Sugar is sweet—and that’s why we love it! But add heat to our favorite substance and it transforms from simply sweet to magically complex—an irresistible blend of tart, bitter, buttery, fruity, nutty, toasty, and aromatic that can be summed up in a single word: caramel.
A single word, yes—but it may refer to many different products, from pourable sauces to chewy candies to crisp toppings. What they all share is the sugar-plus-heat formula. And from there, things get interesting… and appetizing!
When sugar is heated, its molecules begin to break apart and generate dozens of new compounds with different color and flavor characteristics. The more sugar cooks, the more it changes: from white to pale amber to deep brown; from sweet to aromatic to bitter. The transformation isn’t difficult to achieve, but it does require a watchful eye to avoid burning, crystallization, and undesirable bitterness.
To make caramel, you’ll need a large, heavy pot or pan, preferably with a light-colored interior so you can monitor the color changes. (You can also test the color by dropping a bit of the mixture onto a white plate.) Use oven mitts and wear long sleeves. (Caramel is hotter than boiling water!) Also prepare an ice-water bath, either in a large bowl or your sink. You’ll use the ice water to stop the caramelization process—and it may be useful in case of accidental burns.
Some cooks—like Chef Mitchell Hughes, the subject of this season’s Baker’s Profile—like to use a candy thermometer to check the progress of caramel. (Many of the recipes we’ve included here specify an exact temperature for the caramel.) Others learn to rely on their eyes and nose.
Dry Caramel: Just Add Heat
“Dry caramel” is made by exposing sugar—and nothing else—to high heat. Because sucrose (table sugar) contains water, the crystals will liquefy and the liquid will turn dark. In fact, dry caramelization is best used for making darker caramels: it’s harder to control the color with this technique. The good news: As long as you don’t overstir, you won’t risk crystallization.
Dry-caramel technique is the simplest way to make nut brittles such as our Peanut Brittle and Almond Brittle. And although there are many ways to make flan—a variation on crème caramel—this recipe for Mexican Flan is one of the simplest and most dependable. The dry-caramel sauce is prepared separately from the custard, then spooned over the baked flan.
Wet Caramel: Slower and Lighter
The other basic caramelization technique is the "wet" method, which involves adding a little liquid, usually plain water, to the sugar as you heat it. "Water makes it possible to cook the sugar over high heat from the very beginning, without the danger of burning it," explains Harold McGee in his invaluable reference book On Food and Cooking (2004). Another benefit: because it prolongs the cooking time, water gives the chemical reactions more time to develop.
When making wet caramel, be sure to dissolve the sugar completely before the mixture comes to a boil. (This step prevents crystallization.) As the caramel cooks, Chef Mitchell recommends washing down the sides of the pan every so often with a pastry brush dipped in water. As soon as the mixture reaches the desired temperature (or color, if you aren’t using a thermometer), shock it in the ice-water bath you’ve prepared.
Classic Caramel Custard begins with wet caramel: half a cup of C&H® Pure Cane Granulated Sugar plus three tablespoons water, heated until the mixture turns amber. Pour the caramel into a baking dish, cool, then pour the custard batter on top. After baking, invert the custard onto a platter: the smooth caramel will now be on top.
Some wet-caramel recipes substitute corn syrup for water. Caramelized Popcorn is a fresh and tasty do-it-yourself version of a fairgrounds favorite—perfect for an evening of watching TV with the family. Our recipe uses C&H® Pure Cane Golden or Dark Brown Sugar instead of granulated for extra-deep flavor.
Don’t limit your caramel adventures to snacks and desserts. Our Rosemary Balsamic Caramel Glazed Chicken Thighs are brushed with a tangy-sweet caramel mixture that’s cooked on the stovetop just until it’s light amber in color. It continues to darken and develop in flavor when it’s brushed onto the chicken and baked in the oven.
For a quicker route to wet caramelization, try microwaving sugar and liquid (corn syrup or water) in a large Pyrex cup. Watch the mixture carefully to prevent overcooking. Microwaving results in a slightly different flavor profile than stovetop caramelization, but many cooks prefer its convenience.
Caramel Sauces: Rich and Creamy
When sugar is heated with a milk product such as butter, milk, cream, or sweetened condensed milk, the result is thick and rich—perfect for sauces and frostings. One of our favorite examples: Valentine’s Caramel Nut Waffles, a sweet way to begin the sweetest of days. Use a heart-shaped waffle iron to make the waffles, then top them with a delicious caramel-nut sauce made with whipping cream. (For a lower-calorie alternative, substitute our Fat Free Caramel Sauce, which uses nonfat evaporated milk.) Caramel Frosting is unusual in that it combines dark brown and powdered sugars—as well as butter and milk—for the perfect combination of deep flavor and silken texture. Chef Mitchell’s recipe for Pecan Turtles uses three types of sweetener—corn syrup, brown sugar, and granulated sugar—as well as sweetened condensed milk and melted chocolate. These candies are chewy, gooey, crunchy, and definitely yummy.
Our Caramel Apple Bread Pudding is the ultimate comfort food: warm, rich, and packed with apples and raisins. It’s complemented by a cream-based caramel sauce that’s a breeze to make in the microwave. And speaking of apples, they make a crisp and tasty accompaniment to our Brie with Caramel Pecan Sauce, a glamorous appetizer that’s surprisingly easy to make. The caramel sauce combines dark brown and granulated sugars, corn syrup, and a spoonful of bourbon just for flavor—the alcohol is burned off during cooking.
Caramel Candies: Soft and Chewy
Caramel candies are made from a mixture of caramelized sugar and milk (often sweetened condensed milk). They owe their chewiness to their high moisture content—from the milk and from corn syrup—and to their lower cooking temperature (generally under 260°F). Chef Mitchell Hughes shared with us his Classic Cream Caramels recipe, which he says can be doubled or tripled. To make it easier to cut the candies, Mitchell recommends greasing the knife with vegetable oil. Once you’ve mastered that basic recipe, try our Caramel Creme Fudge, made with C&H® Pure Cane Washed Raw Sugar, corn syrup, and nuts (but no chocolate), or our Honey Cinnamon Almond Caramels, which get their smooth texture from C&H® Pure Cane Superfine Sugar.
Instant Caramel: Created As You Cook
In some recipes, you don’t make the caramel on the stovetop or in the microwave—it “makes itself” as the food cooks. That’s the secret behind our Grilled Spice Crusted Steak, made with a sweet-spicy rub that caramelizes on the grill. A classic Pineapple Upside Down Cake recipe begins with melting brown sugar and butter on the stovetop, but the caramelization actually happens while the cake is baking. With Pumpkin Caramel Cream Pudding, you simply mix brown sugar, butter, and pecans in a bowl, sprinkle them over the baked custard, and quickly brown it under a broiler flame. If you have a culinary torch, it will do the job, too!
Caramel Shortcut (shhh!)
Looking for a really quick way to add caramel flavor and texture to a dessert? Use purchased caramel candies! They’re the magic ingredient in several of our favorite recipes, including Chocolate Pecan Caramel Tart and Turtle Brownies!