How to Make the Perfect Caramel
Here are my tips and step-by-step instructions for How To Make The Perfect Caramel.
(You may also wish to read Ten Tips for Making Caramel, which preceded this post.)
This post is about the technique of caramelizing sugar. It’s meant to demystify caramelizing and there are some great recipes in the previous post with tips for you to try, as well as on my Recipes page.
Dry vs Wet Caramel
There are 2 different basic kinds of caramel: a wet caramel, where sugar is melted with water then cooked, and a dry caramel, where sugar is cooked by itself until it liquefies and caramelizes. Because sugar is partially water, heat liquefies it. That’s why many of low-fat desserts are full of sugar. Sugar makes things moist. (Something to remember the next time you’re thinking about reducing sugar in a recipe.)
For our purposes here, I’ll be talking about making a dry caramel, which is less-temperamental. The most important thing to know about making caramel is to be sure to cook it to just the right color and flavor. Undercooked caramel just tastes sweet, and burnt caramel tastes…well, burned and will be unusable. So you want to get it to the right point.
In the previous post, a few asked about using a thermometer. I once used a probe thermometer and blew out the device. So I think it’s better just to learn to rely on your nose and your eyes. Like grilling a steak, a thermometer can be useful, but there’s nothing like your senses to tell you when food is prepared to your liking.
Here are a few safety precautions you should take:
- Wear oven mitts and a long sleeve shirt. Caramel is hot and can splatter, especially when adding other ingredients to it.
- Use a sturdy large pot or pan that won’t overflow.
- Keep a deep bowl of icy water nearby to plunge your hand into if caramelized sugar lands on it.
- If you have glasses, wear them.When Is It Done?
Not having the sugar become a grainy mess is your second biggest-challenge when making caramel. The first is getting it to just the right color; no more, no less.
The color can be best described as that of an old copper penny. Perfect caramel should be cooked until it’s dark, reddish-brown, and just past the point where it starts to smoke. Some recipes advise cooking caramel until it ‘starts’ to smoke—but that’s too soon. The picture above, of me pouring caramel, is exactly the right color.
I take a sniff once it begins to turn amber-colored, and darken; if you keep smelling it, it’s fairly easy to gauge when it goes from being slightly-cooked…to almost-there…to deep, rich-caramel perfection. If you screw it up, a cup of sugar is pretty cheap in case you overdo it (cheaper than that thermometer…) and after you make caramel once or twice, you should get the hang of it.Butter or cream are often added to a “dry” caramel to make a simple sauce
If your recipe calls for adding liquid, re-check my previous tips for advice. If your recipe calls for using the hot caramel straight, as advised by your recipe, you may want to put some icy water in a sink or a very large bowl so when the sugar reaches the right temperature, you can set the pan in the ice, which will stop the cooking quickly.
Lastly, you don’t need any fancy equipment like a giant copper kettle. A good saucepan or skillet will do. (I use this pan for almost everything.) Whatever pan you use, make sure it’s light-colored, heavy-duty and solid. And any utensils, like spatulas you’ll be using to stir should be able to withstand the heat. Most of the new silicone tools and mats are fine since they can take it up to at least 400F (200C), although you might want to check with the manufacturer if you’re not absolutely certain, to avoid any meltdowns.
Making The Perfect Caramel
1. Start with an even layer of sugar in a heavy-duty pan, such as a deep skillet.
- Heat the sugar over moderate heat, keeping an eye on it. The main trick at this point is that sometimes it'll start burning in a spot beneath the surface, especially if the sugar is pretty deep. But in general, it should start to liquefy at the edge first with perhaps a few blips near the middle.
2. Once the caramel starts browning at the edges, begin to drag the sugar towards towards the center to prevent any burnt spots. Once burnt, caramel can’t be saved so don’t let anything get to dark.
It will usually start to take on a nice, mellow brown color….
At this stage, it will quickly turn darker, so pay attention!
3. If your caramel looks very lumpy and grainy, don’t worry. Just lower the heat and keep stirring. Any stubborn chunks should melt. If not, they can be strained out later and should be such a small quantity that they won’t likely won’t affect the outcome of the recipe.
Ok, what happened here was it got stirred too much and the sugar lumped up before it had a chance to melt and liquefy. I know, you were trying to hurry up. But all is not lost…
Continue cooking over very low heat, stirring as little as possible.
It will come right back to being smooth. Any stubborn bits can be strained out.
- At this point, if you’re using the caramel to line a mold, such as for a flan or crème caramel, immediately pour the caramel into the molds or ramekins.
- For making spun sugar, you should dunk the bottom of the pan in ice water to stop the cooking so it doesn’t continue to cook past the point of doneness. It’ll keep cooking once you take it off the heat, unless you ‘stop’ it somehow, or by adding something to it.
- If you’re stopping the caramel with something, such as cream or butter, add it right when the caramel reaches the desired color and depth-of-flavor. Note the warm cream will incorporate more smoothly in the hot caramel than cold cream.
- You can cheat and use straight caramel (with no cream or butter added) to top a solid custard to turn it into a crème brûlée by pouring a small amount over the custard, turning it to create a thin layer, and letting it cool at room temperature. Don’t refrigerate them or you’ll risk them becoming soggy.
- Make an easy praline by adding an equal amount of toasted nuts (equal to the sugar by weight or volume) during the last moment. Stir them in quickly with a bit of salt, then pour the mixture on a lightly-greased baking sheet. Once cool, crush and fold into ice cream, scatter over desserts, or enjoy as candy.