Candying is the sweetest way to prevent food waste
For June Taylor, it started with scraps. The renowned Bay Area jam-maker, born and raised in England, was starting to gain attention for her cult-favorite marmalades — but as the operation grew in scale, so did its compost heap.
“I realized at a certain point that we were sending out approximately sixty-five percent of the peels from the marmalades we were producing,” Taylor explains. “I come from a culture, class and time that did not waste any food, and it bothered me.”
Over the course of several years, Taylor taught herself to turn those scraps into sweet, sparkling confections through the process of candying — an ancient, sometimes arduous preservation method — and fine-tuned the recipe for her candied lemon, orange, grapefruit and yuzu peels, which are available in limited quantities on her website. For her, candied fruit like this is a way to reduce food waste, but also a beloved confection, “an old-fashioned one that I believe needs to be recognized, enjoyed and restored.”
Candying does seem to be getting more recognition of late. In September, T: The New York Times Style Magazine declared that candied fruit, newly admired for its delicate, sometimes otherworldly beauty, was “making an unlikely return.” The technique is also the focus of a forthcoming cookbook, “Nature’s Candy,” to be published with Appetite by Random House in 2024. But this is no flash-in-the-pan trend, as author Camilla Wynne explains: “People have been candying forever,” she says. “It was one of the first methods to preserve fruit, starting with honey candying in China and ancient Rome before refined sugar got going. It’s been popular all over the world for centuries.” Today, candied fruit is known worldwide, with strong traditions in the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia and the Mediterranean.
Though advancements in both food storage and confectionery may have made candied fruit more of an extravagance than a pure essential, these preserves can be a fun and rewarding project for anyone who wants to make their own sweets or garnishes at home. “People can tend to be prejudiced towards candied fruit because they’ve only tried poor quality industrial stuff,” says Wynne, who regularly hosts candying workshops online. “Making your own is no comparison.”
One thing to remember is that candying, by its very nature, involves a significant amount of sugar: an ingredient that is often associated with harmful practices like forced labor, clear-cutting, monocropping and in some places, including Florida, pollution and public health concerns around sugarcane burning. When using this technique to preserve your gorgeous local produce, consider the foodprint of the sugar as well — read our article “Searching for Ethical Sugar” as a primer — and look for fair trade and organic certifications wherever possible.
The basics of candying
Caroline Schiff regularly employs the technique as executive pastry chef at the Brooklyn restaurant Gage & Tollner: “Candying is an amazing way to add a depth of flavor from caramelization and preserve things like fruit,” she says. But before you get started, it’s good to know that this method can involve a bit of a learning curve. A close eye is required to prevent burning (a flavor-ruiner) or crystallization (which compromises texture). “Working with hot sugar is tricky and dangerous,” Schiff advises. “You have to be very cautious. Always have a candy thermometer handy for precise results.”
Not to be confused with candy-coated fruit like tanghulu — which is fun, but won’t preserve your fruit for long — candied fruit has essentially undergone a process of dehydration. The water inside is replaced with sugar, thereby preventing the growth of the microorganisms that cause decay. Ingredients are blanched to make them slightly more permeable, sometimes in multiple rounds for tougher bits like peels and rinds. The fruit is then simmered in syrup, sometimes whole, with the temperature carefully monitored to prevent it from breaking down and turning into something more like jam. Over time, the concentration of sugar is slowly increased, and the fruit is left to steep at points along the way to ensure maximum absorption.
After the process is complete, candied ingredients are either stored in their syrup (as with Luxardo cherries) or are thoroughly dried, sometimes finished by rolling in sugar. And the fruit itself isn’t the only reward, Wynne says: You can save the syrup to sweeten drinks or moisten cakes.
If this all sounds time-consuming, that’s because it is. (Though less so now than a millennium ago: Fruit candied over a shorter period of time can still last a year or more with the aid of a refrigerator, and many modern recipes for home cooks will call for a dehydrator at the end.) “Candying is one of the most labor intensive processes in preserve making,” says Taylor. “It is a delicate balance.” But as generations of cooks have agreed, it’s worth it for the reward.
What to candy
This preservation technique is often used for fruit — the result is sometimes called “glacé” fruit — but can be applied to other ingredients as well. There are certain fruits you’ll see candied regularly, such as cherries, pear, pineapple and other tropical fruits like kiwi or papaya. Delicate edible flowers (rose petals, violets) can also be “sugared” through a similar process.
But where candying really shines is when it can transform a dramatically spicy or bitter ingredient into a complex confection — things like ginger, elecampane (the bitter root of a medicinal plant related to sunflower) or that all-time classic, citrus.
Any kind of citrus will do. Wynne loves to candy citron peels when she can get her hands on them. Kumquats are a favorite for Schiff (“when the season hits, I’ll candy like twenty pounds at a time”), as are Meyer lemons, which she loves when indeed with whole coriander and black peppercorns. Taylor, too, recommends infusing candied citrus with other flavors: “yuzu and bay laurel, Meyer lemon and rose geranium, Seville [orange] and rosemary.”
