I get offended when something bland is called “vanilla.” Good vanilla is anything but boring. It’s sultry, floral, and oozes nostalgia. These caramels show all that vanilla can be—so use the good stuff (I buy from Regalis Foods or Burlap & Barrel) and give your vanilla time to steep. Overnight is cool; 3 days is even better. After the steep, rinse and dry the pod to live another day—in vanilla sugar, vanilla maple syrup, vanilla honey, vanilla whisky, you tell me.
Making caramel doesn't have to be scary. Just keep these pointers in mind. Get the right hardware: Use a heavy-bottomed pot that's high and tight. A wider pot makes it harder for the sugar to melt evenly, with more surface area for unwanted crystallization (aka messed-up caramel). Know when to stir: In the beginning, stir with a fork to dissolve any sugar clumps and to force yourself to make small movements. This will minimize the amount of syrup that gets splashed on the walls of the pot, which could lead to crystallization. Keep it covered: Once the sugar mostly dissolves, put a lid on it! The steam from the syrup will condense on the lid and roll down the walls of the pan, washing away any rogue sugar crystals without the need for a pastry brush or any work on your part.
Treat this recipe as a guide to learn more about caramel. Then go off script! Steep different aromatics in the cream to change up the flavor: sage or thyme, black tea or lavender, bay leaf or ancho chile. Add ½ cup more cream to make a caramel sauce instead. Cook the caramel to 250°F to 255°F for the perfect consistency to coat apples. Try different toppings, like chopped nuts, dried rose petals, or cocoa powder.
Let me know in the comments what caramel flavors you’d like to make at home. And are you ready for PSL season? Try my Pumpkin Spice Latte Caramel recipe here. —Sohla El-Waylly
- Prep time 3 hours
- Cook time 20 minutes
- makes about 50 caramels
(227 grams) heavy cream, plus more if needed
(85 grams) unsalted butter, cut into cubes, plus more for the pan
1 1/2 cups
(297 grams) granulated sugar
(68 grams) light corn syrup
- Using a small knife, split the vanilla bean in half. Using the back of the knife, scrape out all the innards and add those to a medium saucepan (preferably one with straight sides and a tight-fitting lid), along with the emptied pod. Add the cream. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, then cover and turn off the heat. Let steep in the fridge for at least 8 hours or, preferably, up to 3 days.
- Strain the vanilla cream into a measuring cup, pressing the vanilla pod gently with the back of a spoon. Reserve the pod for another use. Top off with more cream if needed to yield 1 cup. Wash and dry the saucepan.
- Grease an 8x8-inch baking pan with butter and line the bottom and two sides with one long piece of parchment paper, smoothing the parchment flush to the pan.
- In the cleaned saucepan, combine the sugar, corn syrup, and ½ cup water. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring with a fork, for 3 to 5 minutes, until the sugar is mostly dissolved.
- Cover with a lid and cook until just beginning to brown (it’s okay to peek every so often), 6 to 8 minutes.
- Once the mixture is beginning to brown, remove the lid and cook, swirling the pan as needed to cook evenly, until completely golden, like honey, 1 to 2 minutes more.
- Turn off the heat. Carefully pour in the vanilla cream and butter (be careful, it will sputter and steam). Return to medium-high heat, clip on a candy thermometer, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the temperature reads between 245°F and 250°F, 2 to 4 minutes. Turn off the heat and remove the thermometer.
- Pour the caramel into the prepared dish and smooth into an even layer with an offset spatula or spoon. Cool at room temperature for 1 hour, until set but still slightly soft and flexible. (This is the best time to add toppings without them sinking in.)
- Sprinkle with flaky salt and gently press to adhere. Transfer to the refrigerator and chill until firm and cold, at least 1 hour or up to 3 weeks tightly wrapped.
- Run an offset spatula along the edges to loosen the caramel. Use the side parchment overhang to lift the caramel and transfer to a cutting board. Peel off the parchment.
- Using a sharp knife, cut the caramel into 1-inch squares. (If the caramel feels too hard to slice, let it sit at room temperature for 10 minutes to soften slightly.) Wrap each caramel in parchment or wax paper (or stack in an airtight container with parchment between each layer) and store in the refrigerator or a cool place for up to 1 month.