A One-Ingredient Trick for Foolproof Caramel

February 22, 2018

I wish I had a pizza from Roberta’s for every time I botched a batch of caramel sauce. Sometimes, I didn’t take the sugar far enough and it ended up pale and gloomy, like when it’s mid-March and you forget what sunshine feels like. Other times, I took it too far, burnt beyond repair. For years, I didn’t realize that you’re supposed to use warm, even hot, cream—cold cream shocks the melting sugar, causing it to seize up. Incredible, I thought. All my caramel problems, solved! Grainy caramels, no more! Except they kept turning out grainy.

Which is another way of saying, crystallized. Caramel can crystallize for a million and one reasons: because the sugar didn’t dissolve enough before reaching 238° F; because some stray sugar granules clung to the side of the pot; because you stirred too vigorously; because you just have bad luck.

In any case, crystallization comes with the territory. Think of it like a champion figure skater. She practices for hours a day, lands triples, spins like a dreidel. She’s the best in the country, even the world! But every so often, she falls. So, instead of trying to never fall—impossible—she stuffs a pillow inside her uniform, to cushion the blow. Our caramel sauce wants that tuckus pillow.

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But first things first. Caramel can start two ways: One, dry, where you just add sugar to a pot or pan and start melting on the stove. Or two, wet, where you combine the sugar with water until it looks like wet sand. Many—including myself—prefer the latter because the liquid provides some insurance. It slows up the pace, gives you more control.

After you add the water, brush the sides of the pot with wet fingertips, to wash away any superfluous granules. Set on the stove over high heat. Don’t stir—let it do its thing. Everything is going great. It’s very excited and bubbly, cloudy then clear. That’s when you add the secret ingredient: acid.

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Top Comment:
“How much water? How long to boil and caramelize? No swishing of the pan once it starts turning color? Thanks.”
— susan

Some recipes use cream of tartar. I prefer lemon or lime juice, even apple cider or balsamic vinegar. You only need a small amount, so the taste won’t be detectable. My baseline: 3 cups sugar. 1 ½ tablespoons citrus juice or vinegar. 1 ½ cups warm cream. So much salt, to taste (when cool!).

This wee amount of acid prevents any crystallization—from subtle graininess to total disasters. In other words, it leads you toward the smoothest, shiniest, silkiest caramel sauce. If you listen closely enough, you can hear the ice cream sundaes cheer.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • heybeulla
  • E Baird
    E Baird
  • susan
  • AntoniaJames
  • Emma Laperruque
    Emma Laperruque
Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


heybeulla December 15, 2022
If you wanted to make a caramel that tasted like the vinegar, such as a balsamic vinegar caramel, do you think it possible to use more and have it set?
E B. February 23, 2018
When do you add the salt? Thanks.
Emma L. February 23, 2018
Hi E Baird, I add a couple big pinches right after the cream, then more to taste after it has cooled.
E B. February 23, 2018
Thanks Emma. Can't wait to try this method. Ellen.
susan February 22, 2018
This is life-changing! I so appreciate this tip. But could you run through the recipe as you make it? How much water? How long to boil and caramelize? No swishing of the pan once it starts turning color? Thanks.
Emma L. February 22, 2018
Hi Susan—happy you're excited about it! I always add the water to sight. Start with a splash, stir, add more as needed. It should be slushy and grainy, like thick, wet sand. Set over highest heat. When clear, add the citrus juice. (Meanwhile, warm up the cream.) You can gently swirl the pan when the sugar starts to color, if your burner/pan is uneven. I take the color to the edge of burnt, then (carefully!) pour in the cream while whisking. Hope this helps!
susan February 22, 2018
Thank you, Emma! Can't wait to try it.
AntoniaJames February 22, 2018
Good to know. Thanks, Emma! ;o)