Citrus peels aren’t the only ones ripe for candying. If you love pickling or fermenting your watermelon rinds, you’ll probably love them in candy form too: Try this recipe, which makes use of an at-home dehydrator to speed things up.
How to use it
You might have an immediate association with fruitcake. It’s true that candied fruit, being as attractive and labor-intensive as it is, is often associated with the holidays and other celebratory occasions, especially in winter: Candying is a way to make full use of the season’s citrus harvest or savor the preserved bounty of the previous summer, bringing bright colors and flavors to the coldest part of the year. If you have harrowing memories of U.S.-style fruitcake — which typically incorporates candied cherries and, contrary to stereotype, can actually be quite good — you can try one of the many traditional versions from other cuisines, like stollen, black cake or panettone.
Candied ingredients can lend texture and pop to all sorts of baked goods without adding much water (the cause of the sogginess that sometimes results when using fresh fruit), meaning there’s little need to adapt the recipe if you want to stir some into the batter. They can also make for a spectacular decoration, perhaps best exemplified by a Sicilian cassata. “I usually have at least one candied element on each of my desserts,” says Schiff, who sometimes mixes glacé fruit into ice cream and notes that citrus rinds especially are a favorite garnish for cakes, cookies and even cocktails. In this cheesecake recipe, she shrouds the entire dessert in thin, overlapping slices of candied Meyer lemon.
When she’s not eating it on its own with a cup of tea, Taylor also suggests trying out candied fruit in savory contexts, like in a stew or on a cheese plate. Below, you’ll find a recipe for Sicilian candied figs from the upcoming cookbook “Preserved: Fruit,” which the authors suggest serving alongside cured meats, baking into brie en croûte or cooking into sweet-and-savory sauces.
Recipe: Sicilian Candied Figs
Darra Goldstein, Cortney Burns and Richard Martin, “Preserved: Fruit”
Yield: 10 to 12 figs
Sicily may be renowned as the birthplace of the Mafia, but among its contributions there exists something far sweeter and more enduring to the Western world: the art of making confectionery. When Saracens invaded the island in the ninth century, they introduced sugarcane, along with the techniques used to refine it. Over the course of several centuries Sicilians developed not only an important sugar industry but also the ability to work the refined cane into extraordinary confections. As these methods spread throughout Europe, they revolutionized the world of sweets.
Sugar can transform fresh fruit into shimmering, jewel-like candies, while also preserving it. But candying is a laborious process, involving repeated macerations in several batches of increasingly concentrated sugar syrup, until the fruit is thoroughly saturated, which ensures its long keeping. Some traditional recipes called for forty days of processing to achieve the perfect texture; happily, our recipe calls for a mere four. Figs are native to the western Mediterranean, including Sicily, where they thrive in Mount Etna’s rich volcanic soil. They are one of our favorite fruits to candy since they can be preserved whole, retaining their charming shape. As the sugar syrup cooks down, it begins to caramelize, so the flavor of the finished fruit has an ever so slightly bitter note that balances its overall sweetness.
Figs are native to the western Mediterranean, including Sicily, where they thrive in Mount Etna’s rich volcanic soil. They are one of our favorite fruits to candy since they can be preserved whole, retaining their charming shape. As the sugar syrup cooks down, it begins to caramelize, so the flavor of the finished fruit has an ever so slightly bitter note that balances its overall sweetness.
3 cups / 700 milliliters water
3 cups / 700 milliliters freshly squeezed lemon juice
Scant 7 1/2 cups / 1.5 kilograms sugar, plus more for coating
1 pound / 454 grams fresh figs
- In a large, heavy pot, bring the water, lemon juice, and sugar to a slow simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the figs and cover them with a circle of parchment paper (a cartouche) to hold them in place. Simmer slowly for 1 hour. Remove the pot from the heat, cover with a lid, and leave at room temperature for 24 hours.
- Repeat this process three more times. If the syrup reduces too much, make a small amount in the same ratio (1 cup water, 1 cup lemon juice, and 2 1/2 cups sugar) and add it to the figs so that they have plenty of room to bob around. Once the syrup has cooled for the last time, gently lift out the figs with a slotted spoon and set them on a wire rack to drain. The syrup can be refrigerated and used for cocktails or in cooking.
- Place the figs in a dehydrator set to 105 F / 40 C and dry them for 36 hours, until they are tacky and somewhat firm but not completely dehydrated. Cool to room temperature.
- Pour a couple of inches of sugar into a bowl and toss the candied figs in the sugar, coating them well. Wrap each fig individually in parchment paper and place in an airtight container. They will keep in the refrigerator for 1 year.
Excerpted with permission from “Preserved: Fruit” by Darra Goldstein, Cortney Burns and Richard Martin. Hardie Grant Publishing, October 2023.
Top photo By Malgorzata Kistryn/Adobe Stock.