Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Fail-Proof Caramel Sauce (with pictures)

Cheap Eat Challenge: Watch as our family of 6 eats, or tries to, on $6/day.

Caramel is scary. Maybe not as scary as vampires (oh, wait, those are supposed to be sexy--they still seem really scary to me, but, um, I digress). Anyway, caramel can be a little scary. But unlike (or just like, depending on who you talk to) vampires, it can also be one of the sexiest, fanciest things out there. Perfect for romantic desserts, perfect for dinner parties in which you're trying to impress. Perfect for summer ice cream (now that is my kind of summer sexy--bikinis and vampires need not apply). But not if it's burned to oblivion or crusted in crystals to its pan. And not if it's crazy painful to make. Or brings you to tears from your failed attempts and wasted (sob) cream. And certainly not if it comes from a Smuckers jar of flavored corn syrup that you obtained from a superstore of some variety. With all due respect to Smuckers (not really), their ice cream toppings are crap. And they are expensive crap.

Real caramel is full of top-notch stuff that people consider expensive ingredients--butter and cream to be precise. Many of us avoid buying those things for just that reason. And yet we'll get a craving for caramel and go drop $2.50 on a few ounces of corn syrup and, er, "natural flavoring." You can make it for cheaper my friends. Not just a little cheaper. You can make it for $.86. And it doesn't even need to be frightening.

A couple Christmases ago, I wanted to make caramel sauce as part of a Christmas present for my sister. I had to make it three times. I was sweating over my stove. I was teary and nearly cursing. I was hollering at my kids to get out of the kitchen. I was about to stick my head in the boiling, burning sugar. The Christmas spirit was being felt by all. And then I pulled out my New Best Recipe Cookbook and there sat a method for caramel that did not fail me then and has not failed me since. Bless you New Best Recipe Cookbook. Bless you.

Today the recipe I share with you is from, I believe, Simply Recipes. Three purely good ingredients: sugar, butter, cream (oh, and water too). The method is from New Best Recipe. It is perhaps even more important than cream. If you know me, you know that's saying a lot.

Fail-Proof Caramel Sauce
adapted from Simply Recipes and New Best Recipe Cookbook
makes a good 1 1/2 C
Cook time: 20-30 minutes
Cost: $.86
(sugar: .16, cream: .50, butter: .20)

1/2 C water
1 C sugar
6 Tbsp butter, cut into chunks
1/2 C cream
1/8-1/4 tsp chunky sea salt (optional, for salted caramel, yum)

1. Put water in a pan. Please do not use the cheapest, flimsiest-bottomed pan you have.

2. Pour sugar in a mound in the middle of the water in the pan.

Don't worry, the water will soak into the sugar. Putting it in a mound in the middle means crystals of sugar are less likely to get on the side of the pan, causing the final mixture to crystallize.

3. Put the lid on the pan and turn the heat to medium or just shy of medium.

4. Let it boil. Do not stir it or mess with it in any way.

La di da. This is going to take 10 minutes or so. You don't need to watch your pot too much at first. Do the dishes, make the kids lunch. Whatever. (Do NOT leave the kitchen and then forget you were boiling sugar.) This method of caramel making does take a little longer than just letting your sugar melt and adding butter and cream. However, at this point of the process, you don't have to be super duper attentive. Give it a glance here and there to see if it's starting to change color. Also, take a few minutes to get your other ingredients ready... (see step #5). [Note: You can remove the lid when it starts to boil as long as the sugar is entirely dissolved. If it's not, leave the lid on.]

5. Get your other ingredients ready.

At a certain point in caramel making, a little speed is required. It helps to have your cream measured and your butter cut. You can warm the cream if you wish (I used the microwave to get it warm--took me 25 seconds or so). It might make your life a little bit easier, but it's not essential with this method. (Cold cream--and sometimes even warm cream--can cause the boiled sugar to seize--or get kind of hard for a few seconds--worry not, even if it seizes, you just keep mixing and it will, um, un-seize--which is a totally technical term, I assure you.)

Here I'm going to update this post and add a tip from my sister-in-law that made this easier and less stressful and more perfect. Put your butter and cream together in the microwave and microwave (and mix) at 20 second intervals until the butter is melted and the mixture is warm. Then just pour this into your amber caramel. I believe this helps in a couple of ways. It doesn't foam as furiously. It doesn't seize. It mixes in faster, making it less likely for your perfectly amber sugar to burn while it waits to get mixed up. It's just easier.

