Marisa Wu started making saltwater taffy almost by accident. An alum of Four & Twenty Blackbirds, Liddabit Sweets, The Meat Hook, The Brooklyn Kitchen, and others, Wu originally wanted to strike out on her own by making chocolate. But since New York City is saturated with artisanal chocolatiers, she decided to make saltwater taffy instead, becoming the city’s first taffy maker in the process.
“I talked to one of the owners of Liddabit Sweets, Jen King, about making saltwater taffy, and she was like, ‘don’t do it, it’s way too laborious.’ So that’s when I was like, ‘okay, I’m gonna try it out!’” says Wu.
Four years after Wu hand-pulled her first batch of vanilla bean taffy in her Brooklyn apartment, Salty Road Salt Water Taffy has become one of the city’s favorite confectioners, with a small staff making taffy in a one-room factory near the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
According to Wu, Salty Road uses no artificial colors or flavors, which gives their taffy a noticeably different flavor from what you might find on your typical Jersey Shore boardwalk. The salted caramel is flavored with sugar that’s been caramelized in-house, while the salted caramel apple uses a blend of spices, Angostura bitters and cider jelly from Woods Cider Mill in Springfield, Vermont.
“Artificials happen at the front of your mouth, and if you have Now and Laters, or something like that, it’s instant. But with natural flavors, or at least ours, they happen in the back of your mouth, and it takes a little bit longer for it to get all around your tongue and make you taste it,” she explains. “But the flavor itself is a truer flavor. You can just tell, it doesn’t have that weird artificial tang to it.”
Also important, salt water taffy contains absolutely no salt water, but all of Salty Road’s taffies feature La Baleine sea salt, a unique addition which adds texture and an extra dimension to the flavor profile.
Salty Road’s taffy is cooked in a 25 pound-capacity test confectioner (most taffy is made in larger confectioners, with capacities ranging from 90-150 pounds per batch.) Over the course of a day, they’ll make six or seven batches, depending on heat and humidity.
Marisa adds a scoop of caramelized sugar to the mix, which adds flavor salted caramel, today’s first flavor.
“So we caramelize the sugar ourselves, and make a really, really strong caramel. It’s got a lot of bitter notes, like in Vietnamese cooking, they have that burnt sugar syrup. And then we’ll add that in there.”
In addition to individual flavorings, each taffy consists of several base ingredients, including corn syrup, pictured here.
“There’s palm oil, sugar, corn syrup that’s already measured out, and then evaporated milk, and so that’s our base ingredients. We always put large-grain sea salt on it, and we use La Baleine, so French sea salt,” says Marisa. “So then we put it in here, which is our cooker. We cook it until about 247 degrees, depending on what flavor it is. And then we add whatever our flavoring is.”
The cooking temperature also varies depending on the weather and the seasons. “During the winter, we have to cook it to a lower temperature, so it’s a little bit softer, and then during the summer, we have to cook it to a higher temperature.” Marisa explains. “Because we make such small batches, and we’re really aware of how the candy works. We’re able to do that, where I feel like bigger companies would put random shit in it to make it good all the time.”
The dry ingredients are mixed together in the confectioner, where they’ll cook for about an hour.
Looking good only 45 seconds in.
While the Salted Caramel is cooking, Marisa starts preparing the ingredients for the vanilla bean flavor, including vanilla bean dust, which they grind themselves.
Marisa prepares the cooling table. The steel rods will keep the cooked taffy from spilling off the table as it cools.
15 minutes in…
Master candy maker Ben Nelson prepares Harriet, Salty Road’s 1946 Model K “kiss” wrapper, for today’s taffy. When Salty Road started, Marisa cut and wrapped the individual taffies herself, but Harriet can output 100 pieces per minute. Marisa can cut and wrap only two in the same amount of time.
“We use stainless steel dentist tools that are made for picking stuff out of people’s teeth, because they’re perfect for picking the little pieces of sugar out of the machine, getting in all the little crevices, and they’ve got so many different variables and options. We even use the little mirror!” says Ben.
“So you think you’re gonna start out being a candymaker, and making candy all day, but it turns out that you depend on different kinds of machinery. We’ve figured out how to really be super aware, and listen to the machines, and if something sounds funky, we’re able to usually figure out what’s going on,” Marisa adds. “And we’ve also made a lot of mechanic friends.”
Master bagger Wendy Feliciano packages the candy herself. She’ll receive fresh taffy to package throughout the day.
After an hour, the salted caramel is done cooking. Marisa pours the confectioner out on the cooling table…
…and mixes in French sea salt for texture and flavor.
Now that the Salted Caramel is done cooking, the vanilla bean is ready to start.
Salted caramel is already hardening after five minutes in front of the fan.
And after 10 minutes, the solid taffy is ready to be picked up…
…and moved to the candy puller, which will aerate it. When Salty Road started, Marisa pulled the taffy by hand at every stage, but they acquired the puller as their production volume increased.
This is also the one stage of the process where Marisa regrets not using any artificial ingredients. Most taffy makers add dyes to the taffy while it’s being pulled, which lends a really nice dash of color to the process.
Pulled taffy on the cooling table.
One for Instagram…
Marisa cuts the taffy…
…then Ben puts it in the batch roller, which shapes it into a cylinder for Harriet.
Braided, rolled taffy. This braided taffy will be fed into the batch roller again before Harriet cuts and wraps it.
Ben with braided taffy.
Marisa hand-pulls the taffy so that it can be fed into Harriet.
Harriet in action.
After about 50 minutes, the vanilla bean taffy has finished cooking.
Marisa pours on some extra vanilla extract and mixes.
After the taffy has cooled and solidified, Marisa picks up the sheet again…
…and the cycle continues.