There are two types of bakers in this world: those who dread scrubbing candy-coated pots and pans, and those who've attained a state of enlightenment that transcends worrying about that kind of physical struggle.
It's a struggle that can be all too real for the uninitiated, as any sort of candy or sauce cooked above 212°F will cool into an impossibly sticky mess, one that intensifies as the thermometer climbs. Simple sauces like caramel and butterscotch can be as ooey-gooey as a fly-trap, gunking up kitchen scrubbers in an instant, and candies that reach the hard-crack stage will leave behind a residue as glossy and hard as glass.
Trying to scrub away that mess with brute force is an exercise in futility.
Boil Water in the Pot
Mercifully, candy cleaning enlightenment is this simple: Don't scrub.
After making a batch of caramel sauce, caramel apples, fudge, toffee, peanut brittle, butterscotch, or any other stovetop candy, simply fill the dirty dish with water and bring it to a boil.
By the time the water starts to bubble, it will have removed most of the hardened candy from around the sides of the pot. If there's anything else left around the edges, it will be half melted, soft and pliable enough to scrape off with the back of a spoon or spatula.
Pour off the hot water and you're done.
Sure, you'll still want to hit things with a bit of soapy water to remove any trace of sugar or fat, but there won't be anything left to scrub.
Dissolve Candy Into a Stovetop Custard
For those ready to advance to some truly advanced technique, buckle up—that hardened coating of caramel (or whatever!) can be just as easily removed with cream.
Or milk! Or coffee! Or whatever liquids you may intend to use in another recipe. This trick works especially well in stovetop custards like ice cream, panna cotta, or pudding. It isn't just that these types of desserts require a cooking vessel in the first place; they also tend to be more forgiving about the subtle addition of sugar from dissolved candies like caramel, fudge, or simple syrup.
It's a trick I relied on to speed up my work-flow back in my restaurant days, where I could make efficient use of a so-called "dirty" dish while layering hard-won flavors into a second dessert (say, "caramel-washed panna cotta" or "peanut brittle-scented ice cream").
If you don't need another dessert, don't force it! Water will absolutely do the trick. But if you have any inclination to jump on another stovetop project, go ahead and "deglaze" that candy-coated pan!
Simply weigh the liquid ingredients from a recipe into the pot, then bring them to a gentle simmer. Use a flexible spatula to slosh the hot liquid onto the sides of the pan, and scrape the sides of the pot with the spatula to peel up the candy layer.
When the pot is clean, pour the flavored liquid into a heat-safe cup, then top it off as needed to account for evaporation. From there, handle the liquid as indicated in the recipe; this includes cooling it back down to fridge-temp for recipes that may need such liquids cold.
This method generally takes a touch longer, as there will likely be less liquid than needed to fill the pot to the brim, and (for obvious reasons) the pot won't be quite as clean. But what's left on there isn't anything a soapy sponge can't handle.
The real payoff is that sense of satisfaction and thrift, along with an extra layer of flavor in some dessert, benefits that make this second technique my go-to whenever the occasion presents itself. Which, given my line of work, is quite often.
These same tricks can be applied to sticky bowls of nougat or marshmallow as well. So long as the bowls are heat safe, they can be placed in a sink and then filled to the brim with boiling hot water from a kettle. Within twenty minutes, the sugary residue will dissolve to near nothingness.
So the next time you whip up a batch of sauce or candy, don't sweat the clean-up! With a bit of boiling water (or a batch of custard), the problem those dirty dishes present will simply melt away.