What kind of a person would I be if my first blog about food wasn’t about Caramel?
I would be incongruent with my message. I profess my love for caramel all the time, so it’s only prudent to write about it first. My love of caramel developed out of an (brace yourself) allergy to chocolate. Yes, horror of all horrors, I was allergic to all things chocolate as a child. But no need to be sad….caramel came to the rescue! Caramel sundaes, caramel candies, caramel apples…. all the yummy, buttery, caramely goodness a kid could want. Why should chocolate get all the glory?? Honestly, people are missing out.
As I grew older, I eventually grew out of my allergy and was able to have more chocolate, but as it would happen, I never gained that strong affinity to chocolate like most people. I preferred caramel, amongst other flavor profiles (lemon to name another). As an adult, I’ve learned that caramel is still there for me. It’s got my back in most situations. It’s there as a solid standby on those crappy days (or weeks) when you need a little extra love. Nothing hits home for me quite like a little spoonful of caramel. Heck, I’ll even drizzle a little caramel in my protein smoothies if the mood strikes.
I used to purchase caramel from the store or the random specialty shop. (Still will from time to time). Then I looked at the various ways to make it at home. All I needed was sugar, water, cream, vanilla and butter?? Wait, what?? I have that on hand ALL the time!! Wait….I can make caramel ANY time I want?! I got to work. First batch….epic fail. The sugar burned, I got burned and it took an over night soak to get all the sugar out of the sauce pan. After several tries (I’m talking a solid week or so of trying) I had varying degrees of success. Once I found my way to amber waves of caramel I never went back!
There are SO many ways to make caramel. It can make you crazy. It would take an entire post just to write about all the ways. Bottom line is you just have to try. Burn yourself, burn your sugar, burn your pan (just don’t burn down the house) and I promise you’ll find the way that works best for you. I’ll share what works for me.
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 1/3 cup water
- 1 1/4 cups heavy cream
- 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
- 2 tbsp butter
- sea salt (if desired)
I prefer to start with a sugar/water combo. Stir it around a bit and put it on medium heat. I use a heavy sauce pan. If I’m using a cup or more of sugar, I will bump up the size of the sauce pan, say, to maybe a 10qt size. It helps to distribute the sugar more thinly, therefore reducing the cooking time and you’ll have more even heat distribution. Then you just stand and watch. Maybe grab a chair if you need. Put on some good music. Pour something to drink, kick back and watch sugar do its thing. I would refrain from drinking any alcohol unless you are a seasoned caramel maker. Remember, I’ve learned the hard way. Just so you know.
These are the stages of what your sugar should look like as it caramelizes. The bottom right hand photo is right at the color you want before you take it off the burner. Taking photos of making caramel while watching it, is tricky! Don’t be afraid to swirl it around! I swirl it around and have found that helps it to heat more evenly.
If you’ve read any recipe about how to make caramel, it will typically give you how long it takes before you’re supposed to see the sugar caramelize. They’ll say “5-7 minutes” or some silly thing like that. They’re wrong. Every single one is wrong! While I was learning to make caramel, I found this to be a really frustrating and frankly, demoralizing aspect. I continually wondered what I was doing wrong! Why was mine taking so long? Was it me? Was it my pan? Heat? Sugar? Well…..likely a combination of all that. I stopped watching the clock and started watching my sugar! When it starts looking like caramel, it’s caramel and I’ll pull it off the heat!! However, one must pay very close attention to this detail and know when to take it off the heat. It will go from wonderful caramel sweetness, to burnt and bitter in a nanosecond. So give it all the love and attention it deserves, watch over it the whole time! You can also use a candy thermometer, however if you don’t have enough liquid for it to settle in, you can get an inaccurate reading. If it’s in a hot spot, it’ll read wrong. Really it’s about trial and error. I still get batches wrong. It happens. And it’s ok. Just start anew. It’s just sugar.
SO……once you’ve got that perfect Amber color, take it off the heat and pour, ever so slowly, the cream in. (Side note to the cream: I like to have my cream and butter at room temp, I’ve found it lessons the risk of forming sugar crystals while combining it into the the caramelized sugar) While pouring slowly, you are madly whisking. It will bubble up like a volcano. Hiss and steam and look a little scary. Just keep working, it calms down quickly. Once that’s incorporated, whisk in your butter and add the vanilla flavoring. Put it back on the heat and keep whisking. Its ok if there are a few little balls of hardened sugar. You can sieve those out. Its ok if there is still some hardened sugar along the bottom, it won’t affect the taste outcome. You should mostly have creamy, smooth caramel sauce in the end. It will be like the consistency of cream.
If you’ve got a glob of sticky tar like sugar. It won’t recover. Start over.
If it smells burned. It is. Start over.
If it tastes like sugar or looks too light. It’s not caramel, start over.
It should look nice and golden brown. Like your skin does after a week long vacation to Hawaii. It should taste creamy and buttery sweet with that classic caramel flavor, no bitterness. Then you’re done! Its caramel sauce! If you’re like me and jump right in to the taste test, be aware of how hot this is. Only a few moments ago it was molten sugar. You will burn the heck out of your mouth like I’ve done on occasion. I typically dip my spoon in and let it sit on the counter a bit, then give it a taste. Pour it into a jar or dish, cover and tuck it away in the fridge to cool and thicken.
Want to really turn it into something special? Infuse spice into the cream first. A little cinnamon and cloves perhaps. Add a pinch of cayenne pepper. Keep it classic and top it with a little sea salt and you have one of my all time favorite flavor combinations. You could mix in some whiskey or Bourbon…..now you’ve gone from friends to lovers. Oh ya!
Again, as with most things in life, the things we find the most meaningful, take the most care. Caramel making is no exception. It demands your time and attention. The reward is so worth it!