How to Make Caramel

how to make caramel
Our Dark Caramel Sauce.

Amber-colored shards, caramelized spun sugar, caramel sauce, caramel buttercream, chewy caramel confections, hard caramel candies – what do all of these have in common other than being absolutely delicious? They begin with cooking sugar to a caramelized stage.

Sugar can be turned into caramel simply by being heated in a pan – this is called the dry method. The classic tool for this is an unlined copper pot, unlined because the sugar can approach 400°F and would melt or damage many linings. The pot typically has a spout for pouring and the handle is hollow. Pastry chefs insert a wooden spoon handle, which is heatproof, to move the pot around. It is truly an ingenious design. Most often, however, directions will suggest beginning with a combination of sugar and water, which is cooked until whatever desired stage of caramelization.

how to make caramel - the color stages
In the image above you can see several stages. One the far left, the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is at a rolling boil, but no color – or caramelization – can be seen. This would typically be just under 260°F. To the right of that you can see some color developing in the next droplet. It is proper caramel at this point, but it is very light and would have a mild flavor. It typically begins to color at around 320°F. The second from the right is showing the beginning stages of a medium color, which will accompany good caramel flavor. The caramel on the far right is a deep mahogany and will have a great, rich, slightly burnt-sugar flavor. Some recipes will require a candy thermometer, but many more will simply describe a color, which is not as odd as it sounds because the color does indicate flavor. Pale color equals weak flavor and conversely a dark, rich color yields a deep flavor.

The trick is that it progresses from here to there very quickly. More than any other technique in the bakery kitchen, making caramel demands your full attention. Do not walk away from the stove. Keep an eye on the pot. The color will go from clear to amber to golden brown to mahogany in seconds. We know of pastry chefs that like pots lined with white enamel, as it allows them to see the color development most easily – which, ironically, the classic pot does not, as it is caramel colored! Try our Dark Caramel Sauce as a starter recipe. It is easy, incredibly delicious and keeps for a nice long time in the refrigerator.

Here are some important and helpful tips so you can learn how to make caramel:

  • Use a heavy-bottomed pot, as the temperature of the contents will be high and caramel is best made with even heating.
  • Stir sugar and water together before beginning to cook, then do not stir again or sugar crystals will form.
  • Brush down any errant sugar crystals from the sides of the pot with a pastry brush dipped in cold water. This will prevent any from developing within the caramel itself.
  • Have ice water handy in case of a burn. Hot sugar will stick to you and burns severely. Of course, we want to prevent any from getting on you, but if a droplet does, that nearby ice water will be very helpful.
  • If a recipe calls for stirring once butter, cream or other ingredients are added, do so with a wooden spoon. A metal spoon will conduct heat and a rubber spatula will potentially melt.
  • Know what color you are aiming for and know that the caramel continues to cook and color even after you remove it from the heat. The transformation happens very quickly, so be prepared to follow subsequent steps in your recipe. Experience will help you with this.

Images by Peter Muka

4 Responses to How to Make Caramel

  1. Kim Pettenuzzo October 27, 2013 at 4:32 pm #

    Dede, when you were on the Today Show, what kind of all purpose flour did you use in the mayo cake? And can I use two 9-inch-diameter cake pans with 2-inch high sides, instead of three-inch-diameter cake pans with 1 1/2-inch high sides?

    • Dede Wilson October 28, 2013 at 8:17 am #

      Kim, I would use King Arthur unbleached all-purpose for the cake. You can try the nine inch pans but you will have a shorter, wider cake and also the baking times must be watched. Check at least 5 minutes early so that they are not over-baked. Let us know how it works out! PS: if you bake a lot of cakes we suggest considering getting some 8-inch diameter pans. Sometimes that height makes a cake that much more dramatic looking.

  2. Kim November 4, 2013 at 6:00 pm #

    Thank you for giving me the recipe for the mayo cake and the chocolate frosting last week. I got compliments from my friends. I went with the 8-inch diameter pans, and I’m glad I did for the height.

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