Caramel is one of the most delicious (and most frustrating) dessert components that tastes infinitely better if you make it at home. But you have to be really careful as caramel is quick to burn and very easy to ruin in only a matter of seconds. Check out our 6 tips and tricks to make beautiful homemade caramel that tastes infinitely better than the kind that came out of a jar.
1. Use a Candy Thermometer
Yes, we know that you think you can do it without a candy thermometer. But trust us. Using an accurate candy thermometer is a foolproof way to make sure you get the hot sugar to just the right temperature without fear of burning it. You can learn to cook perfect caramel by sight and smell, but starting off with a candy thermometer is the way to go while you’re still learning.
2. Medium Heat
Many people are tempted to crank the heat while you’re starting the cooking process to get things moving, but resist the temptation. High heat can cause the sugar mixture to burn and there’s no turning back once you’ve gone too hot.
3. To Stir or Not To Stir?
Caramel is an activity that requires your full attention; it’s not something you should try to make while you’re multitasking or making other parts of a dessert, like the pie crust. Stir at a consistent speed or try and shake the sauce around to break up the bubbles - make sure that you don’t let the caramel sit in one part of the pot or it could burn.
4. Start Again
Once you’ve burned your caramel, there’s no going back. If you’re making caramel for the first time, make sure that you’ve got enough leftover ingredients to try again. It’s easy to take your eyes off it for a second and accidentally scorch it, and that burnt taste isn’t going to dissipate. Give yourself a break and start over from the beginning.
5. Trust Your Eyes
The color of the caramel is how you can tell if you’ve cooked it enough. Look for a deep amber color – if you’re concerned, dip a spoon in and drip a little bit of caramel on a white plate to see the true color. Don’t take it off the heat if it’s too transparent or not a deep enough brown.
6. Use a big heavy pot
A thick, heavy-duty pot is the way to go for cooking caramel because it maintains an even heat and will help you to maintain a consistent temperature throughout the cooking process. Don’t use thin metal pots or you’re in for disaster.
Here are 5 recipes to test out your new caramel-making skills:
1. Caramel Corn
Brown sugar, light corn syrup, butter, and salt are all you need to make a sticky caramel to cover the freshly popped popcorn in this recipe. Garnish with sea salt and store in an airtight container.
Get our Caramel Corn recipe.
2. Caramel Apple Cake
This cake is dripping in a dark, luscious caramel sauce. Apples and a sour cream cake batter make an outstanding combination – save some of the caramel sauce to drizzle on top of individual slices. Get the recipe here.
3. Chocolate Dipped Salted Caramels
Dark brown sugar and vanilla extract make these extra sweet caramels taste like your mom used to make. Don’t attempt to cut these until after you’ve let them sit in the refrigerator or you’ll be in for a struggle. Get our Chocolate Dipped Salted Caramels recipe.
4. Pecan and Salted Caramel Cheesecake
The caramel topping of this cheesecake makes it hard not to ask for seconds. Use a tablespoon of water added to the melting sugar to help prevent it from burning in the first few minutes. Get our Pecan and Salted Caramel Cheesecake recipe.
5. Traci Des Jardin's Caramel Sauce
We dare you to find anything that doesn’t taste better with this classic caramel sauce from Chef Traci Des Jardins. We recommend adding it to hot chocolate or coffee for an extra caramel touch or you can keep it in the freezer or refrigerator until the right moment strikes. Get our Traci Des Jardin's Caramel Sauce recipe.
Header image: Traci Des Jardin's Caramel Sauce from Chowhound
Caitlin M. O'Shaughnessy is a New York City–based food writer and editor at Penguin who has worked on and recipe-tested several cookbooks. She is currently in search of NYC's best ramen, and is one of the few people who admit to disliking brunch.