The Best Techniques for Foolproof Caramel

Other than a bit of concentration, all you need is this foolproof formula for the perfect DIY caramel.

We have no qualms about eating caramel on everything from ice cream and brownies to apples and popcorn. It makes almost anything better. Lucky for us, making it at home is actually quite simple. Other than a bit of concentration, all you need is a foolproof formula. And something to drizzle it on, of course.

What You’ll Need

Caramel is surprisingly low-maintenance. It doesn’t require fancy equipment, and unless you’re making candy, you won’t even need a thermometer. It’s best to use a heavy-bottomed saucepan or skillet, but almost any pan will work in a pinch, so long as you keep your eyes on the melting sugar. If you’re planning on adding cream or butter, just make sure the pan is deep enough to compensate for the caramel bubbling up when you do.

It’s All About Sugar

The most basic caramel is only made from sugar and a constant heat source. It’s best to start out with refined white sugar, since it’s easiest to judge the color of the caramel as it cooks. As you get more comfortable with the process, feel free to experiment with different types (think: brown or turbinado sugar) for more complex flavors.

The Process

There are two ways to make caramel: As we mentioned above, the first and simplest method involves cooking only sugar until it liquefies and begins to darken in color. The second simply adds liquid to the mix. This method, known as a wet caramel, follows the same steps to caramelization, but can be a bit more temperamental than the dry method.

If you’re using your caramel for a sauce, be sure to have your other ingredients ready to go before you start. Caramel turns quickly from the desired deep amber color to black, so it’s best to prepared from the get-go.

Live.Love.Lux Tip: Keep your caramel at that perfect golden brown color with the responsive and precise control of induction heat on your Electrolux induction range.

caramel sauce

When you’re ready, pour your sugar in an even layer over the bottom of the pan, then turn up the heat to medium. The sugar will begin to melt around the edges first; gently stir the melted pools into the center of the pan to help it along, but don’t over-mix or you’ll end up with a dry, crumbly texture. If you make this mistake, take a deep breath, lower the heat, and re-melt the sugar slowly, stirring sparingly.

Race to the Finish

When the sugar is all melted, it will look light and syrupy, but it will soon start to turn golden brown. Once it hits this stage, get on your toes -- the caramel will race to the finish line. Again, there’s no need to grab a thermometer, just trust your senses -- the color and aroma of the caramel will best inform you when it’s ready. When it turns that beautiful reddish-brown, it will be just past the smoking point, and all of the necessary caramelization will have taken place. Another telltale sign will be that it smells rich and fragrant. At this point, you’ll want to pull it off the stove and to stop cooking it immediately.

Stop the Cooking

Once the caramel reaches that perfect color, it’s up to you to keep it there -- you’re the only thing preventing it from burning black into the bottom of your pot. If you want pure caramel, have an ice bath ready to dunk the bottom of the pan in when the caramel is done cooking. If you’re making sauce, simply adding the cold ingredients to the caramel will stop it from cooking any further. Be careful at this point, as the extremely hot caramel will bubble up vigorously when you do – make sure you’re cooking in a deep pot with high sides.

Once the bubbles settle down, you’ll be left with a pan full of caramel sauce to drizzle and swirl into all of your favorite desserts. And that will be all the convincing you’ll need to do it again.

Photo credit: James Ransom