Ten Tips For Making Caramel

Ice Cream

Caramel Ice Cream

If you think making caramel is difficult, it isn’t. In fact, when you made your toast this morning, half-asleep, you caramelized something! Enjoying a cup of coffee made from freshly-roasted beans, baking a cake or a batch of oatmeal cookies, grilling tofu, and chugging a beer are some of the other benefits we gain from caramelization.

I’ll be doing an upcoming post on making the perfect caramel, and here are some tips that’ll help:

1. Caramel is very, very hot. And very sticky. Keep a deep bowl of water with lots of ice in it nearby if you’re a newbie: if some caramel lands on your hand, plunge it right into the ice water immediately. And wear an oven mitt just to be sure when handling hot pots.

2. Use a much larger pot than you think if your recipe calls to add liquid to the caramel, since it will certainly bubble up furiously. Don’t be afraid to use a Dutch oven.

3. Use the heaviest gauge metal pot you have. Inexpensive or thin cookware heats unevenly, so drag out the most solid pot you’ve got. I don’t recommend non-stick coatings since high-heat can damage them and may release undesirable compounds from the finish. And if you use copper, make sure it’s unlined copper, or is lined with something that will withstand the high heat of caramelized sugar. Tin-lined finishes can melt and it’s almost impossible to get them re-tinned in the US.


4. If making a liquid caramel (one which begins with sugar and water) make absolutely certain the pan is clean and there aren’t any impurities in the sugar-and-water solution; stray parsley leaves or a few flecks of spice. Sugar crystals have microscopic jagged-edges and love to hook up with other things and you don’t want to give them additional opportunities to do that.

stirringcaramelmore.jpg

5. If making a liquid caramel (sugar and water) avoid stirring it. Once the sugar dissolves, those aforementioned crystals are still there (you just can’t see ‘em) and still want to hook up with each other. Pushing them into each other encourages that. Gently tilt the pan side-to-side to ensure things to cook evenly and avoids burn spots.

Some advise using a wet brush to wash down sugar crystals which collect on the side, or cover the pan to create steam to wash any clinging crystals down as well. I’ve been making caramels for 25+ years and haven’t had the need to do either of those but if those techniques work for you, by all means, continue to do them.

6. There’s been some controversy whether cane or beet sugar is preferred for caramelizing. Some say that beet sugar contains impurities, but I haven’t had much trouble with using the supermarket sugar in France, which I presume is beet sugar.

In the US, cane sugar is always labeled as such. If it doesn’t say on the label, it may be either. C&H, for example, is always labeled cane sugar, while Party Club sugar may not be. (You can read a couple of the arguments for cane versus beet sugar as well as C&H’s argument for using one over the other.)

7. You need to use white, refined sugar for caramelizing. In most cases.

Hey, did I just contradict myself? Well, before you hit that ‘Send David A Message’ button, here’s what I mean: If you’re going to caramelize sugar, or sugar with water, you should use white refined sugar. Any impurities, like the molasses coating in brown sugar or any unrefined sugar, will likely prevent a smooth caramelization.

That said, if you have an alternative sweetener, like honey, palm or jaggery, you can add some liquid (like water or cream) to it and reduce it down to a thick caramel-like syrup. As mentioned, unrefined sugars contain impurities, and those impurities will likely burn before the sugar can caramelize—adding a liquid mitigates that. (Although there’s a lot of sugars out there, so there may be exceptions. Feel free to share your experiences with various alternative sugars in the comments.)

8. If adding liquid to caramel, place a mesh strainer over the pan before pouting in the liquid. Then pour the liquid through the strainer. This will prevent anything from splattering on you, while allowing the copious amount of steam to escape.

9. If you burn a caramel, there’s not much you can do but toss it. It’s impossible to hide the taste of something burnt—so don’t even think about it. The best thing to do is to add more water to the pan and let it simmer, which will release the caramel and make the pan easier to clean. I’ve had success just running the pot through the dishwasher too.

Not that I burn things very much…
; )

10. Rule #10? Practice!
So get out there and start caramelizing…

Here’s a few places to start:

Caramel Sauce Recipe (Elise at Simply Recipes)

Caramel Cake-and tips (Shuna at Eggbeater)

Millionaire’s Shortbread (Fanny at Foodbeam)

Pecan Maple Caramels (Brian at Chocolate Gourmand)

Quince Caramels (Pim at Chez Pim)

Eric Kayser’s Milk Chocolate and Caramel Tart (Pille at Nami-Nami)

Cashew Brittle (Luisa at The Wednesday Chef)

Caramel Corn (Adam at The Amateur Gourmet)

Caramel Cake (Deb at Smitten Kitchen)

Espresso Caramels (Heidi at 101Cookbooks)

And here on this site:

Caramel Corn

Pralined Almonds

Chocolate Almond Buttercrunch

Dulce de Leche (Confiture de lait)

Kouign Amman

Orange and Cardamom Upside Down Cake

Chocolate-Covered Caramelized Matzoh Crunch

Salted Butter Caramel Ice Cream (shown above)

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41 comments

  • I’m sort of broken the rules a little bit and used straight palm sugar to make caramels. The bubbling caramel did seem to be a bit ‘dirtier’ than a white sugar one, but the end product was smooth and creamy.

