Big Little Recipes

This Ingredient Is a Caramel Game Changer (& It’s Not Salt)

May 14, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten

A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else: flavor, creativity, wow factor. Psst—we don't count water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (specifically, 1/2 cup or less of olive oil, vegetable oil, and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. Today, we're upgrading caramel sauce.

Rewind back to the early ’90s and you’ll find me in an Emack & Bolio’s, swinging on a swing with my dad, eating banana ice cream with whipped cream and extra hot fudge—never, ever caramel sauce. Even as a child, I found this sundae-favorite too sweet and, in the decades since, not much has changed.

Of course, this isn’t caramel sauce’s fault. Its main ingredient is sugar (or, depending on the recipe, corn syrup) and its costar is heavy cream, which is sweet-ish in its own right.

See? That wasn't so hard. Photo by Rocky Luten

But the new millennium ushered in a new wave for caramel. In 2008, Kim Severson called salted caramel “the flavor of the year” in The New York Times, noting how it went from a pastry chef’s secret weapon to a mass-market phenomenon, thanks to companies like Starbucks, Wal-Mart, and Häagen-Dazs.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
— Emma L.

The still-going appeal is all about contrast. If caramel is sweet and rich—only to be poured on also sweet and rich ice cream—salt adds some much-needed complexity. When I make caramel, I like to salt the caramel itself, then sprinkle some flaky salt atop the finished dessert for good measure.

And yet, even with all the salt in the world, there’s still something else I crave: bitterness. In my mind, this is where hot fudge has salted caramel sauce beat—with those dark, sultry, moody flavors of cacao. How could I introduce that depth to caramel?

One ingredient: espresso.

You’ve probably tried this combination before—in a caramel macchiato or latte. In that case, the primary flavor is espresso, fluffed up with steamed milk, and sweetened with a squirt of caramel sauce.

In this case, we’re flipping the ratio. The primary flavor will be caramel, taken as close to burnt as possible for bittersweet bonus points. Then, instead of pouring in cream, we’re going to pour in espresso cream. But I don’t have an espresso machine! you say. But you don’t need one! I say. All you had to do is dissolve a spoonful of instant espresso in hot cream.

Not only does this turn the caramel a milk-chocolatey hue, but it takes something that was once one-note and cloying, and turns it into something I could eat by the spoonful. Or pour on ice cream and eat on a swing. That would be pretty great, too.

Bonus Big Little Recipe

If you’re a Big Little fan, maybe you’re wondering: Where’s this week’s video? We’re taking a quick hiatus—yep, just like a TV show—to cook up the next season of episodes, premiering May 28. They’re gonna be bigger (and littler) and better than ever. Stay tuned! Have you ever made caramel sauce before? Tell us more about it in the comment section.

Order now

Put down those long grocery lists. Inspired by the award-winning column, our Big Little Recipes cookbook is minimalism at its best: few ingredients, tons of flavor.

Order now

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Nikkitha Bakshani
    Nikkitha Bakshani
  • Eric Kim
    Eric Kim
  • 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.


Nikkitha B. May 21, 2019
I will no longer hate caramel after this!! Thanks gurl
Emma L. May 21, 2019
Eric K. May 14, 2019
I love this idea!