“What is the difference between a candy apple and a caramel apple?” seems obvious, doesn’t it? Even if they’re not side by side in front of your eyes, the answer is right there in the names.
Still, plenty of people use the term “candy apple” as a catch-all to mean all kinds of sweet, candy-coated apples, which isn’t accurate (and thus, can lead to confusion and disappointment). So, let’s break down the differences between the candy apple and the caramel apple, and find out how they’re made.
A true candy apple is encased in a super-shiny, bright red, hard shell that shatters (just like you’re afraid your teeth will when you bite into one), and are said to have been created by William Kolb, a confectioner in Newark, N.J.—who actually made them in 1908 to display in his shop window at Christmastime. They lured people in just as he’d hoped, but they wanted to buy the candy apples in the window instead of the plain old candy he normally sold. And thus, an American tradition was born, although candy apples eventually became more closely associated with Halloween.
They’re made by impaling apples (preferably tart, firm ones like Granny Smiths or Fujis) onto sticks or skewers, and dipping them into a boiling mix of sugar, corn syrup, water, and red food coloring, and sometimes cinnamon extract as well for that authentic flavor. You can make (and find) candy apples in all sorts of other colors these days, from purple and green to black and beyond—but if they’re smooth and shiny like stained glass and crack when you break through the surface, they’re candy apples through and through.
Caramel apples are sometimes called candy apples too, and okay, caramel is a kind of candy, but their taste and texture is much different, not to mention their appearance. Their softer yet chewy coating of creamy golden caramel is often rolled in chopped nuts, sprinkles, or bits of toffee for extra flavor and texture—which sometimes happens with candy apples too, though it’s not nearly as common. While the Chicago company Affy Tapple first sold their peanut-coated caramel apples in 1948, a Kraft company employee, Dan Walker—unfairly or not—is generally credited with inventing the caramel apple in the late 1950s.
Perhaps it’s more accurate to say he invented an easy way to make caramel apples at home—just melt store-bought soft caramels with a little heavy cream and dip away. However, it’s not really that hard to make caramel from scratch for dipping either.
There are also chocolate-covered apples, often lumped into the “candy apple” family too. But for the sake of knowing precisely what you’re getting, we support calling them all by their individual proper descriptive terms.
For even more info about how exactly they came to be, check out this deep dive into the history of candy apples and caramel apples. If all you need to know is how to make the best versions of both at home, just keep scrolling.
Halloween Caramel Apple Trio, $49.99 at Harry and David
Or let someone else do all the work.
How to Make Candy Apples (& Caramel Apples)
While making your own candied apples of any variety is pretty easy, you should be absolutely sure your apples (and sticks, and kitchen environment, and hands) are clean, and promptly store your apples in the fridge when they’re done—because when improperly handled, they can be dangerous, as a 2014 listeria outbreak proved all too well.
If that doesn’t scare you off, there are just a few more basic guidelines to keep in mind:
Choose a firm apple (avoid the mealy Red Delicious!), and consider one that’s more tart than sweet, so it stands up to the sugary coating. Granny Smiths are a popular choice for candied apples, but any variety you like to eat plain will probably taste even better enrobed in sugar. You can also use daintier lady apples, whose smaller size is not only adorable and perfect for children (or adults with smaller appetites), but gives you a higher ratio of coating to fruit if you’re into that.
Regardless of their size, if your apples won’t sit flat on a baking sheet, you can trim the bottoms so they stand up on their own.
Invest in a candy thermometer if you don’t already have one, and don’t be intimidated by using it. Watch some tutorials and soon you’ll be ready to put out a platter at a party, or set up a DIY caramel apple bar for people to dip their own.
Polder Stainless Steel Candy Thermometer
So you'll know your boiling sugar is at just the right stage.
Whether you prefer the high-gloss sheen of classic crimson candy apples or the mellow golden glow of caramel apples—or something in between—there are tons of ways to make them both. But chomp carefully, so as to save your precious teeth.
This is your classic shiny red candy apple, with illustrated step-by-step instructions, plus a fun twist of making the bottoms sparkle with demarara sugar. (If you crave even more sparkle and shine, add edible glitter to your candy apple coating, or apply gold leaf when they’re done.) Check out tips on preventing bubbles too if they bother you. Get the Homemade Candy Apples recipe.
Apple wine is a (delicious) thing, as is apple brandy, so why not bring booze into your candy apple coating? As long as you don’t feed them to kids, it’s all good. Get the Red Wine Candy Apples recipe.
Likewise, plain old homemade caramel apples are a delight, but if your party is all grown up, try adding bourbon to the mix, and flaky sea salt for good measure. You can also try stuffing them with chocolate for a further surprise. Get the Bourbon Caramel Apples with Sea Salt recipe.
Whether you double-dip your apples in caramel and chocolate or just go for the latter, you can roll them in anything you want before they set, from peanuts and pretzels to crushed Oreos and candy. Get the Chocolate Caramel Apples recipe.
These combine a white chocolate coating with a drizzle of red caramel “blood” that looks scarily perfect for Halloween. Get the Cursed Candy Apples recipe.