Think of caramel and you probably think of sweets like caramel apples and ice cream sundaes, which makes sense, since caramel is basically just cooked sugar. Even light golden caramel has a nutty, toasty nuance beneath its buttery-sweet richness, but when you take it to an amber shade and beyond, the flavor becomes deeper, darker, smokier, and more bitter, which makes it perfect for featuring in savory dishes.
caramelized onions their sweet, dark, golden-brown charm. When you make caramel, you’re just oxidizing pure sugar itself—and for dessert sauces and candies, adding things like cream, butter, and vanilla.Lots of savory foods become caramelized, one of the prime examples being alliums; when they’re cooked in a specific way (low and slow), their natural sugars oxidize, giving
If you skip those rich additions, and cook the sugar longer until the simple, sweet-tasting molecules break down and more complex aromas and flavors form, it becomes something better suited to the dinner table. (Somewhat ironically, at this dark, technically burnt stage, it’s known as “baker’s caramel”—because it’s often used to add color and flavor to bread, like dark pumpernickel. If you see “caramel color” on a label, whether it’s for gravy or soda, that’s the industrially produced equivalent.)
Vietnamese cuisine makes great use of savory caramel sauce, or nuoc mau, which translates to “colored water.” (In north Vietnam, it’s nuoc hang, or “merchandising water,” presumably because it makes street hawkers’ food extra-appealing.) The ingredients are as unassuming as the name: just granulated white sugar and water. But the application of heat and time transforms them into something pretty spectacular.
While nuoc mau is easy to make, it does require your undivided attention and a little finesse, because while you want the sugar to cook to a dark coffee shade with a bittersweet flavor, you don’t want to burn it until it’s jet black and too acrid; there’s a fine line that’s easy to trip over. Still, it’s definitely worth mastering for the complex flavor it imparts to all sorts of dishes, especially when it’s balancing pungent, salty tastes like fish sauce and soy. Add aromatics like ginger, garlic, chilies, and lemongrass, and fresh herbs like mint, cilantro, and Thai basil, and you have a veritable symphony of flavors in a dish, with the nuoc mau providing the bass line that you can tell is there, even as it blends seamlessly in with the other players. VietWorld Kitchen has illustrated step-by-step instructions and helpful pointers for the basic method.
Be sure to use a heavy-bottomed pot that’s bigger than you think you need, because when you add more water at the end to thin it out and stop the cooking process, the sauce will bubble up rather furiously, and you definitely don’t want hot, sticky caramel all over your stove—or your self; it’s also a good idea to stand back for a few moments until the mixture calms down. If you want to branch out, you can try brown sugar or palm sugar too. You can add other ingredients directly to the caramel sauce once it’s cooked, like fish sauce and black vinegar, or you can entirely replace the water with fish sauce (or other liquids, like coconut water). Naturally, people have been bold enough to make savory caramel in the Instant Pot too!
However you make it, nuoc mau can be stored in a tightly sealed glass jar at room temp for months (at least), always at the ready to add a slightly smoky, complex depth to all sorts of braises, marinades, and stir-fries—but not just Asian dishes, either. A little dollop is a great secret flavor-booster to add to pretty much any savory preparation, including grilled meat and tofu dishes, roasted vegetables, and chili.
The classic French sweet-and-sour reduction you often find drizzled over your plate in fancy restaurants is another form of savory caramel sauce. You start it the same way you make nuoc mau: cook sugar and a little water into a caramel, but don’t take it quite as dark. Once you hit the shade you want, add vinegar to halt the oxidation process (and watch out for the ferocious bubbling). Stir a bit more to loosen up any sugar that’s seized, and then season it however you like—with herbs, fruit, spices, alcohol—but use restraint so the flavor doesn’t get muddled; stick to one or two additions at a time.
You can experiment with different types of vinegar to change the flavor profile, and use different sugars too—even honey, which you cook by itself until it turns a darker shade of amber. As with nuoc mau, a little gastrique goes a long way, but rather than stir it into dishes, it’s generally used to finish them. So play around with different flavor combinations—blood orange and coriander; blueberry; peach-basil; cranberry and red wine—and spoon a bit of your tangy-sweet French caramel sauce over roasted meats, fish, vegetables, or cheese. You can try it on simple desserts too, like chevre cheesecakes and fruit tarts.
All caramel starts with some kind of sugar, but beyond that, it’s open to tons of different interpretations, which means there are plenty of other ways to achieve savory caramel sauce nirvana. Try something as simple yet seemingly off-the-wall as using olive brine instead of water. Add beer to your caramel to enhance the pleasant bitterness. Or, if you’re still intimidated by making caramel, you can simply combine the sugar with several other ingredients at once, and cook everything down nice and slowly into a syrupy, sticky sauce that’s much less tricky to make. As a consequence, it won’t have quite the same depth as ones that start with a pure dark caramel, but it will still be delicious. While unorthodox, you can even take a regular dessert-ready caramel sauce and doctor it until it doesn’t just straddle the line between sweet and savory, but steps over it, at least by a toe. It’s all about balancing flavors, and getting a taste of the deliciously dark side of cooked sugar.
Here are a handful of different ways to incorporate caramel into savory dishes.
For this succulent pork preparation, you can cook the caramel as dark as you dare before adding fish sauce, coconut water, and aromatics and turning down the heat to let it simmer until the meat is tender and totally coated in the deliciously sticky sauce. (You can try this in the Instant Pot as well.) Get the recipe.
Instead of water and white sugar, this recipe uses fish sauce and palm sugar for an even more aromatic and complex caramel sauce that turns chicken into something truly special. If you don’t have a clay pot, make this in a cast iron skillet (same goes for Vietnamese Caramel Catfish)—and be sure you’ve got good ventilation in your kitchen. Get the recipe.
This is an easy, autumnal take on gastrique, where all you have to do is reduce maple syrup and red wine vinegar together for a quick caramel that clings to seared brussels sprouts and pecans. If you can’t find gooseberries, try adding dried cranberries for tartness, or even halved fresh kumquats for sweet-tart, citrusy pops of flavor. Get the recipe.
Even if you don’t eat rabbit, this garlic caramel sauce (a gastrique by any other name…) would be great on so many other things. And if you don’t have sherry vinegar, try another kind that’s slightly sweet, like apple cider vinegar. Get this Braised Rabbit with Garlic Caramel Sauce recipe.
Here’s one of the wildcards. Adding fish sauce, soy sauce, garlic, red pepper flakes, and sesame oil to a traditionally sweet caramel sauce transforms it into something else entirely, perfectly fit for drizzling over crunchy bites of fried chicken, or whatever else sounds good (just probably not a sundae). Get the recipe.
Related Video: How to Remove Stuck-On Caramel
Header image courtesy of Food Is a Four Letter Word.