Success with Caramel

Nothing says ‘fall’ more than the smell and taste of caramel—caramel corn, caramel sauce, caramel apples, caramel candy, caramel rolls . . . .

The ingredients for nearly any kind of caramel are a combination of sugar, cream, butter, and often corn syrup. Other ingredients can be added for flavor.  The brown color comes from a reaction between the sugar and the protein in the cream known as the Mailard reaction, named after the French scientist who discovered it.  The only difference in the kind of caramel one is making is the recipe for the desired outcome.  For example, caramel sauce is not suitable for caramel apples and the caramel for apples is not suitable for caramel corn. 

All caramel recipes start by caramelizing the sugar.  Caramelization is what happens to pure sugar when it reaches 338⁰F; at this temperature, it melts and starts to turn brown.  While sugar caramelizes, it can also crystalize.  Sugar is a crystal in its natural state and has an affinity to return to that form whenever given a chance.  Even when melted, sugar molecules like to form into groups or crystals.  All they need is a party starter like an undissolved sugar crystal on the side of pan as a nucleus to draw other molecules of sugar towards it, re-forming crystals.  Because of this, attention to details when making caramel is important but doesn’t need to be intimidating. 

8 Tips for Successfully Making any Form of Caramel

1) First and foremost, follow the recipes exactly using the exact ingredients and proportions.  Sugar is usually white or brown; don’t interchange unless the recipe suggests so.  When a recipes requires heavy cream, this means cream with approximately 36% milk fat.  Other recipes may use whipping cream, light cream, evaporated milk or a milk alternative.  Butter may be either salted or unsalted; by using unsalted, one is better able to control the salt if a “salted caramel” is desired.  Crystallization is an issue with caramel. Sugar is sucrose; sucrose molecules like to pile up on one another resulting in grainy caramel. The most common precaution to prevent crystallization in recipes for caramel is to add an invert sugar to make it hard for the sucrose to congregate. Corn syrup is an invert sugar and acts as an “interfering agent” in candy or candy-like recipes. It contains long chains of glucose molecules that tend to keep the sucrose molecules in the candy syrup from crystallizing. Honey is also an invert sugar and can be substituted for corn syrup. Adding an acid like lemon juice is another way to prevent sucrose from crystallizing. The cream and butter also act as “interfering agents” as the milk proteins in both help to prevent crystal formation.  Ingredients such as vanilla, flavorings, salt, and nuts (or baking soda for caramel corn) are all added at the end.

2) Don’t step away from the stove. Caramel is quick to burn and very easy to ruin in only a matter of seconds. Have all ingredients ready and accessible. Multitasking is not advised.  

3) When required, use an accurate candy thermometer.  A candy thermometer is a foolproof way to make sure the hot sugar reaches the right temperature for the desired outcome without fear of burning it. The candy thermometer should not touch the bottom of the pan.

4) Unless stated otherwise, medium heat is best.  Resist the urge to increase the temperature to quicken the process as this can result in a scorched flavor and grainy texture.  Patience is key.

5) Use a thick, heavy bottom pot to maintain an even heat and consistent temperature throughout the cooking process.

6)  Stir at a consistent speed when the recipe says to stir and stop stirring when the recipe says otherwise.  Initial stirring is necessary to dissolve the crystal structure of the sugar.  When the mixture reaches a point where stirring is no longer required, stop as additional stirring or other agitation is one of the many factors that can encourage the fructose and glucose molecules in the syrup to rejoin and form sucrose crystals.

7) Use a wet pastry brush to remove or wipe down any sugar crystals that may be clinging to the side of the cooking pan to prevent a “seed crystal” of sugar from falling into the sugar mixture and encouraging recrystallization.

8) Have everything ready to go prior to starting the caramel—containers to put the sauce in; apples washed, destemmed, and stick added; greased pan for candy; popcorn popped, etc.  (Caramel for caramel apples can be held in a slow cooker on low after preparing on the stove as instructed to give time for dipping.  Give it a gentle stir every 10 minutes to ensure the butter doesn’t separate.)

Last, but not the least, any caramel product made with dairy (cream, etc) must be refrigerated to prevent spoilage or food related illnesses.  Additionally, caramel apples should be refrigerated to prevent Listeria contamination.  “caramel has a low amount of water and apples are acidic so neither are normally breeding grounds for Listeria, but piercing an apple with a dipping stick causes a bit of apple juice to leak out and become trapped under a layer of caramel. This creates an environment that aids the growth of Listeria already present on the apple’s surface.  Listeria growth occurs more quickly when a caramel apple is stored at room temperature compared to refrigeration. Caramel apples should stay fresh up to one week if refrigerated.” [1]

Air and humidity are caramel foes; air dries it out and humidity causes it to become sticky so storing in air-tight containers is advised. Caramel sauce will keep in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 weeks but will harden slightly.  Simply warm the caramel sauce in the microwave to make it smooth again.  It can also be frozen for up to three months in an airtight plastic storage container.  When ready to drizzle it again, remove it from the freezer, allow it to thaw at room temperature and warm if necessary.  Caramel candy can also be stored in the freezer for up to one year as long as the individual candies are properly wrapped to prevent drying out.  Allow at least one hour for thawing before enjoying.  

Are you ready to try making something caramel?  Just writing this blog has made me drool!

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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