Luscious Caramel Sauce

When you want caramel sauce to pour over your ice cream, do you run to the store and buy a pre-made bottle? We have all done that but did you know you can make your own so very simply? How to do that is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Why would you want to make your own? First, you avoid a run to the store. Second, you know what exactly is in the sauce. Here is the ingredient list for a couple of major brands.

Ghirardelli Premium Caramel Sauce – Corn syrup, water, high fructose corn syrup, sugar, skim milk, heavy cream, salt, natural flavor, pectin, disodium phosphate.

Torani Caramel Sauce — Corn Syrup, Sugar, Invert Sugar, Heavy Cream, Water, Butter, Nonfat Milk, Natural Flavors, Salt, Lecithin, Sodium Bicarbonate.

What is the ingredient list for homemade caramel sauce? It is usually just sugar, water & dairy. That is a much shorter ingredient list without any artificial ingredients.

There are two main methods of making caramel – wet and dry. In the wet method, the sugar is dissolved in water whereas in the dry method, the sugar is melted without the addition of water. The wet method takes longer as the water must evaporate but you are less likely to burn the sugar than with the dry method.

Even though recipes will give you amounts of ingredients, the timing and resulting caramel will vary depending on such variables as the size/type of pan used as well as the type of cooktop and its heat. It is something that you need to use your eyes and nose for as the color of the sugar changes and the aroma develops. It is also something that takes just a bit of practice to get it just where you want it.

In the wet method, you add the sugar and water and stir until dissolved over medium-low heat. After the sugar is dissolved, raise the heat to high and let it cook without further stirring. Keep an eye on it as after a few minutes, it will start to turn a light amber and then darker amber. The longer you cook it, the darker the color and the deeper the caramel flavor. Be careful, though, as it can quickly go from dark amber to burnt. After it is at your desired color, very carefully add heavy cream (it will bubble vigorously) and whisk to combine.

Note that the longer you cook the caramel, not only does the color darken but the harder the resulting caramel will be when it cools. If it ends up too hard, you can gently re-heat it and add more liquid to thin it. On the other hand, if it is too thin, make a second batch, cook it slightly longer than the first batch and combine the two.

For a dry caramel, sprinkle a thin layer of sugar into your pot, not reaching to the edges. Over medium-high heat, cook it and watch as the sugar starts to dissolve. It will then start to turn amber around the edges. At that point, gently and carefully swirl it to distribute the sugar. Once most of it has turned amber, add another thin layer of sugar and continue to cook until amber. Repeat until you have added all the sugar and reached the desired color. Remove from the heat and immediately and carefully add your cream.

What about butter? Some recipes call for it whereas others do not. Butter produces a very nice mouthfeel due to the high fat content. However, as butter is solid at room temperature, your caramel sauce will be firmer when cooled, especially after being in the refrigerator.

Many pastry chefs will tell you that you can use either of these methods interchangeably and get similar results. Others will say that since with the wet method, you must take time to evaporate the water, the sugar cooks longer resulting in more complex flavors.

The biggest problem people have is that the sugar can crystallize, making the sugar syrup very grainy. If it does this, take it off the heat, add a couple tablespoons of water and heat again until the crystals dissolve.

The following are recommended methods to prevent crystallization in the first place.

  • Use a wet pastry brush to wipe down any sugar crystals on the side of the pan. Not all chefs do this and say they have no problems.
  • Although not as common, some will lightly oil the sides of the pan before starting so the sugar does not stick to the pan.
  • Another method involves putting a lid on the pot if you see any crystals on the side. This will produce steam and dissolve the crystals.
  • Add a different type of molecule. Crystallization is most common in what is called a “pure solution”. By adding a different type of ingredient such as corn syrup (mostly glucose) or a few drops of acid (lemon juice, vinegar, cream of tartar), you can prevent crystallization.
  • A common recommendation is to not stir as the sugar is cooking, particularly before the color starts to change. Then, only stir if spots are getting too dark. I must say that there are pastry chefs, though, who do some careful stirring without resulting crystallization.

Another problem is that the caramel gets too dark or even burns.

  • Use a heavy gauge stainless steel pot. With a thin pan, you are more likely to experience uneven cooking and a higher likelihood of burning.
  • Try to not to use a pot with a dark interior as it is much harder to judge the color.
  • A wide saucepan or even a deep skillet is better than a tall and narrow pot. With the latter, there is less surface area, which slows down the caramelization process.
  • Have a bowl of cold water ready. When you reach the desired color, submerge the bottom of the pan into the cold water to quickly stop the cooking process.
  • Quickly add your cream as the cold cream will cool down the solution. Just be careful as it will bubble vigorously as you do this. Stand back and then whisk together.

Once you get the correct color, there will be almost no water left. As this cools, it will become rock hard. You need to add moisture to get the desired consistency. The more liquid you add, the thinner it will be. If you add too much, just put the pot back on the heat to evaporate some of the water. If it is too thin, add more liquid.

Remember that cooked sugar is extremely hot and can cause serious burns. Always be careful when making caramel or anything that requires you to melt sugar. Use heavy oven mitts and long sleeves. Many experts recommend that you put a bowl of ice water nearby in case any of the mixture splashes onto your hands. If so, immediately put them into the ice water. NEVER taste it until it has fully cooled!

Homemade caramel sauce is a delightful concoction. Although it does take a bit of practice, once you master it, there will be no more quick runs to the store for that pre-made sauce.