Crackly, crunchy toffee and gooey, chewy caramel are sugary candy delights many of us have enjoyed off-and-on since childhood. But when these wonderful burnt sugar bombs are crumbled, chipped, or sauced, they seem like the same thing. You can eat both alone, as candy. And both make great sauces for drizzling over cakes and ice cream. They share the same light-amber hue.
Despite their twin-like characteristics, caramel and toffee are brothers with different mothers.
Texture is the most noticeable difference you can discern when caramel and toffee are in stand-alone candy form. Caramel is typically chewy, gummy, and encased in a noisy candy wrapper. You bite into a square of caramel and draw out a long string, melty mozzarella style. Toffee, on the other hand, is brittle, and it often has nuts, chocolate, or other bits sprinkled onto it before it hardens. You get toffee in jagged sheets and snap off chunks to chomp on.
Both caramel and toffee are based on slowly, carefully burning sugar, often with butter. But caramel is softer because it also includes cream, milk, or condensed milk. “Toffee is basically sugar and butter,” write Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough, creators of the “Ultimate” cookbook series, which includes The Ultimate Candy Book. “Caramel is sugar and cream or milk, with butter occasionally in the mix.”
Caramel is cooked at a lower temperature, about 248 degrees Fahrenheit, while toffee is heated up to about 300 Fahrenheit to make it crunchy. Because caramel is cooked to a lower temperature, it retains some of the moisture from these liquids, creating a softer texture, says Doug Simons, president of the Enstrom’s candy company.
On a microscopic level, Simons says, you’re creating two types of sugar crystals by cooking the candies differently. In toffee, you get short-grain crystals, which make the candy break easily, whereas caramel’s long-grain crystals enable it to bend. Some bakers use brown sugar for toffee and white sugar for caramel, but that's not a hard-and-fast rule. By the way, butterscotch obviously uses butter (but not Scotch the liquor), and it calls for brown sugar.
Try some of our caramel and toffee recipes:
This British dessert has stood the test of time for a reason. Find out why first-hand, by making our sticky toffee pudding recipe.
This graham cracker crust cradles a vanilla cream cheese filling, which forms the stage for your caramel sauce, pecans, and sea salt. Get our pecan and salted caramel cheesecake recipe.
It's very possible you could transform a pile of ingredients into 15 cupcakes with crunchy toffee bits and molasses buttercream frosting within 35 minutes. Get our brown sugar baby cakes recipe.
We'll go with what this French-inspired California chef does to make her caramel sauce dreamy and delectable. Get our Traci Des Jardins' Caramel Sauce recipe.
Chocolate, toffee, and nuts: What more do you need in the cookie of your candy-coated dreams? Get our fudgy toffee pecan cookies recipe.
6. Caramel Corn
Crunchy, a little salty, but mostly sweet, we can't get enough of this treat. Get our caramel corn recipe.
—This article was originally created by Roxanne Webber on August 29, 2008; it was updated by Amy Sowder on April 26, 2016.