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What is Barley Sugar?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 16, 2024
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Barley sugar is a type of hard candy which has been enjoyed throughout the United Kingdom (UK), France, and the United States (US) for hundreds of years. It is traditionally made using water that has had barley soaked in it, providing both coloring and flavor to the candy. Modern versions, however, may often leave out the barley yet still use the name “barley sugar” to indicate the product. Barley sugar is principally made by combining the barley water with white sugar, heating to the “hard crack” stage, then pouring it out in long strips, twists, lozenges, or into molds for shaping.

The origins of barley sugar seem to date back to either England or France somewhere around the early 17th century. While barley is used in the preparation, it is fairly minimal and the name may in fact be a mistranslation of “burnt sugar” from the French term sucre brûlé. This term was then translated back into French where the candy is called sucre d’orge, literally “sugar of barley.” One particular recipe for barley sugar was created by a monk in the French town of Moret-sur-Loing where the Musée du Sucre d’Orge or “Museum of Barley Sugar” was later built.

A basic recipe for barley sugar candy begins with barley soaked in water. The water with the barley in it is brought to a boil, then turned down and allowed to simmer for several hours. This is then removed from the heat and allowed to cool. The barley water can then be strained, or the liquid can be carefully removed, leaving the barley at the bottom of the pan. This barley water is then combined with sugar — two parts sugar to one part barley water — in another pan and placed over heat.

Sometimes a small amount of cream of tartar or tartaric acid is added to this mixture before heating, though this is not always necessary. The barley water and sugar is then allowed to come to a boil, and then should be covered for a few minutes to allow the steam to clean excess sugar off the sides of the pan. It is then uncovered and continues to boil, unstirred, until it reaches between 300° F (about 149° C) and 310° F (about 154° C), what is known by confectioners as the hard crack stage of candy making. This stage can also be verified by dripping a small amount of the syrup into a bowl of very cold water, where the syrup should immediately form a brittle piece of candy.

The pan of liquid barley candy is then removed from heat and quickly placed into a shallow container of ice water to stop the syrup from cooking further. After a few moments of cooling, it should begin to thicken and can then be poured out onto a surface such as marble or a nonstick mat and allowed to cool. It can be shaped into strips, twisted, or dropped like lozenges while still warm, or poured into molds to form shapes.

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Discussion Comments
By candyquilt — On Feb 10, 2015

I tried barley sugar for the first time in Britain. It seemed different at first but I grew to love it. I like that it's not as sugary sweet as most hard candies we consume in the US. I liked having these especially on road trips or as I worked. I think they were soothing. I'm back in the US now and have started missing them. It seems I will only be able to purchase them online but I don't know if they will be fresh. Barley sugar doesn't appear to be popular outside of Britain and maybe a few other European countries.

By turquoise — On Feb 09, 2015

@serenesurface-- Barley candy is a family tradition for us. I used to eat them as a child and now I get them for my grandchildren. Unfortunately, there aren't that many places that make them / sell them anymore. I've tried ones that were poor quality and lacked the flavor. But I've finally found one that's as good as the ones I had as a child. So I order a lot at once and keep some at home all the time for grand-kids.

Plain barley sweetened with sugar cane is my favorite but you can also get them in fruit flavors.

By serenesurface — On Feb 09, 2015

I've heard of desserts and puddings using barley, but this is the first time I'm hearing about a barley candy. Has anyone here tried it? What does it taste like?

I do like candy and I love trying new and different kinds of candy from different countries. I would definitely like to try this sometime if I get the opportunity.

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