  • This is a really great list, David! I am getting ready to dive into caramel (why it isn’t popular here in Italy, I have no idea) but I think I need a candy thermometer first!

  • Re: large pots and dutch ovens– I used a dutch oven and the pre-adding liquid sugar was too shallow to properly register on the candy thermometer. Because I was such a candy newbie, I didn’t trust my eye and nose about the color and consistency and smell, and burnt my first batch, nearly ruining my Le Creuset in the process. The second time around, I used a tall, narrow-based nonstick saucepan, and the depth of caramel was enough to register accurately on the thermometer.

  • Great tips for making caramel. Making caramel has been a daunting task and you make it sound less complicated. For tip #1, could the bowl of cool water be use to partially submerge the pot caramel to cool it off or slow down the cooking process when the desire caramel color has been reached? Now, I can start making caramel popcorn!

  • I grew up in sugar beet country, and never use the stuff. I can smell the stench from the factory on it, especially when it’s humid. Yuck.

    Now you’ve got me hungry. Maybe some caramel on my toast?

  • I often use a caramel for sweetener in apple pie. At my dad’s over Thanksgiving, I made the caramel in his ‘bacon’ skillet – aka the cast iron, it was the best available, even knowing that a ‘light-colored’ pan is preferred so you can watch the color change. But what a happy accident, because, wow – the caramel had just the tiniest bit of bacon essence. Amazing caramel!

  • Since I don’t make many desserts, I don’t have much experience with caramel.

    I have made a simple savory recipe using caramelized sugar in an aptly named Mark Bittman column “Tofu Without Grimace”. Turns out the title is true. It’s based on a common(?) Vietnamese technique of combining caramelize sugar, soy sauce, and tons of black pepper. You braise sliced onion in the sauce, combine it with diced tofu and serve it over rice.

    The point of this is to ask a question. Do you have any savory caramel recipes to share?

    There’s a link to the Bittman column: here.

    Sorry about the compressed text. I put spaces/paragraphs in the original post, but they don’t show up.

  • David, I made a Dulce de Leche(dangerous stuff…way too delicious) cheesecake over the holidays and I stood over the stove, stirring the milk and sugar for an hour. Next time, I am SO using your recipe! I have a hard time determining the line between dark enough and burnt. Today I made peanut brittle, the recipe said to take it to 300 degrees and it was just perfect. I have a recipe I want to try for Salted Chocolate Pecan Toffee (I missed some people for holiday gift giving and I’m making up for it now) that says to take the caramel to 310. I’m worried about that, based on the 300 degrees seeming so perfect today. Do you have any thoughts on this? Do you bother with a thermometer or have you been doing this for so long that you just know intuitively when it’s right?

  • Once when I made ‘caramel’ it was meant to be burnt! The thick and loooong process to make the prime ingredient for Laurie Colwin’s “black cake” started with brown sugar and ended with ebony sludge. And it was gloriously perfect:

    I Make Black Cake

    But that picture of caramel ice cream has me positively drooling….

  • David, can you tell me if the recipes in your cookbooks (in particular, in the Perfect Scoop) are in weights (grams, ounces, etc.) or volumes (cups, tablespoons, etc.)? Thanks!

  • Must be dumb luck but when I’ve made caramel, such as for a creme caramel, it’s always worked. Now I’ll be extra nervous.

    “Jaggery”–my new word for the day. Does not mean what I might’ve guessed it did.

  • Great list, David! One question: Did you try Shuna’s Caramel Cake with the incredibly delicious frosting? It seems to be a really difficult cake.

  • BPLawyerCook: You can use a small pot for plain caramel, but I mentioned that if you’re going to be adding a liquid to it, it’s likely to bubble up quite a bit and it’s a mess to clean up.

    That’s interesting about the Le Creuset; I always use metal (I don’t use much Le Creuset since had a problem with a new Le Creuset tagine and when the lid broke the first time I used it, I called them and they offered to replace it…by offering to sell me a new one!) but a friend made a tarte Tatin in an earthenware dish for me last week, on the stovetop!

    Terrie: Much depends on the recipe. If it calls for a sugar syrup, I use a thermometer since a few degrees can make a different between failure and sweet success. I’ve never used a thermometer for caramel, since I like mine just on the edge of burnt, which you can only tell by the smell and how it looks.

