There are few dessert ingredients that are as hard to resist as caramel. There is something about the delectable amber gooiness that is both delicious to eat yet terrifying to cook.
While making caramel involves the simple process of heating sugar, there is just so much that can go wrong – which is why the Best Home Chef team has come up with the best tips and tricks to help you prepare caramel in your own kitchen with ease!
Caramel, butterscotch, toffee, dulce de leche … what does it all mean?
There are more variations of cooked sugar than you can poke a spatula at. And while they all may be similar in colour and flavour, there are some important differences when it comes to cooking. Here’s a basic breakdown:
- Caramel – white sugar heated so that it melts. Can be made with or without water (we explain these wet and dry cooking methods further down the page).
- Toffee – Best Home Chef blogger Mark has already taught us how to make toffee, but compared to caramel it is a mixture of sugar and butter and is cooked at a lower temperature, about 20 degrees Celsius less than caramel.
- Butterscotch – cooked at a lower temperature than toffee and made with brown sugar (which includes molasses) instead of white sugar.
- Dulce de leche (or “candy of milk”) – a South American dessert sauce that has gained popularity in the Australian food scene over the past year. Commonly served with churros, it’s traditionally made from milk (the primary ingredient), sugar and sodium bicarbonate. The cheat’s version is boiling an unopened can of sweetened condensed milk for three hours.
- Salted caramel – salt has long been used to enhance flavour, so when added to caramel it intensifies the sweetness. Salt added at the beginning of the cooking process will dissolve and result in a smooth texture, while adding it at the end will cause the mixture to go crunchy.
Heating sugar to make a caramel requires skill and patience. But most importantly, it requires safety and care.
According to award-winning blogger and pastry chef David Lebovitz, some of the best ways to prevent disasters in the kitchen when cooking caramel include:
- Keep a large bowl of ice water next to you when cooking, just in case some hot caramel lands on your hand.
- Use a much larger pot that you think you’re going to need, because anything added to the melted sugar will cause it to bubble up.
- Use the heaviest pot you have, preferably without a non-stick coating.
- Keep watching! The sugar can quickly turn from clear liquid to culinary disaster in a matter of minutes, and there’s no real way to save caramel once it’s burnt.
- Use your senses – the look of the caramel are it darkens and the smell as the sugar cooks are the best indicators of when the mixture is ready.
- Don’t be afraid to cook on a low heat if you’re a beginner. It’s better for the caramel to take a bit longer but for you to be comfortable, rather than risk ruining the mixture.
Wet vs dry, to stir or not to stir?
Some caramel recipes will call for water to be added to the sugar while it heats up in the pan. This is known as making a wet caramel, and the mixture is less likely to go hard as it cools.
This differs from dry caramel – which just involves the sugar melting in a pan – and the varying cooking methods highlight one of the major enemies of caramel … recrystallisation of sugar.
When making a wet caramel, sprinkle the sugar evenly across the bottom of the pan and then pour a thin layer of water over the top. You don’t want any dry spots in the sugar, but then you also don’t want to down the sugar either. Give the mixture a gentle stir with a spoon and then leave to cook on the heat. If you’re finding that the sugar is clumping, give then pan a gentle swirl to help the sugar dissolve.
Once the caramel has achieved the right colour, add whichever ingredients you prefer (such as cream or butter) and whisk until smooth.
If using the dry cooking method, it’s best to just let the sugar heat in the pan for about five minutes, until the edges have turned to liquid. At this point give the pan a good shake and then leave it alone again.
Once a quarter of sugar has dissolved, give the mixture a gentle stir with a wooden spoon or heatproof spatula – encouraging the melted sugar towards the centre of the pan – until a delicious caramel has formed. Take the pan off the heat, add two tablespoons of hot water from the tap and stir well.
Either way, there’s no need to continuously stir the mixture like a risotto, or should you be discouraged from touching the mixture at all! Give the caramel a helping hand with a wooden spoon when it needs it, but for the majority of the time just leave the sugar to caramelise.
What to do with the caramel once it’s cooked
Unless you want to just eat it on its own, caramel makes a fantastic addition to desserts.
Our Best Home Chef contestants have come up with some creative dishes involving caramel, such as: