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Saturday, August 8, 2015

Recipe: Caramel

Sugar at Various Stages of Caramelization

Recipe: Caramel

A Pastry Recipe Everyone Should Know

She blinded me with science... she burned me with Caramel!

Hopefully this isn't news to anyone, but pastry can be very technical. And no area of pastry is more science-heavy than candy making. 

With candy making, precision is critical. A couple of degrees can be the difference between intensely flavorful Caramels and carbonized ash. It's also essential to understand your ingredients. Carelessly stirring the wrong mixture can set off a chain reaction that turns a smooth Caramel Sauce into a pot of crystallized shards.

But don't let that scare you. So what if you burn a practice batch or two? Sugar is cheap. The worst thing is having to clean a messy pot. And if you arm yourself with a few simple tips before you start, everything should go fine even on your first try.

When it comes to Caramel, the basic process is extremely simple: White Granulated Sugar (Sucrose - a disaccharide) is heated until the water content evaporates and the molecular structure breaks down into Glucose and Fructose (the two component monosaccharides that make up Sucrose). If that sounds too sciency, don't worry. It's simply Sugar + Enough Heat = Caramel

Sugar at Various Stages of Caramelization from 320 to 400 Degrees Fahrenheit
Making Caramel is simply a process of heating Sugar until the water content evaporates and the molecular structure breaks down.

As the caramelization progresses, the Sugar changes color, transforming from light amber to deep brown. More importantly, the molecular transformation releases an array of flavors and aromas with fruity, buttery and milky tones. What was once just sweet Sugar takes on a completely unique flavor profile.

Sugar at Various Stages of Caramelization
The further you heat Sugar, the more of the original molecular structure is destroyed. The Caramel becomes less sweet and more acidic as the transformation progresses.

Caramel around 340 Degrees Fahrenheit
Sugar begins to melt around 320 degrees Fahrenheit (160 degrees Celsius). Caramelization, when the Sugar truly begins to transform and turns amber in color, begins around 340 degrees Fahrenheit (171 degrees Celsius).

Caramel around 360 Degrees Fahrenheit
By 360 degrees Fahrenheit (182 degrees Celsius), the Caramel will be medium brown in color. The flavor become deeper and more complex.

Caramel around 390 Degrees Fahrenheit
By 380 degrees Fahrenheit (193 degrees Celsius), the Caramel will be a dark brown. At this point, much of the sweetness is gone. By 410 degrees Fahrenheit (210 degree Celsius), the Caramel will be burnt, black and extremely bitter.

Ingredients for Wet Method Caramel
There are two primary methods for making Caramel: Wet Method and Dry Method.

With the Wet Method, Sugar is mixed with water and boiled. The Sugar dissolves and the water slowly evaporates. As the water evaporates, the mixture transforms into a thicker and thicker syrup. Once enough water has evaporated, the caramelization process begins. The syrup turns darker amber as the molecular structure continues to break down.

With the Dry Method, Sugar is heated by itself. This process can be more difficult to control. Without water to dissolve the Sugar, uneven heat from the stove can result in some of the Sugar caramelizing or even burning while the rest is still in its original, granulated form. And while it takes time for the water to evaporate with the Wet Method, some believe that the faster transformation with the Dry Method results in a weaker flavor profile.

For almost all situations, I recommend using the Wet Method.

Preparing a Pot to Mitigate Crystalization
One common problem that beginners have when making Caramel is crystallization. White Granulated Sugar (Sucrose) has a natural tendency to return to its crystallized form. Stirring a pot of boiling Sugar can trigger the recrystallization. So too can undissolved granules that may be clinging to the side of the pot. 

There are several ways to prevent recrystallization:
  • Do not stir. Once the water and Sugar are mixed together and placed on the stove, allow the mixture to boil undisturbed. Only when the mixture begins to caramelize is it safe to stir.
  • Use clean tools. Any bits of dirt or debris in your pot or on your tools can trigger a recrystallization. This includes undissolved granules of Sugar that may be clinging to the side of the pot. Wash the side of the pot with a wet pastry brush.
  • Add Glucose or Corn Syrup to the mixture. These are "Invert" Sugars which do not recrystallize like Sucrose.
  • Add acid (e.g. lemon juice, cream of tartar or white vinegar) to the mixture. Acids, like Glucose, interfere with the recrystallization process.