    Tim: The recipes in The Great Book of Chocolate and The Perfect Scoop are in volume as well as metric weights. My first 2 books are in volumes only.

    Claudia: I haven’t made that cake, but Shuna posted some tips to help.

    Andrea: Will check out that cake, sounds intriguing!

  • Thank you for that list, David! It has made me confused why some recipes add water to sugar to caramelize it and some don’t. At last someone who’s got some inside info:)

  • I looooove homemade caramel. And you’re right, it’s not hard. You just watch it and there it goes, all by itself!

  • I made chocolate caramel with black walnuts last spring. Homemade caramel is hands down better than what I have bought or have been given. I also love to make salted caramel tarts (total of three so far). I’m still don’t have it down, and you are inspiring me to add caramel making as a standard in my kitchen.

  • Dave,
    You mentioned that you prefer your caramel to be just shy of burnt. Does that mean you take it off the stovetop at the exact moment it is perfectly done? Or does it continue to cook a few more degrees even upon removal from the heat source? I have attempted caramel only once, in your pear caramel ice cream recipe and because I was frightened of burning it, I stopped it from cooking entirely too early, so the taste was very subtle, (although still delicious). Thank you.

  • Thanks for those great tips. I’ve been making caramel for awhile now too but it is still always helpful to hear little tips and tricks.

  • I made the Chocolate Almond Buttercrunch (with the fleur de sel) and it was the biggest hit ever! I made it for a few parties and got many compliments and then had specific requests for Christmas presents! :)

    It was easy and so, so, so delicious! After making many batches the only time I burned myself was on the last batch! Go figure!

    Thanks, too, for the strainer tip for adding liquid. The vanilla always sputtered and steamed and I never thought about a way to avoid the danger. :)

    Thank you, David, for sharing the recipe and making me a star! ;)

  • David: Yes, caramel will continue to cook once you take it off the heat. Some recipes you ‘stop’ the caramel with a liquid, & that recipe gets stopped with the pears. You perhaps didn’t cook it enough, which is why I’m doing these few posts.

    In the follow up post (which I swear is coming…hang on…) I’ll be providing more descriptions and close-up photos—but now that you’ve made it once, you know that next time you can take your caramel further than you did and get it just right.

  • Toasting bread isn’t really the same as making caramel, since it used Maillard Reaction, not caramelization. Still, these are great tips, and your caramel ice cream looks delicious.

  • I haven’t seen Laurie Colwin’s name in a long time. Just reading it reminds me of the joyful way she lived her life and of the tearing sadness that her life was so short.

  • That caramel ice cream looks amazing!

  • I have a caramel-ish question for you. I botched (twice. in a row.) making the cajeta described in The Perfect Scoop. The scent was incredible, the texture and color were beautiful, but when I let it cool in a container, it became rock-hard. Heating in a microwave briefly softened it, but then, when used to top ice cream, it hardened back up. Sorry; it took a long time to say that. Is hardening a normal caramelizing problem?
    How do you keep cajeta (or other caramels) soft? Soft so that, say, it can be spread on bread and all that?

  • Hi Meg: If it’s too hard, it’s likely overcooked. It should look like this when it’s done & cooled to room temperature. If you’re refrigerating it, let it come to room temp before using it.
    Hope that helps!

  • Hi David,

    I will definitely make that salted butter caramel ice cream soon. I don’t usually have trouble with caramel, probably because I’ve always used a very heavy nonstick saucepan. You’ve also reminded me of the number of Perfect Scoop recipes I’ve yet to try, e.g. the Pear Caramel Ice Cream.

    I actually posted a recipe lately for an ice cream with a caramel base here. I also did a post here with a review (glowing, of course) of your Chocolate Cherry Fruitacke.

  • Cool, thanks for such a thorough introduction! Caramel does seem to be one of those ‘green fingers’ things that some people can do and some people feel they can’t.

    Maybe its a confidence thing, you just have to go for it and not worry too much, otherwise it probably won’t turn out right.

  • Quince caramels! Mom’s got a bumper crop of quince from this season’s harvest so I sent her over to Chez Pim. To my surprise, she jumped on the recipe and made the caramels. I’d forgotten the phone conversation where she told me about it. But she arrived here today to babysit and gave me a handful of quince caramels from her jacket pocket. They are positively delicious! And, if I may say so, if my mom can make caramels, anyone can. ;-)

  • I am really glad you don’t use corn syrup. Quite a few of the links you suggest do though, unfortunately. Why is that? Surely they don’t need to? I love making caramel – it’s so much fun. I made some last weekend for the creme caramel cheesecake from Michel Richard’s book.
    PS – here’s a question for you – how do you get burnt caramel if you don’t burn your caramel? Ok – maybe I should hand that one over to Michael Rechuitti…

  • Jessica: Yum! I would love a handful of quince caramels…what a lucky daughter you are.

