Caramel scares people and I don’t really blame them: it’s incredibly hot, sensitive to crystallization and very hard to clean the equipment used in the process. But the reality is, caramel, with its bitter and sweet flavors and ability to make a simple bowl of vanilla ice cream magical, is completely worth the fear and dirty pots. After several successful batches of homemade caramel the fear fades and you learn that the pans that immediately get soaked are quite easy to clean.
Before you begin
Use a large, heavy, light colored metal pot.
Use a bigger pot than you think you need. Especially if you are going to be adding anything to the caramel at the end as it tends to rise and bubble up quite a bit. A heavy pan distributes the heat more evenly, whereas a lighter weight pan could have hot spots and cause the caramel to burn. There’s no coming back from a burnt batch of caramel. No need to fear, it’s happened to all of us. Luckily sugar is cheap and you can just start again. Avoid using a dark pan, such as a non-stick as you want to be able to see the color of the sugar as this is the main indicator of when to take the caramel off of the heat.
Make sure the pan and all the utensils you are using are very clean.
Sugar likes to find little flecks of leftover food around the edges of the pan or on the spatula and if that sneaky sugar does that most likely the batch of caramel will be crystallized. Clean the pan and utensils well and if you’re still nervous wipe the pan and heat-resistant spatula with a lemon or a bit of vinegar. The acid will remove anything leftover in the pan and also helps to prevent crystallization - caramel’s enemy.
Keep ice near.
In case of a some rogue spattering, have a bowl of ice water nearby so you can immediately stop a burn from becoming more damaging.
A dry caramel is made with just sugar and heat.
Pour an even layer of sugar in a pan and place over medium-high heat. As the sugar begins to melt and caramelize use a clean, heat-safe spatula to gently pull the melting sugar towards the middle of the pan and push any undissolved sugar to the edges. Do not stir too much during this process. Continue to cook in this way until all the sugar is melted, the caramel color resembles that of a copper penny and the caramel is smoking. In fact, you want the caramel to smoke for a short time before you pull it. Some recipes you read will say stop the caramel as it just starts to smoke but it really needs to turn a deep, reddish brown in order to have that bittersweet, full flavor. Caramel that is too light only tastes sweet and flat.
Once the caramel is the right color turn off the heat and pour onto a silpat lined sheet tray, dip the bottom of the pan in ice or add the butter or cream if using. Whatever you do you must do quickly as the caramel will continue to cook while still in the hot pan.
If there are little chunks of sugar that didn’t melt into the caramel before it reached the right color you can strain those out. Most, if not all, should just easily melt into the caramel.
A wet caramel is made similarly except that enough water is added to the sugar in the pan to create a texture like that of wet sand. This method makes for more even caramelization.
Place a lid on the pan for the first five minutes of cooking to allow the condensation to wash down any stray sugar that clings to the side of the pan.
Cook until deep copper in color as mentioned above.
If the finished caramel is destined for sauce add warmed butter or cream (the warming minimizes the bubbling and spurting) to the caramel.
For one cup of sugar that has been caramelized add 1 - 1 1/4 cups warmed cream. I always add a hefty pinch of salt to my caramel to balance the sweetness and to bring out the lovely bitter flavors. I also love to throw in the seeds of a vanilla bean at the same time as the cream. Or make a lovely spiced caramel sauce by adding a bit of cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. Saffron and caramel make a nice pair too.
Keep the caramel sauce in the fridge and use in your morning coffee, to top ice cream, in place on syrup on your pancakes, to garnish blondies or brownies, or simply enjoyed with a spoon. The caramel will keep for two weeks.
Try drizzling your caramel sauce over an affogato or roasted stone fruits. What will you use caramel on first?