If cakes are the reliable, put-together friend in the world of desserts, caramel is the angsty adolescent. What's the secret to dealing with it? Give it a little slack. Caramel is sugar that's allowed to change, run a little wild, maybe dye its hair. Here, you're parenting your sugar, and it's an important job. Keep careful watch, but make sure to give it a little space to do its thing. There will be times when it'll slam the door on you, and you on it, but we have answers for that. Keep your cool, and everything will work out in the end.
How to Contain Your Caramel
We love dissolving myths that you need special equipment to make a certain dish or sauce or meal. (And really, caramel can be all three.) Any good saucepan or skillet will do the trick; if you’re adding cream or butter, you’ll want something deep enough to contain the ferocious bubbling that will take place. Heavy-bottomed is best for even heating, but if you’re a quick learner and/or a thrill-seeker, just about anything will work with the right amount of vigilance.
Another thing you won’t need: a thermometer. You can use one for extra security, if you like -- it’ll be your caramel-making life preserver -- but it’s not necessary. Like our friend Dorie Greenspan says, “You learn to make it by look and smell, and that's not something a recipe can explain." David Lebovitz agrees: “My advice would be to realize that making caramel is done by eye, not by reading a recipe. It's hard to quantify it by saying how long it'll take, or what temperature it should be.” Put that thermometer down, and trust your senses.
Your One and Only Ingredient
Technically, all you need to make caramel is sugar and a steady heat source. What sugar should you use? If you're just starting out, stick with refined white sugar -- it'll help you judge the color of the caramel as it cooks. Once you get good, you can experiment with other types for different and more complex flavors.
A Word on Color
That word is: dark. Generally, darker is better is more flavorful when it comes to caramel, so adopt that as your mantra and recite it repeatedly when you’re at the stove. Tattoo it if you must, but we bet you’ll get the hang of it before things get to the permanent ink point. For a perfect caramel, you’re looking for a dark reddish-brown, or as David Lebovitz says, the color of an old copper penny.
Pick Your Method
You can do this one of two ways. You can melt sugar with a liquid and cook it to caramelization (known as a wet caramel), or you can put sugar in a pan, all by its lonesome, and cook it until it liquifies and begins to darken in color. The latter is typically less temperamental, and the way to go for a simple caramel or sauce.
Follow the Rainbow
Ready? This is the fun part. Get your other ingredients ready if you're making a sauce. If you don't, you could find yourself running around the kitchen, frantically grabbing butter sticks, digging in the fridge for the dairy, and typing "what caramel should look like" into your Google Images search bar while sugar is bubbling away like a lava spring on the stove, lapping you as it creeps closer and closer toward black on the color spectrum. You can't do that. Things move quickly.
Trust yourself, trust your nose and your eyes, and pour your sugar into an even layer in your pan. Take a deep breath. Then crank your heat to medium.
The sugar will give in to the heat first around the edges -- when this happens, gently help it along by stirring the melted pools into the center of the pan. Be careful not to over-mix, or you'll end up with a dry and crumbly mixture. If this happens, all is not lost: just lower the heat and re-melt slowly, stirring as little as possible. At this point, it should look light and syrupy. You’re not done yet -- caramel this light just tastes sweet and underdeveloped.
The caramel will quickly skip over golden and make a beeline for reddish-brown. Here, all of the sugar’s caramelization has taken place. This should be just past the smoking point, and it should smell deep, fragrant, and like something you'd like to slather on your apples. This is what you’re after. Stop your cooking now.
Stop! That! Caramel!
You know by now that hot sugar tends to have some legs on it, and if given the chance, it will run on you. Fast. Once it gets to your desired color, you have to stop the cooking somehow. If you want pure caramel, for spun sugar or the like, this means you’ll have to have an ice bath ready, into which you’ll dunk the bottom of your pan. For sauce-makers, the job is easier: just add in your cold ingredients, and they’ll stop the cooking. Right in its tracks. Exercise caution for this part -- pull out your safety goggles if you have to -- hot sugar is extremely hot, and this will bubble like mad.
But all it needs is a little time. Melt everything completely, kill the heat, and it will fizzle out. Now you have caramel, and everything is better. See? Just like we promised.
Photos by James Ransom