How to Make Caramel
Tips and tricks for making caramel from scratch, plus how to troubleshoot if it starts to crystalize.
By Fraya Berg for Food Network Kitchen
Fraya is a chef and a contributing writer at Food Network.
Taking sugar and slowly heating it to 320 degrees F will caramelize it. Add cream and butter, and it'll transform into caramel, the creamy, smooth candy that will coat an apple at the country fair, transform pecans and chocolate into a turtle and dress up cookies, cakes and ice cream. Learn how to make caramel by following these simple steps.
How to Make Caramel
Our recipe for Perfect Caramel Apples is a great example of a versatile caramel, so we're basing our how-to off of its steps.
What You Need to Make Caramel
- Small saucepan
- Rubber spatula
- Candy thermometer
- Granulated sugar
- Light corn syrup (optional)
- Water (optional)
Step 1: Melt the sugar. Fit the saucepan with the candy thermometer. You can melt the sugar “dry” in a small saucepan or mix it with corn syrup and water to keep it from crystalizing. We recommend the latter technique, which is far easier because the corn syrup will keep the sugar from crystalizing. 2 cups of sugar, 1/4 cup light corn syrup ad 1/2 cup water is a good ratio). Boil the sugar, corn syrup and water over medium-high heat, stirring the sugar until it dissolves.
Step 2: Cook the sugar mixture. Cook, swirling the pan (do not stir after the sugar is dissolved) until the mixture is light amber and a candy thermometer registers 320 degrees, 8 to 10 minutes. 320 degrees F. is as high as we’re going to go for a soft caramel like that called for in candy apples (or other applications where you drizzle it), but if you're making a hard caramel, you can take it up to 360 degrees F.
Step 3: Add cream, butter, vanilla and salt. Remove the pan from the heat and slowly whisk in 1/2 cup heavy cream, then 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract and a pinch of salt
Step 4: Heat until smooth. Return the saucepan to the stove and whisk over low heat until the caramel is smooth. This caramel will stick to your apples when it cools a bit. Once completely cooled the caramel will firm up even more and be the chewy candy we love.
How to Make Caramel Sauce
When you follow the steps for making caramel above, you'll arrive at caramel sauce: still-hot caramel that's cooked to 320 degrees F. If you want a creamier sauce, you can add a bit more cream after the caramel is cooked.
How to Make Caramels
When making caramels (individual caramel candies as opposed to the sauce), you should bring the temperature of the sugar syrup up to 340 to 360 degrees F before adding the cream and butter to end up with a firmer caramel. Pour it into a buttered pan, cool it completely, then cut it with a sharp knife into individual caramels.
How to Make Salted Caramel
To make salted caramel sauce, add a generous pinch of extra salt along with the cream and heavy butter. To make salted caramel candies, you can do the same and up the ante by topping each candy with more flaky salt, such as Maldon.
Tips for Making the Best Caramel
- It's easiest to make caramel in cool, dry weather. There’s a reason caramel and candies are made in the winter for holidays: the late-fall crisp weather is the best time of year to make candy, as humidity is the enemy.
- Follow the recipe word-for-word. Switching up sugars or changing the proportions of sugar, cream or butter can increase the chances of the sugar crystallizing.
- Use the right types of fat. Be sure to use 36 percent fat heavy or whipping cream and fresh, unsalted butter.
- Make only one batch at a time. Timing can vary when you double or triple a recipe.
- Avoid crystallization. Once the sugar dissolves, swirl the pan gently instead of using a spoon: rapid stirring can cause crystallization. If crystals begin to form on the side of the pot, wipe them off with a wet pastry brush.
- Use low and slow heat. It’s better to take more time to reach 240 degrees F than to risk burning your sugar.
- Protect yourself from burns. Not only is sugar syrup really hot at 240 degrees F, but also it will also immediately stick to your skin. Wear oven mitts when making caramel. Keep everything you’ll be using close to the stove: carrying the hot pot from stove to counter isn’t the best idea.
- Prepare the caramel vessel. If you're pouring hot caramel into a glass jar, let the caramel cool a bit first. Or if you're making individual candies, make sure you butter the pan—after all your diligent work you don’t want them sticking.
How to Use a Candy Thermometer
There visual cues for determining the stage/temperature of sugar syrup in candy-making: soft ball, hard ball, hard crack, etc. However, we feel that simply using a candy thermometer removes the guesswork, especially when you follow a few “rules’.
- Buy the right thermometer. A candy thermometer should measure up to 500 degrees F. A digital thermometer is more multipurpose, but a dedicated candy thermometer has the stages of syrup along with the degrees. Be sure to get a thermometer that can clamp to the side of the pot.
- Attach the thermometer correctly. When clamping the thermometer onto the side of the pot, make sure it's not touching the bottom of the pot to get an accurate temperature of the syrup, not the pan itself.
- Avoid sudden temperature changes. Be sure to avoid sudden temperature changes if using a thermometer with a glass tube filled set in metal, (the glass can crack).
How to Store Caramel
Caramel can be stored in a jar in the fridge for a few weeks or frozen for a few months. Caramel candies should be wrapped individually just after cutting them. They can be stored in Ziploc bags in the fridge or freezer just like caramel sauce.
Is there ever a time you don’t need caramel sauce? This is a great recipe for a first-time caramel maker.
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