & chocolate and nut other side. Carefully slide parchment paper with toffee back onto the BOTTOM of the sheet pan & let set either 5 min back in fridge or room temp.
    Also slightly greased with butter a silicone ice cube trays. Poured in toffee syrup & once set popped out toffee an dropped in a pot of melted chocolate and then rolled them over in a tray of crushed nuts. Just used a fork to lift toffee out of chocolate banged fork slightly on pot edge to rid of drippings. Very easy way to get bite size totally covered pieces!

    Reply
  2. Martha S.

    HELP!!!! When I lived at sea level I made toffee/rocha every year just fine. I like it a little softer so I always cooked it to about 290 degrees. Now that I live at 7000′ elevation it separates no matter what I do! After reading your recommendations, I tried cooking it much more slowly. I literally had it on low in the pan for 55 minutes. I also lowered the temperature I got to by 14 degrees to account for the altitude. Everything looked fine until I took it off the burner. It immediately started to separate as it began to cool. I LOVE making this for Christmas but am about ready to give up. Do you have any suggestions?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi there, Martha. We would recommend checking out our High-Altitude Baking Chart. Here you will find the contact information for the Colorado State University Extension Resource Center, they will be able to help with your questions about how to keep the candy from separating at high altitude. Best of luck! Morgan@KAF

  3. Carol clemans

    I want to do this! I’ve tried making toffee on my electric stove, but find it very hard to control the temp. Even though I use a candy thermometer, I can’t regulate the heat from the stovetop so it’s even and consistent, and my toffee always comes out very chewy, and hard! Can you give me any tips on the best way to do it with an electric stove? Thanks so much!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Carol! One thing that may help is if you use a pan that heats evenly and holds heat well such as a Dutch oven or a cast iron pan. Something that’s cast iron or stoneware should give you a more even heat as you stir, but it’s also worth experimenting with each burner to see if one cooperates more than the others. Annabelle@KAF

  4. Robin

    I make tons of toffee(microwave recipe) every holiday season for gifts. I hate to admit that I’ve been drawing a 9” circle each time! I can’t wait to use a square pan! Brilliant!

    Reply
  5. Peggy Dolislager

    What is the best way to store peanut brittle? I store the Dark Chocolate Buttercrunch in the fridge because the chocolate gets a little soft.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Peggy! The best place to store peanut brittle is somewhere cool and dry like a pantry or cabinet. The fridge can make it sweat so it doesn’t look as good but it’ll still taste great! Annabelle@KAF

  6. Beverly Kleinle

    I love toffee, but my concern today is a recipe from a bag of your whole wheat flour-banana pumpkin bread. It is the best ever. It is a great snack for the family. However, it is difficult to get the center to bake. Recipe states 55-70 minutes, but at 70 the the top burns. Any suggestions??? We love this recipe. I make it every week. The kids gobble it up, but I can’t serve it to company.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi there, Beverly. It sounds like your oven might be running a little warm. We’d suggest lowering the temperature of the oven to 325°F, so the loaf has time to cook through without the top getting too much color, too quickly. We hope this helps. Happy baking! Morgan@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Louise! We might suggest trying out warming the pan that you plan to let the toffee set in along with your chocolate chip layer in the oven just until the chocolate softens but you can still touch the pan without burning yourself. We think that this slow warming of the chocolate will reduce the “shock” of pouring the hot sugar over it and might help to reduce the bloom you’re experiencing. Happy baking! Morgan@KAF

  7. Liz

    I smiled so big at your greased pole and fairgoers analogy. I didn’t know anywhere outside our own little county 4H fair still did one!!

    Reply
  8. Nancy

    I have made a microwave version of English Toffee for 20 years. It is very simple and just use the color of the mixture as a guide to when it is done. The time varies from batch to batch, but it never fails me. Here is the recipe:
    English Toffee
    Makes 1¼ pounds

    1 cup butter 1 tsp. vanilla
    1 1/3 cups sugar 1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
    1 Tbsp. light corn syrup 1/3 cup finely chopped walnuts
    2 Tbsp. water

    Combine butter, sugar, corn syrup, and water in 2-quart glass bowl.
    Microwave (high), uncovered, 4 minutes. Stir. Then, microwave (high), 2 to 8 minutes or until about 300 degrees is reached, stirring and checking temperature last few minutes.
    Remove from microwave. Stir in vanilla until mixture is smooth. (Be careful – mixture is very hot!)
    Pour into ungreased 13 x 9-inch pan. Sprinkle with chocolate chips. Let stand until chocolate is softened. Spread evenly over toffee. Sprinkle with nuts, pressing them into chocolate.
    Refrigerate to set chocolate. When cool, turn out of pan and break into pieces.

    Note: The times are not exact because every microwave oven is different. After the initial 4 minutes, I stop and stir the mixture every 2 minutes, then every minute until the color is the shade of toffee or peanut butter. That should be around 300 degrees. If the mixture starts to get very dark at any time, stop. You don’t want to burn it. I don’t actually use a thermometer. I just judge it by the color. The timing varies from batch to batch.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Kathy, I know that when I melt the bottom layer of chocolate first, spreading it into a pan and then pouring the hot syrup on top, the chocolate layer wants to peel off once it’s cool. So DON’T do that! My best results are either simply pouring the hot syrup on top of chocolate chips, in which case you don’t have a totally smooth bottom layer, but the chocolate stays put; or coarsely grinding the chocolate chips (as shown in this post). It’s a smoother bottom layer, and it does adhere better. I think the issue is, smooth chocolate + smooth hot toffee is NOT a good combo if you want everything to stay together, at least as far as a bottom layer. The other thing you can do is put the nuts on the bottom and the chocolate on the top: sprinkle chocolate chips on top of the hot syrup, give them a minute or so to soften, then carefully spread them all over the surface. Sprinkle some chopped or crushed nuts atop the chocolate, if you like. There are just so many ways to put this together… and thankfully, most of them work. Good luck — PJH@KAF

    2. Hope Sterling

      I seem to have trouble with the chocolate layer on top coming off in whole sheets, too, when I break candy apart. Any thoughts/ideas?

    3. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Hope! It sounds like a similar problem to what Kathy was experiencing. We think PJ’s advice will be helpful for you as well. Annabelle@KAF

      “My best results are either simply pouring the hot syrup on top of chocolate chips, in which case you don’t have a totally smooth bottom layer, but the chocolate stays put; or coarsely grinding the chocolate chips (as shown in this post). It’s a smoother bottom layer, and it does adhere better. I think the issue is, smooth chocolate + smooth hot toffee is NOT a good combo if you want everything to stay together, at least as far as a bottom layer.”

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