How to Make Caramel

Get tips and recipes in our step-by-step guide to homemade caramel.

August 11, 2023
Glass jar of brown salted caramel with smudges and a wooden spoon inside on a white background

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Glass jar of brown salted caramel with smudges and a wooden spoon inside on a white background

Photo by: Oleksandr Sytnyk/Getty Images

Oleksandr Sytnyk/Getty Images

By Fraya Berg for Food Network Kitchen

Fraya is a chef and a contributing writer at Food Network.

Homemade caramel is a versatile addition to all sorts of recipes. The process requires precision but is relatively straightforward: If you slowly heat sugar to 320 degrees F, it will caramelize. Add cream and butter, and it'll transform into the sort of creamy, smooth sauce that will coat perfect caramel apples, transform pecans and chocolate into a turtle and dress up cookies, cakes and ice cream. With a few small tweaks, you can also use the rubric for caramel sauce to make individual salted caramel candies. Learn how to make caramel in all its forms by following these simple steps.

How to Make Caramel

Gather all your ingredients and equipment in advance. What you'll need to make caramel includes:

Small saucepan

Rubber spatula

Candy thermometer

Granulated sugar

Light corn syrup (optional)

Water (optional)

Step-By-Step Instructions for Homemade Caramel

Centerfold for Food Network Magazine

Centerfold for Food Network Magazine

Photo by: Karl Juengel

Karl Juengel

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.

Centerfold for Food Network Magazine

Centerfold for Food Network Magazine

Photo by: Karl Juengel

Karl Juengel

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.

Photo by: Karl Juengel ©Candy; Candy Apple; Food Network Magazine

Karl Juengel, Candy; Candy Apple; Food Network Magazine

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

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Photo by: PhotoAlto/Neville Mountford-Hoare/Getty Images

PhotoAlto/Neville Mountford-Hoare/Getty Images

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, add a bit more cream after the caramel is cooked.

How to Make Caramels

You can also tweak the above process for caramel sauce to make individual caramel candies. Bring the temperature of the sugar syrup up to 340 to 360 degrees F before adding the cream and butter and you'll 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.

Sweet caramel toffee  caramels on wooden table

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Sweet caramel toffee caramels on wooden table

Photo by: Ulyashka/Getty Images

Ulyashka/Getty Images

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 sea 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 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.

Take your time. It’s better to use low and slow heat than rush the process. Take your time reaching 240 degrees F rather than 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, too, since carrying a hot pot from the stove to counter risks spills.

Prepare your packaging in advance. 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 careful work you don’t want them sticking.

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Photo by: Carina Wong / EyeEm/Getty Images

Carina Wong / EyeEm/Getty Images

How to Use a Candy Thermometer

People who make a lot of candy often follow visual cues to determine the stage or temperature throughout the process: soft ball, hard ball, hard crack, etc. However, simply using a candy thermometer removes the guesswork, especially when you follow a few guidelines.

Get 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. To keep your hands and equipment safe, be sure to get a thermometer that can clamp to the side of the pot.

Attach the thermometer correctly. When you affix the thermometer to the side of the pot, make sure it's not touching the bottom of the pot. That way, you'll get an accurate temperature of the syrup, not the pan itself.

Avoid sudden temperature changes. If you're using a thermometer that has a glass tube set in metal, be sure to avoid sudden temperature changes. The glass can crack if you take it from something very hot to very cold too quickly.

How to Store Caramel

Caramel can be kept in a jar in the fridge for a few weeks or frozen for a few months. Caramel candies should be wrapped individually just after you cut them. Store candies in Ziploc bags in the fridge or freezer just like caramel sauce.

Caramel vs Dulce de Leche

Dulce de leche is a caramel-like sauce that is made by slowly simmering sugar and milk until it thickens. Often flavored with vanilla extract, dulce de leche is toffee-colored and -flavored and can be used to make cakes, cookies and other desserts. If time is limited, you can even make dulce de leche in an Instant Pot: check out our recipe for Instant Pot Dulce de Leche here.

Recipes for Caramel

Put your homemade caramel to use in everything from gift-worthy candies to ice cream sundaes.

FN0214141_CARAMEL_TOPPINGS_003.tif

Photo by: Levi Brown

Levi Brown

Is there ever a time you don’t need caramel sauce? This is a great recipe for a first-time caramel maker.

Two recipes in one: the cookie and the caramel for the drizzle. The caramel can dress up any dessert or breakfast treat.

FNM-CaramelTurtles-005.tif

Photo by: Karl Juengel/Studio D ©Hearst Communications Inc., 2009

Karl Juengel/Studio D, Hearst Communications Inc., 2009

Caramel, pecans, chocolate and sea salt come together to make a this glorious candy.

This recipe comes so close to tasting like the nostalgic ballpark favorite that you might expect to find a prize in the bottom of your bowl.

An elegant dessert for a dinner party, this could also be a perfect snack for game night.

Food Network Kitchen’s Salt and Pepper Caramels.

Food Network Kitchen’s Salt and Pepper Caramels.

Photo by: Matt Armendariz

Matt Armendariz

Sweet chewy and creamy caramels can be salty and spicy when laced with flaky sea salt and ground peppers. They make a great gift, too.

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