Whether it’s drizzled over your ice cream or latte, nestled into your chocolate bar, or simply eaten on its own, caramel is a confectionery crowd-pleaser. The gooey, golden treat has been a main player in desserts (and sometimes entrees) across the world for centuries, and its composition couldn’t be any simpler: The most basic caramel is simply – you guessed it – caramelized sugar.
So how does that white, granular sweetener become an ooey-gooey, golden caramel?
The Basic Science
Caramelized sugar is made when sugar is heated over a constant heat source. The change caused by the heat at the molecular level causes sugar to liquefy and transform into the caramel color we know and love. Various types of sugars yield different shades of brown during the process, but if your sugar has turned black, you know you have surpassed the caramelization process and instead entered the burning stage. So – of course – keep an eye on things, as it’s a fine line between brown and burnt.
But there is a difference between caramelized sugar and caramel.
When preparing caramel candies or sauces, things get a bit more complicated. These will require the addition of a fat, like cream or butter. The protein in them will react with the sugar (in what scientists refer to as the Maillard Reaction) to amplify that caramel color and help you get to your desired end product.
Caramel Around the World
There’s a reason caramel has manifested itself as a favorite treat around the world – it’s a simple and delicious addition to nearly any dessert. But have you ever wondered the difference between regional versions? Let’s break it down:
Dulce de Leche (Argentina): Ask any Argentinian and odds are they have a jar of dulce de leche in their pantry. Unlike caramel, which begins with caramelizing sugar, dulce de leche is made by caramelizing sweetened condensed milk. Cooked for a long time over low heat, the milk winds up with that roasted sugar flavor.
Toffee (UK): Because toffee is made by melting sugar until it only just begins to melt, it tends to be a lighter shade of brown than the caramel you typically see in stores. Toffee is often made with caramelized molasses (though it doesn’t have to be), and different temperatures yield different levels of hardness (ranging from sticky to completely hard).
Cajeta (Mexico): Thicker than caramel, the Mexican favorite cajeta is made from caramelized goat’s milk and sugar (and often various other spices, including cinnamon). The unique flavor and texture from the goat’s milk is what sets cajeta apart.
Brittany Caramels (France): Synonymous with the seaside town that they’re named for, Brittany caramels are the tried-and-true tag team of sea salt and caramel, dating back hundreds of years before the current trend.
So what’s the main moral here? Whether you like your caramel salted or not, if you use cream instead of butter, if you prefer goat’s milk to cow’s milk in yours or if you enjoy making them yourself versus buying them, it all boils down to the fact that caramels are beloved globally for a reason: They’re beyond delicious, and isn’t that all you need when it comes to food?