You really can’t beat homemade caramel sauce. It’s just so much better than any store-bought version. You can also control the flavor, including whether you want a light caramel or a dark, rich caramel. Want a salted caramel? Add another ½ teaspoon of salt!
Making any kind of caramel at home can be intimidating. But once you have learned the technique and know what to watch out for, you will rarely run into trouble.
There are really only two things you want to avoid when making caramel. The first is preventing the sugar from crystallizing, which can lead to a granular caramel sauce. The second is avoiding burning the caramel. Sugar that has been cooked at too high of a temperature has an awful, bitter taste to it that you (unfortunately) just can’t save.
HOW TO PREVENT CARAMEL FROM CRYSTALLIZING (GRAINY CARAMEL)
To prevent crystallization, the first thing you need to remember is to avoid — as much as possible — stirring the sugar and water mixture. Stirring causes the sugar molecules to be pushed into one another, stick together, and form crystals. If ever you notice your sugar is heating unevenly (i.e. some patches are turning darker than others) lift the pan from the heat and gently swirl the pan by the handle.
Second, while your sugar is boiling, have a pastry brush and a small bowl of water at the ready. Wet the pastry brush and run it around the edges of the pan every minute or so. The water on the brush drips down the sides of the pan and prevents any of the bubbling sugar from sticking to the sides of your pan and forming crystals.
WHAT TEMPERATURE SHOULD CARAMEL BE COOKED TO? (HOW TO AVOID BURNING CARAMEL)
Put simply, burnt caramel tastes awful! It is one thing in the kitchen that is unfortunately impossible to fix or save once it’s been overcooked.
I find the best temperature to heat caramel to is right around 340℉. However, if it’s your first time making caramel, I would err on the side of caution and suggest only taking it to around 335–340℉ before pouring in the cream.
Having a candy thermometer definitely relieves some of the stress of making caramel: you can easily keep an eye on the temperature and remove the caramel from the heat (or pour in the cream mixture) before it gets into the danger zone of burning.
If you don’t have a candy thermometer, keep a very close eye on the sugar while it is boiling. The sugar can take a long time to turn amber in color, but once it does the caramel sauce can go from perfect to burnt in a split second! Just make sure you have the cream ready and to pour it in as soon as it reaches that deep amber color!
DON’T BE DISCOURAGED!
Caramel can take a couple of tries to perfect, but it is nothing to be intimidated by. I always recommend erring on the side of caution when making caramel for the first time and not letting the sugar get too dark — a light caramel is much better than a burnt one! However, don’t be discouraged if you do burn your caramel the first time; it happens to all of us!
To start, stir the heavy cream, vanilla, and salt together in a small bowl or glass measuring cup. Heat the mixture in the microwave until lukewarm, then set it aside.
Next, prepare a small bowl of water and a pastry brush, and set aside.
Place the sugar and water in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat. Heat the mixture for about 5 minutes, until the sugar is fully dissolved and the mixture turns clear.
Turn the heat up to medium-high and boil the sugar mixture, brushing the inner sides of the saucepan with a wet pastry brush so that no crystals form along the edges of the pan where the sugar bubbles up. Do not stir the sugar, as this can result in crystals forming. If you notice your sugar is heating unevenly, gently lift and swirl the pan by the handle.
Continue boiling the mixture for about 8 to 10 minutes, until the sugar turns a rich brown/amber color or reads 340℉ on a candy thermometer. Be careful: caramel goes from perfect to burnt in a split second!
Quickly (and carefully) pour in the heavy cream mixture into the boiling sugar. Be careful, as the mixture will bubble up!
Turn off the heat and stir in the butter until it is melted and the mixture is smooth. Taste the caramel sauce and add in more salt, if desired.
Pour the caramel sauce into a glass jar and allow it to cool completely before putting it into the fridge. The sauce will thicken as it cools.
This caramel sauce is the perfect topping to drizzle over ice cream and other desserts, or to mix into a cup of coffee for an at-home specialty drink.
- 1 ½ cup white sugar
- ⅓ cup water
- 1 cup heavy cream
- ½ tsp pure vanilla extract
- ½ tsp kosher salt
- 4 Tbsp unsalted butter
- In a small bowl or glass measuring cup, stir together heavy cream, vanilla, and salt. Microwave until lukewarm (about 45 to 60 seconds). Set aside.1 cup heavy cream½ tsp pure vanilla extract½ tsp kosher salt
- Set a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat. Add in sugar and water. Heat until sugar is fully dissolved and the mixture turns clear (about 5 minutes).1 ½ cup white sugar⅓ cup water
- Increase heat to medium-high and bring sugar mixture to a boil.
- With a pastry brush dipped in water, brush the inner sides of the saucepan to prevent sugar crystals from forming. Do not stir! If the mixture is heating unevenly, gently lift and swirl the pan by its handle.
- Continue boiling until sugar mixture turns a brown amber color or reads 340℉ on a candy thermometer (about 8 to 10 minutes). Watch closely: caramel goes from perfect to burnt in seconds!
- Quickly pour in the heavy cream mixture. Be careful: the mixture will bubble rapidly.
- Turn off the heat and stir in butter until the butter is melted and the sauce is smooth.4 Tbsp unsalted butter
- Taste, and add in more salt as desired.
- Pour caramel sauce into a glass jar and allow to cool completely. The sauce will thicken as it cools.
- Once cool, store in the refrigerator.
- Warming the cream mixture will prevent the caramel sauce from seizing. If it does seize and become solid after pouring in the liquid, (don’t panic!) return the saucepan to a low heat and stir constantly until smooth.
- Avoid stirring the sugar mixture as it boils — this pushes the sugar molecules together and can cause crystals to form, leading to a grainy caramel sauce.
- The sugar can take a long time to begin to color, but once it starts turning amber it can burn very quickly so be sure to keep an eye on it (and always err on the side of caution). A lighter caramel is much better than a burnt caramel!
- For easy clean up, once the caramel sauce has been poured from your saucepan, fill the pan with water and bring the water to a boil to dissolve any caramel or sugar that may have stuck.