    Ben: Glad you liked that Chocolate Cherry Fruitcake. I like it too. Can’t wait until next Christmas when I can make it again : )

    SaltedCaramel: I do use corn syrup in certain things prudently, when it’s necessary. Because it’s an invert sugar, it prevents crystallizing as various candies and sauces cool. I’ve been told the industrial HFCS is different than the Karo syrup we buy (I use glucose here in France) but still, I use it in judicious amounts only when the results depend on it.

    Since I don’t eat junk food or pre-prepared foods (except on rare occasions), or drink soda—those are the things that are notoriously high in corn syrup. So if I add a tablespoon to a batch of sauce every once in a while, I control how much I’m eating and I know it’s not much.

    (There’s a wealth of information and articles about HFCS at Accidental Hedonist that makes good reading.)

    The only exception is marshmallows—I just can’t get enough of them!~…*sigh*

  • Hi David. I’m new to your blog (via Jaden’s Steamy Kitchen) and I love it! Thanks for the tips. I really have to make that Sea Salt Caramel Ice Cream now!

    I have two questions – when I’ve made caramel before, I did it using the wet method and an addition of a little corn syrup (a tip from Alton Brown) to make the process more stable. Is there a reason you don’t?

    Also, loved the link to your post on Dulce de Leche. All I know about it is that it’s one of my favourite ice cream flavours, and that in the movie Guy & Dolls, it’s a milk drink that Marlon Brando says is made with rum. Is that a variation? Or was that just movie magic so he can get Jean Simmons drunk on their trip to Cuba?

    Thanks! Judy

  • thanks for the answer david. This is something that really confuses me – how do i know when it is necessary? For example – a lot of caramel recipes list it in the USA – but I know they are not necessary since I know I am perfectly capable of making caramel without corn syrup. And then I think to myself – what about all those old Euro-candies from my childhood – they were certainly made without HFCS because it probably wasn’t invented then and it is not even used in Europe – but then you make a very good point about glucose. Maybe the Europeans have been using all glucose all the time instead. I am not really sure what an invert sugar is so I need to go and found out. I recently got sent some handmade passion fruit marshmallows from Sweet Napa girl Nina’s new BonBon bar company and they had invert sugar listed on the ingredients. I am going to ask her if that was just a fancy way of disguising corn syrup. Last time I made marshmallow myself, I used golden syrup which gave them a lovely flavour.

  • Hi Judy: Don’t know much about mixed drinks (somehow, I’ll bet Jaden does!) but if making a wet caramel, often folks will add a drop of corn syrup, cream of tartar, or lemon juice, which helps prevent the sugar from crystallizing. Will discuss that in part II…which I promise, is coming soon…

    Sam: Candymaking is pretty specific and I suggest people follow recipes pretty exactly for best results.

    Professionals have all sorts of invert sugars at their disposal, and trimoline and glucose, but for home cooks, it pretty much boils down to (no pun intended!) corn syrup.

    I love golden syrup too, especially in ANZAC cookies!

  • Thanks for the answer David. I’m looking forward to part 2!

    I hope to make it your class/appearance at Central Market in San Antonio!

    Judy

  • Hi David,
    I’m with Jenny on toasting bread and grilling tofu. It’s the Maillard reaction, since protein’s involved. I only know because I read What Einstein Told His Cook.

    Whenever I make dry caramel, it heats up unevenly, and then when I swirl the pan, it crystallizes. :-( So I add a little water and patiently wait for it to evaporate.

  • Technically, as seen through a microscope, it’s not exactly the same. But it’s a similar concept: the browning of sugars.

    For more information, there’s more to read about the Maillard reaction, and here’s another explanation of the precise differences and similarities as well.

  • I made a caramel risotto, which I, personally, really liked. It was al dente, with a rich, dark, semi-sweet caramel.

    It was tricky though and took a couple tries. Further testers had very mixed results. I’d like to re-test it; I think there were problems with the rice absorbing the caramel and milk?

  • Hi David, can you add cream, salt or vanilla directly to caramel made in unlined copper sugar pot. I was never sure whether any of the mentioned ingredients will react with the copper.

  • Hi Vernon: I’ve added all of those to caramel made in my unlined copper pot. But I wouldn’t use anything too acidic, though, like lemon juice or vinegar as it very well may react and leave a funny taste.

  • I make caramel in a glass measuring cup in the microwave. It is quick and relatively easy: put the sugar and a small amount of water in the cup and cook on high until as dark as desired. Watch it all the time because you can go too far.

    There is a point at which the cooking reaction seems to go exothermic, that is it keeps cooking even if you turn off the microwave. The result is a mess to clean up.

  • You can easily get copper pots re-tinned by mail. It doesn’t take long, isn’t too expensive, and they look great. I recently got all my mom’s wedding copper retinned here.

    http://www.rockymountainretinning.com/