Candy canes made their first appearance during the 17th century, and they’re still a popular holiday treat today. Billions of candy canes are produced and consumed year after year, with manufacturers always introducing new looks and flavors. Practically everyone knows what a candy cane is, and store shelves are overflowing with them during the holiday season. Candy canes are hard candies that are shaped with a curve at the top and decorated with stripes. While traditional candy canes are mint flavored, some versions are fruit flavored. If you’ve ever wondered how candy canes are made, and how they're tested to make sure they're the same batch after batch, read on!
Materials Used to Make Candy Canes
Over the years, candy makers have changed, improved and refined candy cane production, including the recipes, materials and methods used to create them. Today, candy cane making is more efficient than it used to be. The materials used in candy cane manufacturing are chosen in order to give the candy cane the appearance, taste and texture that consumers expect. While sweetening agents are the main ingredients, colorant, flavorings, water, and other processing materials, are also included in the recipe.
The main ingredient in candy canes is sugar, specifically beet and cane sugar. When the sugar, or sucrose, is refined, it turns into crystals or grains of sugar. In order for the candy cane to have the right texture and structure, the sugar used has to be high quality. Once heated, the sugar melts, turning it into a syrup that can be more easily manipulated. At this point, the syrup is rolled and fashioned into a candy cane. As the sugar cools down, the syrup thickens and the candy cane takes shape. When completely cooled, the syrup turns back into a solid, resulting in a candy cane as you know it.
Corn syrup is also used in candy cane production. Corn syrup is a form of starch, and it’s sweet, like regular sugar. When corn syrup mixes with regular sugar, it stops the sugar from crystallizing. If the sugar was allowed to crystalize naturally, it would make the candy cane brittle and grainy. Additionally, corn syrup also makes the candy cane more opaque; without it, the candy would be transparent.
Some candy canes use additional sweeteners, including glucose or molasses. Low calorie candy canes may include artificial sweeteners.
Colorants and Flavorings
Peppermint oils and wintergreen oils are used to give the candy cane its color and flavor. Sometimes, natural flavors are also used, coming from berries, honey, fruit, maple sugar or molasses. Artificial flavoring is also used to give the candy cane its taste, as well as fruit acids (citric and lactic acid). For the coloring, artificial colors that have been approved by the FD&C are used; this approval by the FD&C signals that there are no carcinogens in the ingredients.
Some of the ingredients used in candy canes are there to help with production. For example, water is used to dilute the sugar and make it easier to work with. The water is boiled off during manufacturing, which means the candy cane eventually has less water than at the start of the process. Another example of a processing ingredient in candy cane production is cream of tartar, which creates air bubbles that then expand the sugar and increase its stability. A little bit of salt is also used to adjust the syrup’s chemical characteristics.
Candy Cane Manufacturing
First, the batch has to be made. This means that the ingredients are mixed together. Often, a large, stainless steel kettle and auto mixers are used. Once combined, the ingredients are heated and cooked until they turn into an amber-colored liquid.
When the liquid is hot, the mixture is poured onto tables, and the mixture is allowed to cool a little bit. The candy is then sent over to devices that will stretch it over and over until it turns white. During the stretching process, flavoring and coloring ingredients are added.
The warm candy is then turned into a loaf, and a portion of the loaf is separated, dyed and cut into strips. Then, the colored strips are pressed into the white candy loaf at specific intervals. This is done to create the red-and-white striped, traditional candy cane you’re used to seeing.
Once the loaf is finished being assembled, it’s sent to an extruder machine. The extruder turns the loaf into a long piece of candy. This strand is then sent to cutters, which slice it in order to create individual-sized pieces of candy. Then, the individual candy slices are sent through another device that will bend it. Note that at this point, the candy is still a bit warm, making it flexible enough to be bent into a traditional candy cane shape.
Once the candy canes are created, they’re sent to packaging, where they’re wrapped in clear plastic and sealed. Then, a specific number of candy canes are boxed and sealed. The multiple packaging layers prevent any moisture from damaging the candy. Once packaged, the candy canes are loaded into shipping containers and then onto trucks for delivery.
Any type of candy has to undergo quality control. For candy canes, the ingredients are tested before being used. Evaluations are done to make sure the ingredients are the right appearance, flavor, odor and color. Chemical characteristics and the candy cane paste are also tested. During the production process, techs inspect the physical aspects of the candy after it goes through the extruder. The new candy is compared against a standard “test” piece of candy. Many manufacturers use professional sensory testers who have been trained to notice very small differences in appearance, taste and texture.
One Last Thought
Moving forward, the candy cane making process is sure to become even faster and more efficient.