8 Golden Rules for Making Caramel from Scratch
No more burns, crystallized sugar, and binned batches
Making caramel is a lesson in patience. My first attempt, years ago, was an Ottolenghi dessert—salted caramel and macadamia cheesecake—that I’d found online (it’s since been published in this his latest and highly-recommendable cookbook Simple).
In hindsight, it was a pretty rigorous primer: It required you to make caramel two ways, first, to make a creamy salted caramel sauce and second, to make candied caramel macadamias for decoration. I watched before my eyes as the bubbling alchemy of sugar crystals turning into liquid gold reversed into a pile of sandy, sugary rubble. But by third attempt I had a deep, syrupy, fragrant caramel base.
Don’t assume my troubleshooting was particularly inspired: I asked the internet and promptly found my answer. Worried that my sugar wasn’t melting evenly, I naturally reached for a wooden spoon to give it an encouraging stir. Little did I know I’d flouted the golden rule of caramel making: Don’t stir!
Perhaps you’ve encountered this kernel of knowledge before, perhaps you haven’t, so in our effort to save you from any caramel making meltdowns, here are all our foolproof tips in one place.
All the types of caramel and how to make them
Caramel is a versatile creation. Here are the basics of the main types of caramel you’ll come across in cookbooks and desserts.
Simple caramel sauce
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1. Dry caramel: Made simply by melting sugar, as sugar contains water and heating or breaking down the granules extracts it and turns it into caramel.
2. Wet caramel: Sugar is dissolved in water and then caramelized. The water serves to slow down the heating of the sugar.
3. Cream or butter-based caramel: Used for caramel sauces, the sugar is first caramelized in glossy caramel, at which point the heat is reduced and room temperature butter or cream is whisked in.
4. Condensed milk caramel: For this dulce de leche style caramel, condensed milk is cooked down until the sugar caramelizes.
How do I know when my caramel is done?
When making caramel, you’ll pay witness to the following alchemy: the sugar granules will dissolve into a clear liquid and bubble increasingly as they continue to heat, gaining a honeyed sheen. The frothy caramel will usually darken towards the edges and smell fragrant, which is when you can gently tilt the pan to help distribute the heat. By now it should be a deep reddish brown. But is it “done”?
There are two ways to check for doneness. The first is to use a candy thermometer (wear a glove for safety if your caramel is bubbly) to check the temperature. Sugar begins to caramelize at approx. 320°F (160°C), turns to caramel at 340°F (170°C), and will start to burn at 350F (176°C), so you’ll want to aim for around the 340°F (170°C) mark. The second, is of course, to use your senses. Use your eyes to see if the sugar fully dissolved and your nose to check if the caramel is fragrant. Is the color a deep, reddish brown, a touch thicker than maple syrup? Is it nice and glossy? If yes, then bingo, you’ve got caramel.
How to test caramel for doneness
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Once you’ve mastered the caramel basics you can go on to make glassy sweets like bonbons, glaze popcorn in caramel, and of course master my personal favorite, salted caramel. You can never go wrong with a spare jar of caramel sauce in the fridge, as it can be added to baked goods like cakes, brownies, or cold desserts like cheesecake and ice cream. It keeps well too, roughly 3 weeks or longer when refrigerated in a clean, airtight jar as the sugar acts as a preservative, or up to 3 months in the freezer.
8 tips for making caramel at home, plus how to avoid the most common mistakes
1. Tilt, don’t stir: If you remember anything at all from this article, remember this. When making wet or dry caramel, resist the urge to stir as this encourages the sugar granules to clump together and means you will end up with a clumpy sand instead of glossy caramel. Instead, gently tilt the pan to distribute the sugar around and keep it from burning.
2. Always use white sugar: According to our resident caramel expert, Johanna from the KS test kitchen, caramel with any other sugar “just won’t work.” Having eaten a fair share of her caramel creations, including salted caramel sauce and Tonka bean caramel popcorn, I’d believe anything she says.
3. Keep it low: Another tip from Johanna, keeping the temperature low ensures that the caramel cooks evenly and doesn’t burn on the bottom.
4. Watch the heat: Sugar gets extremely hot. It may look inviting but when testing caramel be sure to let it cool before going in for a taste. If you’ll be pour the caramel on a baking sheet use gloves for your own safety.
5. Use a clean pan: Sugar molecules are tiny and enjoy latching on and clumping, so don’t give them a chance! Use a clean pan to ensure you have evenly caramelized, non-clumpy caramel.
6. Heavy does it: Use a heavy-based saucepan or pan (we find that a deep cast-iron pan works wonders) that will give off steady, even heat, and prevent some areas from heating up more rapidly than others.
7. Keep a pastry brush nearby: If any caramel splashes up and crystallizes on the sides of your pan, brush it back down with a little water to dissolve it.
8. The clean up: Your pans and utensils will, inevitably, be coated in glassy caramel by the end. To get rid of any stuck-on leftovers, fill your saucepan or pan with water and bring it to a boil to dissolve the caramel, then drain.
What are your favorite things to do with caramel? Have we answered all your questions? Let us know in the comments!
Published on October 14, 2018