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The Basics of Caramel

What’s sweet, sticky and essential for popcorn, ice cream or apples on a stick? Well, caramel, of course! As we welcome fall, gorgeous caramel plays a starring role in many desserts. Complex and interesting, caramel can be sweet, smoky or slightly salty, and pairs with so many different flavors.

Instead of satisfying that caramel craving by simply opening a jar, try making it at home.

Caramel basically consists of three ingredients: granulated sugar, heavy cream and butter. Depending on the method or intended use, water and/or corn syrup may also be added.

There are two basic methods of making caramel:

Dry Method

Sugar is cooked in a pan without any water or other ingredients. The heat dissolves the sugar and then begins to caramelize it.

Wet Sand Method

Sugar is cooked with the addition of a little water, and often, corn syrup is added as well. Just enough water is added to give the sugar the appearance of wet sand, which helps buffer the sugar from heat.

Corn Syrup and Crystallization

Corn syrup is what is known as an invert sugar and helps prevent the sugar from crystalizing, which can result in grainy caramel. However, if this does happen, a wet pastry brush can take care of the hardened sugar.

Crystallization can also occur if there is too much movement or agitation. So, once the sugar syrup comes to a boil, resist the temptation to stir it.

Temperature and Color

No matter which method is used to make the caramel, the sugar continues to cook until it becomes a deep amber color, similar to maple syrup. Just remember that the darker the caramel, the more bitter and smoky the flavor will be. There is a fine line between smoky and burnt, but once the caramel has crossed that line, there is no fixing it.

Your senses can help you know when the caramel is ready for the next step, but if unsure, an accurate thermometer is a good safety net.

Sugar caramelizes between 320° F-350° F. Anything above the latter temperature will be bitter. Once the caramel reaches 400° F, it’s referred to as “blackjack” and no longer usable.

Once the sugar is the desired color and temperature, hot cream is added and then stirred until the caramel is thickened, smooth and luxurious.

At this point, the pan is removed from the heat and butter, flavoring and salt, if desired, can be added.

Caramel and butterscotch are not the same

While caramel is made with granulated sugar, butterscotch is made with brown sugar for that distinctive butterscotch flavor.

You say “carmel,” but I say ‘caramel”

And while we may not agree on exactly how to pronounce it, we can all agree that caramel is a decadent part of many luscious desserts or just simply eaten with a spoon.

Jill Meredith
Jill Meredith
Jill Meredith is a pastry chef, food writer and culinary instructor. She is passionate about all things sweet and loves sharing that passion and knowledge with others. She lives in Oklahoma with her husband, daughter and 3 cats.