This rich, smooth caramel sauce elevates everything from plain apples to ice cream. Just typing the word is enough to make us drool! But the process can be intimidating for many. It makes a terrible mess if the sugars burn. Even worse, you could get almost all the way through the process before you discover that the caramel is grainy. Yuck.
Luckily, both of those challenges can be overcome, and learning how to make caramel is easier than expected if you pay attention to the details.
What Ingredients Are in Caramel?
The best caramel starts with regular granulated sugar. This refined white sugar is made from sugarcane or sugar beets, and it melts more evenly than unrefined sugars. Some recipes call for brown sugar as a shortcut because its dark color looks like caramel as soon as it melts. It’s not a good choice for true caramel, though, because the molasses adds acidity to the finished sauce.
When the sugar reaches the desired color—anywhere from light amber to a very dark brown—it’s time to add something to cool it down and stop the caramelization process. You could add water, but most caramel recipes use butter or heavy cream (or both). These dairy products contain proteins that undergo a chemical reaction when they hit the hot sugar, adding an incredible amount of depth and flavor to the resulting sauce. A little salt is added to balance out the sweetness, and vanilla extract is often used to add additional flavor.
It’s pretty common to use butter in caramel, but we skip it and opt for heavy cream instead. Butter is an emulsion of milk solids, fat and water, and it can break when it hits the hot sugar. Heavy cream is much more stable, so it’s easier to work with. If you do decide to use butter, be sure to use the highest-quality butter you can find. You’ll be able to taste the difference, so splurge on the good stuff.
Finally, some caramel recipes also contain corn syrup. Sugar is made from sucrose, which can crystallize under the right conditions. Corn syrup contains glucose (which won’t crystallize), so adding corn syrup to the mix builds in a little insurance to protect against grainy caramel.
How to Prevent (and Fix) Crystallization
Fearing a grainy caramel is the number one reason most people shy away from making this delicious concoction. Grainy caramel is caused by crystallization, which is easy to avoid (and can also be fixed).
Caramel becomes grainy when the sugars crystallize, a process that happens when the melted sugar splashes up onto the cold sides of the pan. It loses its moisture and turns back into a sugar crystal. If this crystal touches the melted mass, it causes a chain reaction and the caramel will seize up and become grainy. The easiest way to prevent crystallization is to avoid stirring the caramel. Instead, swirl the pan gently to help the sugar melt evenly. If any sugars do splash up onto the sides of the pan, use a wet pastry brush to remove them.
If your caramel does seize up, simply add more water to the mixture, reheat and try again. The water will help the sugar crystals dissolve again. All you have to do is wait for the water to evaporate!
Caramel Sauce-Making Methods: Dry Caramel vs. Wet Caramel
With “dry” caramel, the sugar is heated by itself. As the sugar melts, it expands and turns into a liquid state. This technique might be preferred by purists, but we don’t recommend it for beginners. It’s easy to burn the sugar if it melts unevenly, and stirring the melting sugar can cause it to crystallize.
Instead, we recommend making a “wet” caramel, where we add water to the sugar. The water helps the sugar melt evenly, and it makes it easier to swirl the caramel around in the pan as it cooks. This method is a little more foolproof, and the water evaporates off during the cooking process, so it doesn’t affect the end result.
How to Make Caramel from Scratch
The idea of making caramel strikes fear in the hearts of even the most experienced bakers, but it doesn’t have to.
Before you get started, check out the top mistakes to avoid when making caramel. Then, measure your ingredients in advance and get ready to be surprised that the process is easier than you thought.
- 1/2 cup water
- 1-1/2 cups granulated white sugar
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)
Yield: About 1-1/2 cups
Tools You’ll Need
It’s really important to start with a heavy-bottomed saucepan with tall sides. Thin pans can cause the sugar to melt unevenly, leading to burnt sugars. The pan also needs to be large enough to protect yourself from boil-over or any hot sugar splatters. The minimum size we recommend is a 3-quart pan, although you can use a larger, more common 4-quart saucepan (like this Cuisinart stainless steel saucepan). Multi-clad stainless-steel is a good choice here as it heats evenly, and its light color allows you to view the color changes as the sugar cooks.
