While most caramel sauces are tooth-achingly sweet, this one is anything but. The secret? A big spoonful of instant espresso powder, which takes a cue from Starbucks-famous caramel macchiatos, and turns this sauce into something bittersweet and complex. A couple other tricks: Take the sugar as dark as possible, which brings out all the malty, butterscotchy flavors of a truly good caramel. And salt it to taste. I call for a ½ teaspoon—a good starting point—but once it’s cooled down a bit, try it for yourself and add more until it’s good enough to go back for another spoonful. Adding an acidic ingredient, like vinegar or lemon juice, as soon as the sugar turns clear helps sidestep crystallization (aka, messed-up caramel sauce). This is, of course, great on ice cream. But don’t let that stop you from pouring it all over a slice of pound cake, or a walnut brownie, or a blondie, or even some apple slices. You get the idea. —Emma Laperruque
about 1 cup
apple cider vinegar (or lemon juice)
heavy cream, warmed
instant espresso powder, plus more to taste
kosher salt, plus more to taste
In This Recipe
Add the sugar to a small, sturdy saucepan, then slowly pour the water on top. The goal is to get as few sugar granules as possible on the side of the pan; if you notice any, just use a wet pastry brush (or even your fingers) to push the granules back down.
Set the pan on the stove over medium-high heat. Don’t stir at this point at all. As soon as the mixture goes from cloudy to clear, pour the cider vinegar evenly over the top.
While the sugar keeps cooking, stir the espresso powder and salt into the warm cream until combined.
When you start to notice the caramel turning golden in certain places, you can gently swirl the pan to encourage it to cook evenly, or even just rotate the pan on your burner. The goal is to disturb it as little as possible (mixing can cause crystallization—not what we want). As soon as the color is a deep, chestnutty brown, carefully pour in the espresso-cream while whisking. (It’ll splatter and steam, so be careful.) Cut the heat.
Let the caramel cool for a little while, until you can taste it, then adjust the salt and espresso powder accordingly.
You can serve this right away or keep it in the fridge, in a tightly sealed jar, for weeks.
Emma is a writer and recipe developer at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing stories about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now, she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter.