Fall is coming next month, and pumpkin everything and salted caramel everything will line the shelves of the grocery store. I like a few things pumpkin out of tradition, but I LOVE everything salted caramel not because it’s popular, but because it’s delicious. It’s a beautiful blend of sweet, salty, with that slight bitter burn taste, and then luscious and creamy from the butter.
Caramel sauce, I thought, would certainly be easy to learn to make. I read a few recipes, watched a couple videos and went to work. My result was a sad pale grainy soup, that was hardly caramel. Hmmm, not too happy my first attempt didn’t go well, but no big deal, I’ll just straighten out my apron and try again, this time letting it caramelize a bit longer and use less cream so it’s not so soupy. That seemed the logical thing.
Well, I had more problems than not letting it sit long enough. Trial after trial after trial, something went wrong. From grainy sauce, to crystalized sugar over and over again, I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. I think it was trial 5 or 6 (or 7 or 8) and I just broke down into tears. I felt pathetic. I was crying because I couldn’t get my sugar to caramelize. There are bigger problems in the world, and I’m crying over sugar and water. I blame it on the pregnancy hormones.
I turned to the internet, to friends on facebook, to youtube videos trying over and over in between bouts of research, and bit by bit I realized I was doing EVERYTHING wrong. So now, I have the ultimate guide to making the perfect caramel sauce, because I messed up everything so you don’t have to.
Before we start, your basic ingredients for a caramel sauce (full printable recipe at the bottom):
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup cream
3 tbsp butter, cut into cubes
pinch of salt (optional)
1. Do use the correct pan
First of all, I had a cheap thin pan I was using, so I went out and bought a small stainless steal saucepan with a heavier bottom. This helps spread the heat evenly avoiding hot spots that could cause some of the sugar to melt faster in one area than another, which would cause crystallization.
2. Do Stir your sugar, but Don’t stir your sugar
Give the sugar and water a good stir BEFORE you apply the heat. It helps distribute the water and sugar in an even layer which prevens your caramel from having some spots that melt faster than others which would cause crystallization. Once you have done your initial stir, use a pastry brush dipped in water to wash any sugar residue off the sides of the pan. Place your lid on your saucepan (I’ll tell you more about this in a second). Then don’t stir anymore until adding the cream and butter.
3. Do Cook it at the correct temperature
Make sure you aren’t starting your caramel off on a heat setting that’s too high. Again, this will cause parts of your mixture to boil before all of the water and sugar has dissolved together, which again, will cause your sugar to crystalized. I use a medium heat setting to start my caramel. Once all of the water and sugar has dissolved together and starts to boil, I turn it up just a notch. It usually takes about 5 minutes for my sugar to reach a boil at this heat.
4. Do Keep your lid on
One of the things the sugar can do while it’s caramelizing, is sneak up and harden on the sides of the pan. This creates an environment, in which again, the sugar can crystalize. Leaving your lid on creates condensation in the pan, that drips down and cleans the sides off for you, so you don’t have to stand there and baby sit the pan with a pastry brush and water.
You can lift the lid up and peak at it every once and a while to check your progress, but try to leave the lid on.
5. Do Heat your cream
Once your caramel is almost to color (this usually takes about 15 minutes), heat your cream in a microwave. This prevents the caramel from cooling too fast which ideally prevents the sugar from crystalizing. Once the caramel is a deep amber coloring, remove it from the heat and whisk in your cream while pouring slowly. Then stir in your butter and salt (if desired).
6. Don’t let it sit out
Place your caramel in a heat proof container (such as a a mason jar) and secure with a lid. I live in a place with a quite a bit of humidity, and guess what humidity can do to your caramel sauce? Yep, create little crystals in your sauce making it grainy. If you are wanting to use it right away, this step isn’t necessary. Just let it cool and use it as you need. But the longer the caramel is exposed to the air, the grainier it will become.
I once saw Mary Berry place her caramel in a bowl and THEN add the cream and butter. Don’t do this, you end up with caramel that has cooled on the room temperature surfaces, and there for stick to your pan, and your bowl, and you cant get it to mix into the sauce, so you loose all of your hard work.
Don’t stir when the mixture is bubbling away. This causes the sugars to crystalize.
Make sure all of your equipment it completely clean. Use a clean, damp washcloth to wipe out your pan before using if you suspect any food or soap bits are stuck to the sides. Sugar looks for anything to cling to.
Avoid using a thermometer. I found this just give the sugar another surface to stick to, and therefore ruin your caramel.
BONUS: Which caramel sauce recipe is the best?
After perfecting the old school method of making caramel then adding cream and sugar to make a sauce, I decided to try a couple of alternative caramel sauce recipes to see which one I liked the best.
First I poked holes in a can of sweetened condensed milk, place it in a large pot, and boil the milk in the can for 4 1/2 hours, replacing the evaporated water every 30 mintues. This isn’t a true caramel. This is more of a dulce de leche, and though it tastes great, it takes a long time, and I don’t prefer the flavor over a traditional caramel sauce.
Then I tried the brown sugar method. You put all of your ingredients in a pan, brown sugar, cream, butter, salt and vanilla, bring it to a boil and gentle whisk it for 7 or 8 minutes. I’m already a sucker for anything brown sugar. So after weeks and weeks of slaving and learning how to make caramel with sugar and water, I made the best salted caramel sauce of my life, in half the time, and with a bigger punch of flavor.
But there is always a catch. Just a few days after making the brown sugar sauce, the surface began to crystalize, leaving a grainy texture, while the jar of the traditional caramel sauce was still smooth and creamy.
So my advice, if you’re using the sauce same day, go for the brown sugar sauce, but if it’s something you want to give as a gift, keep on hand for ice cream or use to make caramel butter cream frosting, go through the trouble and make yourself the good old fashioned salted caramel sauce.
My favorite recipe for a brown sugar sauce here.
I don’t regret going through the steps though to make caramel to old fashioned way, because as delicious as the brown sugar caramel sauce is, the basic technique for caramel can be used for more than a sauce. Making praline, or doing sugar work such as spun sugar, or glue for a croquenbuche that maybe someday I will have the courage and gumption to make.
So, if you’re struggling with your sugar keep on going friends, I doubt it took you 10 lbs of sugar to get it right. I wish I was exaggerating, but I seriously burned through 10 lbs of sugar, no we didn’t eat that much.
Happy baking y’all.