You’ll also want an instant-read thermometer. Expert caramel makers can tell the different cooking stages by color, but a thermometer is a more precise way to know when to add the butter and cream to the sugar. Splurge on a candy thermometer that can read temperature changes in one second, like Thermoworks’ Thermapen.
Finally, make sure you have a heat-resistant rubber spatula on hand. You could also use a whisk, but the spatula is easier to use (and clean).
Step 1: Melt the sugar
Pour the water into a 3-quart (or larger) heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add the sugar and whisk lightly with a fork to incorporate it into the water, taking care not to splash onto the sides of the pan. Heat the mixture over medium heat for about 6 to 8 minutes. The sugar will start to melt at 320°F, and it will soon caramelize. When the sugar becomes honey-colored (around 340°F), reduce the heat to low and continue cooking until the sugar is amber-colored and reaches 360°F, about another 5 minutes.
Editor’s Tip: After incorporating the sugar into the water, it’s important not to stir or the sugars can crystallize and cause the caramel to seize up. Instead, swirl the pan from time to time to ensure the sugar melts evenly.
Step 2: Add the cream
Remove the pan from the heat and quickly (but carefully) add the heavy cream, salt and vanilla extract (if using). The mixture will bubble up vigorously, so it’s not a bad idea to place a mesh strainer on top of the pot to protect your arms from spitting sugar. Remove the mesh strainer and stir the caramel until it’s smooth.
Step 3: Store the caramel
Remove the caramel from the pan, taking care not to scrape the bottom of the pot. There may be some lingering crystallized sugar down there, and you don’t want that mixing with your super smooth caramel. Instead, pour the caramel freely into a heat-resistant container, like a canning jar. (Here are more tips for how to store caramel.)
Tips for Making Caramel
Caramel comes together pretty quickly, so this isn’t a recipe that you can walk away from or prep as you go. Measure your ingredients in advance, and have them all at arm’s length so you’re ready to add the cream as soon as the sugar’s ready.
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How to keep caramel sauce from burning
Burnt caramel sauce is bitter and unpleasant tasting. Unfortunately, there’s no way to fix it. Don’t even try—sugar is inexpensive, so just start over. The main reason caramel burns is because the sugar heats unevenly, so use a heavy-bottomed pan to give yourself a head start. Then, swirl the melting sugar as needed until you see an even color.
Does caramel harden in the fridge?
If you’re wondering why your caramel is hard, it probably has something to do with temperatures. Caramel is runny when it’s warm, but it thickens to become hard and chewy as it cools. You can heat refrigerated caramel in the microwave, stirring frequently, until it’s warm, smooth and easy to drizzle.
Why do you salt caramel?
A small amount of salt is added to caramel for balance. The sugar is extremely sweet, and the butter or heavy cream add an incredible level of richness. A little pinch of salt goes a long way to making taste caramel more balanced. It’s not enough to add a salty flavor, but that can be achieved by topping your caramel sauce with large flakes of salt for a sweet-and-salty vibe.
How to Store Caramel
The caramel will be very hot when it comes off the stove, so it’s important to use a heat-resistant container for storage, like a canning jar. Caramel should last about two weeks in the fridge or as long as three months in the freezer. It will thicken and harden as it cools, so warm it up before use in the microwave.
How to Clean Caramel from the Pan
Caramel should be relatively easy to clean from the pan. It’s a mixture of melted sugar, so any crystallized sugars that remain at the bottom of the pan can usually be removed with the addition of hot water. You can also soak the spatula or any other utensils used for caramel-making in this hot water to loosen the bits.
If you accidentally burned the caramel, it can turn into a sticky mess. Fill the pot with water and bring it to a boil on the stovetop. Use a wooden spoon or heat-resistant spatula to loosen the bits from the sides and bottom. After all the bits are removed, pour off the water and wash the pot with soapy water.