Tips for Success with DIY Caramel Apples

There is no substitute for the thrill and challenge of eating a caramel apple—biting through the sweet, sticky caramel into a tart crisp apple while sweet, sticky juice runs down your chin.  Oh, the memories!

While the memories are sweet, the potential for a foodborne illness from caramel apples is real.  Caramel apples should either be eaten freshly made or refrigerated.  Once punctured with a stick, caramel apples can become a breeding ground for Listeria monocytogenes, a harmful bacteria, if left at room temperature for prolonged time. When the stick is inserted into the apple, a bit of apple juice tends to leak out and that moisture, trapped under the caramel layer, creates an environment that aids the growth of Listeria which is naturally present on the apple’s surface.   If caramel apples are purchased at the store, farmer’s market, carnivals, or even presented at a party, make sure that they have been refrigerated.

The best way to safely enjoy caramel apples is to make them fresh.   While DIY caramel apples may be intimidating, it really is quite easy and a fun family or party activity.  Recently I made caramel apples with my grandkids using freshly picked apples.  It was a successful, fun time using tips I gathered beforehand from various resources.

Tips to craft your very own caramel apples

Choose Apples.  Any apple variety will work as long as it is crisp.  Smaller apples give a better ratio of caramel to apple.  Apples should have a flat bottom so that they sit upright.

Do All Prep Work in Advance. Have apples and all needed equipment ready and at hand.  If you are going to decorate the apple with candy, nuts, sprinkles or anything else, make sure all is ready to go before you dip.

Remove Wax.  Wax must be removed from the surface of the apple skin to allow the caramel to adhere to the apple.  This can be done by dipping in boiling water for 3-5 seconds and wiping with a paper towel or scrubbing the apple with vinegar (white or apple cider) or lemon juice and baking soda. In addition to removing wax, vinegar also help remove pesticides and bacteria.  Another option is to wash the apple and lightly sand with fine sandpaper.  Whichever method is used, be sure not to puncture the skin.

Thoroughly Dry and Chill the Apples.  Any moisture on the skin will cause the caramel to bubble and stick poorly to the apple.  Chilling the apples for about 30 minutes will help the caramel set quicker and keep it from running off.

Insert Sticks. Use candy or popsicle sticks and insert them directly through the center (stem end) of the apple straight down about half to two-thirds way into the apple. Be sure to dab away any juice that may seep out when inserting the sticks. The presence of moisture will keep the caramel from adhering to the apple.

Use a Good Recipe.  Recipes can be as simple as two or three ingredients added to a bag of purchased wrapped caramels or a recipe made with all pantry ingredients from a trusted source.  Regardless, follow the recipe carefully.  If making from scratch, be sure to use a deep and thick saucepan with straight sides and a good candy thermometer.  For additional tips on making caramel, visit Success with Caramel.

Carefully Prepare Caramel. The temperature of the caramel is really important.  Whether making caramel from a recipe or melting caramels, you will want to cool the caramel to about 190 degrees before dipping. If you dip the apples as soon as the caramel is made, it will slide off or form a thin layer instead of a nice, thick caramel layer.  The caramel will be the right temperature to set up properly on the apple if you maintain your caramel temperature in the 180°-190° range, stirring sparingly to minimize air bubbles.  Some like to put the melted caramel mixture in a slow cooker on the low setting to maintain this temperature.  Caramel that gets too hot will lose the proper consistency, becoming too firm and crunchy to dip. 

Dip – Scoop, Twist, Drip, Flip. Set your apple in the caramel, scoop the caramel up onto the apple twisting the apple slowly with the stick while continuing to scoop the caramel onto the apple.  Raise the apple and let the excess drip off.  Scrape the bottom, flip the apple over and count to 20.  Set the apple on a parchment paper lined baking sheet and let cool.  If you get a caramel foot, fold it under the apple or cut it off.  Sliding the apples into the refrigerator after dipping will help set the caramel and prevent the caramel from sliding off. 

Decorate (if desired).  Roll, sprinkle or drizzle the caramel apples with any desired decorations once the caramel has cooled but is still tacky.  If the decorations will not stick, the caramel may have set up too quickly. By carefully holding the coated apple over a saucepan of boiling water, the steam will soften the caramel enough so the toppings will stick.  After decorating, return the apple to the parchment paper to continue cooling. Dipping the caramel coated apples in chocolate is another option.  Be creative.  Taste of Home has some fun ideas if you want to go beyond chopped peanuts and sprinkles.  Be careful not to overload the apples with too many toppings as the caramel may become too heavy and slide off. For gift giving, wrap the apples in a cellophane or plastic bag.

Enjoy and/or Store Safely.  To enjoy immediately, let the caramel set about 45 minutes. If the treats are not consumed right away, they should be refrigerated.  This will prolong freshness, slow oxidation, and slow the growth of bacteria.  If the apples are refrigerated, remove them from the fridge about 45 minutes before eating to allow the caramel to soften. The coated apples will keep 2 weeks in the refrigerator.

After creating our very own caramel apple personalized with assorted decorations or not, we could hardly wait for the caramel to set.  Needless to say, there was no need to refrigerate! 

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References: 

Allen, Lauren. (2020, October 10). How to Make Perfect Caramel Apples.  Taste Better from Scratch. https://tastesbetterfromscratch.com/caramel-apples/

Anita. (2014, October 10). 10 Tips for Perfect Caramel Apples.  Eat, Think, & Be Merry. http://eatthinkbemerry.com/2014/10/10-steps-perfect-caramel-apples/

Brazier, Yvette. (2015, October 17). Dangers of Listeria in Caramel Apples. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/301091

Geiger, M.R. (2021, October 26). Success with Caramel.  AnswerLine Blog. https://blogs.extension.iastate.edu/answerline/2021/10/26/success-with-caramel/

Glass, Kathleen A., Golden, Max C., Wanless, Brandon J., Bedale, Wendy, and Czuprynski, Charles. (2015, October 13). Growth of Listeria monocytogenes within a Caramel-Coated Apple Microenvironment.  ASM Journals, Vol. 6, No. 5.  https://journals.asm.org/doi/full/10.1128/mBio.01232-15 

Habermehl, Lauren. (2022, August 20). How to Make Traditional Caramel Apples.  Taste of Home.  https://www.tasteofhome.com/article/how-to-make-caramel-apples/

McKenny, Sally. (2019, October 1). Homemade Caramel Apples.  Sally’s Baking Addiction.  https://sallysbakingaddiction.com/homemade-caramel-apples/

Rachel. (2022, September 27). Tips for Perfect Homemade Caramel Apples.  Adventures of a DIY Mom.  https://www.adventuresofadiymom.com/2012/10/caramel-apples.html

Steed, Marcia.  (2016, September 29). Storing Caramel Apples.  AnswerLine Blog. https://blogs.extension.iastate.edu/answerline/2016/09/29/storing-caramel-apples/

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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