6. When the boiling sugar turns the color of straw, remove the lid and REDUCE THE HEAT to medium low.

7. It's still going to boil for a few minutes, but watch it now. If you're stove is even the teensiest bit un-level, rotate your pan. DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES STIR THIS MIXTURE. Let it boil until it becomes an amber color. If your stove really is uneven or the sugar is cooking in an obviously uneven way (this is how my stove is), give it the gentlest of swirls every few moments (if it's really really uneven, take it off the heat and swirl it so so absolutely gently with a spoon--I will not even call it stirring; it is like moving the mixture with a spoon). You don't want the melted sugar to swish up on the sides of the pan AT ALL.

This is a bracelet made of actual amber. This is the color you want.

But take care not to go darker or you will probably burn your caramel. If you are nervous as I often am, or if you are making this for guests or a gift, err on the side of light amber. It may not be as rich as complex as the amber caramel, but it will be un-burned and perfectly delicious.

8. When it is an amber color, it's time to move quickly. Don't get nervous, just be ready. When it's amber, take the pan off the stove and whisk in the butter (I use a flat whisk, but any whisk will do--don't use a spoon--too slow). If it seizes and seems to separate and get funky, just keep stirring. If it bubbles up (as it almost surely will), don't freak out, just keep stirring. All will be well. [Note: Again, as an update: Here you'll pour in the mixed/melted butter and cream mixture.]

9. As soon as your butter is incorporated, whisk in the cream--you're still moving quickly here, but you're almost done.

10. My friends, it is finished. And it is delicious. Stir it for another minute and pour it into a bowl that can handle some heat because it is really really hot. Put some on a spoon, blow it a lot, and taste it. Good, huh?

11. Allow it to cool in a bowl and then cover it for storage. It'll last quite a while just on the counter. It can also be refrigerated for really long-term storage (i.e. if you have a will of iron).

And now, at the end of this very long post, I have a confession. I burned my first batch. Oh, it wasn't the method's fault. I was trying to take pictures you see. And pictures are distracting and they take time to take, especially for me. First of all, I forgot to reduce the heat after I took the lid off. And then, I was trying to nail that right on perfect amber color and, um, my stove is not level and things just got away from me. By the time I'd clicked a few times, the sugar was burned. Just barely--just 30 seconds too long, but yes, it definitely tasted burned. It does give me the chance, however, to blab on a little longer discuss the color of your caramel.

The spoon on the right is burned, the one on the left is good (they'll both look darker in a bowl or pot--the one in the bowl above is the good caramel). You'll notice that there's a little place in between these two shades. The name of that shade is 'risk.' Hit it right on and you'll have the best most heavenly caramel to ever cross your lips. It will be deep nutty sweet, complex, and perfect, but miss it and you've burned your sugar and there's no going back. If you wish to try to hit that mark, I have a bit of advice. Go there slowly. Turn your heat to low (as opposed to medium low) after the lid is removed and rotate the pan a bit as it cooks. Remember that your pan is hot, so even when you take it off the stove, it's going to keep cooking for a few moments (which is sometimes all the time it takes to burn sugar), so keep your heat at low which will give you a lot more control and a little more time after the pan is removed from the burner. If your heat/pan is too hot, you're going to go from perfect to burned too fast to get the butter and cream in there.

Now, go forth and conquer thy caramel sauce.



  1. Oh wow! I've been meaning to try homemade caramel for a while now, and this recipe really eases my mind. It doesn't seem any more complicated than making marshmellow based fudge! (Now, i really want to combine those...)

  2. I found your recipe on Pinterest and I just made this. It really is good! I have tried other caramel sauce recipes before but they always ended up grainy. The directions were excellent and the sauce turned out great. Thanks for sharing!

  3. I am so so glad. Thanks for letting me know.

  4. Woo hoo!! Jeanie- you rock!! This is the ONLY recipe that I have tried where the milk didn't separate as soon as I added it- I think the key was to start with the sugar in the middle of the pot and when adding the milk to stir like crazy with a whisk as you suggested. I also used your method of mixing very slightly warmed milk and melted butter together (I added 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla and 1/2 teaspoon of salt, too) and it was awesome. Thank you for this recipe- well, maybe not. I can't stop eating the caramel! Must...put... spoon....down....

    1. Yay! I'm so glad it worked for you too.



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