Caramel – in many ways, there’s nothing simpler. Caramel is, in its most basic form, just melted sugar, which is made into caramel sauce by adding cream and simple flavorings. I’d heard that making caramel could be frustrating – that it was easy to burn, and that it crystalized for the most mysterious reasons, but I didn’t get it. I’d always had an easy time making caramel sauce from an “easy” caramel sauce recipe with sugar, water, corn syrup, vanilla, cream and salt. Caramel sauce was no biggie, I thought.
Then this past Christmas, I decided to give out jars of caramel sauce with Granny Smith apples as gifts for neighbors and relatives. I really wanted to make a sauce with butter, because as much as I liked my regular sauce, it didn’t have the rich flavor I was looking for.
That’s when the trouble started.
Batch after batch, all the caramel sauces I made with butter tasted terrific, but as they cooled, they became grainy and crystallized. I tried all the tricks I could find to prevent crystallization, including higher heat, lower heat, adding a little corn syrup, brushing the sides of the pan with water to wash away the sugar crystals, and covering the pan to allow condensation to prevent crystals from forming. Every batch crystallized, and I became obsessed. I wasn’t going to let this caramel sauce defeat me.
Finally, I tried making caramel using the “dry method,” melting the sugar without adding any water in the beginning, then adding the butter and cream once the sugar is fully caramelized. With the dry method, it’s a little easier to burn the sugar, but crystallization is less likely. This method resulted in velvety smooth, rich, buttery caramel sauce.
To begin making this old-fashioned caramel sauce, it’s important to have all your ingredients and utensils prepared ahead of time. Once the sugar starts cooking, you have to watch it constantly. You’ll need a heavy saucepan with at least two quarts capacity, a spatula and a wisk that will withstand high heat, and an oven mitt to use if your pan gets hot. Have a plate handy to set your utensils on, because melted sugar is no fun to clean off the countertop.
Put 2 cups of granulated sugar in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Be patient – you don’t want some of it to burn before the rest of it has a chance to melt.
Stir as much as you need to prevent burned spots and break up lumps as the sugar melts.
Once the sugar is completely melted, stop stirring. Almost immediately, the caramel will be bubbling and dark amber in color. The temperature on a candy thermometer inserted at this point should be 350 degrees. If you don’t have a candy thermometer, you don’t really need one. You can judge by the color when the caramel has reached the correct temperature.
Once the caramel reaches the dark amber stage at 350 degrees, remove it from the heat. Stir in the butter with a wisk. The caramel will bubble like lava when you do this. After you have added the butter, add the cream and wisk until smooth. The caramel will bubble up a second time. Add the vanilla and salt and wisk to combine.
Return the caramel sauce to medium heat and boil gently, wisking constantly for 4-5 minutes until the sauce is thickened. Allow the sauce to cool for about 15 minutes, then pour into a glass jar. The caramel sauce keeps in the refrigerator for about 3 months.
Obviously, this sauce does not fit anyone’s definition of healthy, but two tablespoons served with half a Granny Smith apple has about 250 calories, and that is the kind of dessert or indulgent snack I can get behind. You could get really fancy and sprinkle your caramel apple creation with a pinch of sea salt, a couple of teaspoons of chopped nuts or some mini chocolate chips.
- 2 cups sugar
- 1 stick (8 tablespoons) salted butter, room temperature
- 1 cup heavy cream, room temperature
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt (double or triple the salt for a salted caramel sauce)
- Have all the ingredients and utensils ready for this recipe ahead of time. Use a heavy saucepan or saute pan with at least 2 quarts capacity, because the sauce will bubble up when the butter and cream are added. Make sure the utensils you are using are heat resistant. Have a plate handy to set the utensils on.
- Put the sugar in the saucepan over medium heat and cook, stirring as needed with a wood or silicone spoon or spatula to prevent burned spots and break up lumps as the sugar melts. Keep cooking, stirring gently and breaking up lumps until the sugar has melted completely.
- Once all the sugar has melted, stop stirring. Cook until the sugar is bubbling, has turned dark amber in color and reaches 350 degrees on a candy thermometer.
- Remove the caramel from the heat and add the butter, blending with a wisk. The caramel will bubble up when the butter is added.
- Add the cream and wisk to blend. The sauce will bubble up a second time.
- Add the vanilla and salt.
- Return the sauce to medium heat and boil gently, stirring with a wisk for about five minutes until thickened.
- Remove from heat and let cool for about 15 minutes before pouring into glass jars.