Ice Bath for Stopping Caramel Cooking
Once Sugar begins to transform into Caramel, the process moves quickly. The initial process of evaporating the water can take many minutes. But as the water content is reduced, the remaining sugar heats faster and faster (i.e. less heat energy is being used to transform the water into steam and is heating the Sugar instead). As a result, it is important to closely monitor your heat. It is easy for a perfect Caramel to become a burnt mess in the final minutes of cooking.

It is helpful to have an ice bath nearby so that you can quickly stop the cooking process. And remember that even when you take a pot off the stove, the cooking process will continue.

Simple Caramel Syrup
Now for the fun part! Caramel can be made into a range of different products.

Caramel Syrup is made by adding water to Caramel. The water "slacks" the Caramel, returning it to a thinner liquid while retaining the newly released Caramel flavor.

Cream and Butter Caramel Sauce
Caramel Sauce is made by slacking Caramel with Cream and/or Butter. These dairy products contain fats, sugars and proteins which, when added to the hot Caramel, release an entirely new range of flavors. 

It is also possible to directly flavor Caramel Sauces. You can infuse the Cream with herbs or spices before adding it to the Caramel. Or you can add extracts or alcohols at the end of the cooking process.

Soft Caramel Chews with Pecans
Chewy Caramel is possible by taking a Caramel Sauce and heating it further, bring the temperature back up to 240-250 degrees Fahrenheit (116-121 degrees Celsius) after the Cream is added. The higher the temperature, the firmer the Caramel Chews.

Peanut Brittle
Last (for now), but certainly not least is Brittle. Brittle is made by first caramelizing Sugar with Butter. When the desired color is reached, Baking Powder or Baking Soda is whisked into the mixture. The Baking Powder causes the Caramel to bubble, creating many tiny bubble in the mixture (making it easier to break the candy and more pleasant to bite). While the mixture is still very hot and fluid, nuts are added. The entire mixture is poured onto a flat surface to cool and harden. 

So lets make some candy!

- The Recipe -

Basic Caramel Sauce:

Yield: 1,000g (4 Cups) 

  • Sugar: 600g (3 Cups)
  • Water: 120g (0.5 Cup)
  • Corn Syrup / Glucose: 30g (1.5 Tbls)

  • Heavy Cream: 480g (2 Cups)

  • Butter, cubed: 28g (2 Tbls)
  • Salt: 9g (1.5 Tsp)

  • Rum, optional: 30g (2 Tbls)


1. Combine the Sugar, Water and Corn Syrup (or Glucose) in a large pot over medium-high heat. Brush the sides of the pot with a wet pastry brush to remove any stray Sugar granules. 

Chef's Note: Once the pot is on the heat, do not stir. Stirring can cause the mixture to recrystallize. Make sure your pot can hold at least three times the volume of your ingredients. Later, when you add the Cream, the mixture will bubble dramatically. If the pot is too small, the Caramel will spill everywhere.

2. As the Caramel begins to cook, heat the Cream to a gentle simmer and then set it aside.

Chef's Note: It is important to use warm Cream when making a Caramel Sauce. If the Cream is cold, it will cause the Caramel to seize when the ingredients are combined, creating a solid chunk of Caramel and not a smooth Caramel Sauce. 

3. Continue heating the Sugar until the mixture begins to turn a golden amber. At this point, it is okay to stir gently to redistribute the heat if necessary. Continue heating the Caramel to your desired level of darkness. Heat the Caramel to approximately 340 degrees Fahrenheit (171 degrees Celsius) for a lighter Caramel and up to 380 degrees Fahrenheit (193 degrees Celsius) for a dark Caramel. You can do this by sight or with a candy thermometer.

Chef's Note: As the Caramel continues to cook, the rate at which the temperature rises will increase. Keep an eye on your heat and be ready to remove the pot from the stove as you approach your desired color. Remember that the Caramel will continue to cook even after the pot is removed from the heat.

4. When the Caramel has reached your desired color, remove the pot from the heat and slowly pour in the warmed Heavy Cream while whisking actively. Do not pour too much Cream in at one time. The mixture will steam and bubble dramatically, and the pot could overflow. Adding too much Cream at once can also cause the Caramel to seize into a solid ball.

5. Once all of the Cream has been incorporated, add the Salt and Butter, and stir until combined. If desired, finish the Caramel Sauce by stirring in the Rum. Place the Caramel Sauce in an ice bath and let it cool.


- Store the Caramel Sauce in an airtight container in the refrigerator or freezer. It will keep well for many months.

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