Caramel! It’s what you need to complement all those beautiful fall desserts – pumpkin caramel pot de creme, pumpkin cheesecake, sour cream apple pie with walnut streusal, creme caramel, pear and cranberry strudel and on and on… Well, here are 7 Tips for Perfect Caramel that are going to make you a superstar.
I’m obviously not the first person to put these type of tips to ‘paper,’ but I have made (and burned and crystallized) my share of caramel in the last 20+ years as a pastry chef, so I feel like I can add my two cents to the subject.
There are two ways to make caramel – first is the dry method, which basically means you put granulated sugar in the bottom of a pan over heat and wait for it to caramelize. I would say that method is a little risky for a novice, but it’s a little quicker than the second – wet method where you combine water with the granulated sugar. The second method is what we’re focusing on here.
And, here are the tips you need to make the perfect caramel.
Number 1. Use a Heavy Bottomed Saucepot. You don’t want that wimpy, thin pan that heats unevenly and has hot spots which will burn your sugar. And, size matters. When you add the heavy cream (or water) to your caramelized sugar, it’s going to bubble up vigorously, so select a pot that’s large enough to account for that. And, make sure the pot is perfectly clean. Any extraneous matter in the pan can bump into the sugar crystals and crystallize the whole thing.
Number 2. Have a Cup of Cold Water and a Clean Pastry Brush at the Ready. One of the things that can go wrong when making caramel is crystallization. You know – that mess that looks like crumbly rock sugar instead of smooth caramel. That happens if a stray crystal of sugar comes back into your melted sugar. All it takes is one. So, you need to periodically brush down the sides of the pan with the cold water to ‘wash down’ any crystals that may be clinging to the side. Extra insurance is covering the pot with a lid at the beginning so the steam that’s created will naturally wash down the sides.
Number 3. Heat your Heavy Cream before getting started. When you pour that heavy cream into caramelized sugar, the mixture is going to bubble up vigorously. By heating the cream, the reaction is a little less violent.
Number 4. Do Not Stir the Mixture. Put the sugar in the pan. Carefully add the water around the edge of the pan and allow the sugar to soak up the water. Turn on the heat. Do not ever stir the mixture. (Yes, I know others insist that you stir at this point, but I had my hand slapped by a Master Pastry Chef only once and that was enough for me to change my ways. I’ve been doing it this way ever since and I’ve never had an issue.) Let the heat do its job. If you must move the mixture around because it’s getting caramelized on one side faster than the other, pick up the pan and gently swirl the mixture.
Number 5. Use your Sense of Smell and Vision. (Or a Thermometer, if it makes you more comfortable.) This isn’t like making candy or an Italian Meringue where you must reach a precise temperature – there’s a 40 degree range here that works. The best tasting caramel, in my opinion, is catching the caramel at that stage right before it burns. It’s a beautiful deep caramel color with a rich robust flavor. If you’re not sure you can tell what color it is in the pan, carefully and quickly take a teaspoon of caramel out of the pan and drop it onto a white plate. You’re looking for a rich deep amber color. If you want to use a thermometer, you’re target temperature is between 320 and 360F. Once you have the right color, immediately remove the pan from the heat and pour the heavy cream, a little at a time, into the mixture. As mentioned earlier, be careful – it’s going to bubble up. Now you can stir until the caramel is completely melted again.
The difference in the color below was only a matter of less than 30 seconds.
Number 6. If the Sauce is Burnt, Throw it Away and Start Over. There’s not a thing you can do to fix this. Do not throw good money after bad and add the heavy cream to this burnt mess. Sugar is cheap compared to heavy cream. Cut your losses at the sugar and start over.
Number 7. Don’t Multi-Task or Walk Away or Have a Phone Conversation With Your Best Friend or Watch a Cat Video…while caramelizing sugar. This task needs your full attention. Just when you lose patience and you want to move on and do something else, please don’t. That’s when you’ll be running across the kitchen saying, OMG, my sugar!! Been there, except I’d be running across a 2,000 square foot room in a bakery.
And, now, I believe you’re ready to successfully make that rich deep caramel.
And, btw, how do you say the word Caramel? I’m in the ‘KARR-uh-mel’ camp. Not ‘CARE-a-mel,’ or ‘KARR-uh-muhl’ or ‘KAR-muhl’ and certainly not like ‘KARR-mel,’ as in California. It’s all good by me though…
Feature Image by: Karie Sofie Photography