As you know, I love caramel. Not only is it ridiculously delicious and versatile, it is also very easy to make. The first time I made it though, I felt really intimidated and scared. I mean, caramel gets HOT! I was terrified of burning myself or setting the house on fire. Nevertheless, I decided to face my fears.
And guess what: nothing bad happened. Instead I ended up with cream puffs coated in the most gorgeously golden and crisp homemade caramel. No burns, no smoke, no ruined pan… Just sophisticated deliciousness.
Seriously, I felt I deserved a medal from my fellow Masters in the Art of Caramel Making. Too bad there isn’t a guild of caramel makers…
Basic Rules of Caramel Making
The first thing you need to know about caramel is that it can reach temperatures up to 175°C (350°F) before it burns. Which is HOT!! Really, really, REALLY HOT!
I’m just saying…
So please be careful when you’re making caramel. Not only is it hot (really, REALLY hot!), it will also stick to your skin. Luckily, I have never burned myself on caramel. I have burned myself on cake pans though, and I can’t imagine what it must feel like to have had them stick to my hand like caramel would.
I don’t want to scare you, I just want you to be careful. As long as you take the following precautions, you should be fine:
- Caramel can splatter, so caramel-making requires a special caramel-making uniform, consisting of a long-sleeved shirt/sweater/jacket/cardigan/something, an apron and oven mitts.
- Though you should be safe wearing a caramel-making uniform, keep a bowl of ice water nearby to dunk your hand in if you get splattered with caramel. Better safe than sorry, right?
- Make sure children, pets and clumsy individuals are chased from the kitchen.
- Always put the caramel pan on a back burner.
- Keep your eyes on the caramel. Stay focused and don’t get distracted by the TV, long-distance phone calls or the impracticality of your oven mitts. Have someone else watch the kids, pets and clumsy people for a while.
- Don’t touch the hot caramel! It is very, very, VERY hot!
Also, be aware that:
- Caramel can ruin thin, cheap pans (like mine…), so use a heavy-duty pan. Preferably one that hasn’t got a non-stick coating (because these coatings often can’t take the high-heat required for caramel-making) that has a light color (so you can see the caramel change color).
- If your recipe calls to add a liquid, such as cream, to the caramel, use a very large pan. Once the liquid is added, the caramel will bubble up like crazy and may boil over the sides of a smaller pan.
- Pans that have been used to cook caramel in can easily be cleaned by filling it with water and heating it over high heat until the caramel has completely dissolved.
That’s all! Not too intimidating, right?
On to the actual caramel-making.
Making a Wet Caramel
There are two ways of making homemade caramel. You can either dissolve sugar in water and cook it until the water evaporates and the sugar caramelizes, or you can start with just sugar, which, as it heats, will liquify before caramelizing. Although the resulting caramels taste and look the same (because the water evaporates it doesn’t affect the end product) the first cooking process will result in a wet caramel, while the latter will give you a dry caramel.
So different names, different cooking processes, same results.
Still with me?
I prefer making a wet caramel, because in my experience the sugar caramelizes more evenly and is less likely to crystallize. However, other people prefer making dry caramels, so just play around with the different processes to find out which one you’re most comfortable with.
To make a wet caramel, start by combining sugar and a splash of water in a heavy-duty pan. Heat over medium-high heat, stirring with a metal spoon to dissolve the sugar. In the pictures below, I have used 200g of sugar and 60ml of water.
Mind that I’m wearing a long-sleeved sweater (though I didn’t wear my oven mitts at this stage yet).
Once the sugar has dissolved, stop stirring and simply let the syrup bubble away. If you keep stirring the sugar, the sugar can crystallize.
At this point, the water is evaporating and you’ll notice that the bubbles will gradually become bigger and will take a little longer to burst as the sugar syrup thickens.
Usually, the sugar starts caramelizing at the edges first.
Keep cooking until the caramel turns a deep amber color. As there’s no arguing about taste, I will not tell you exactly when to take the caramel off the heat. Just follow your nose and remember that a light, golden caramel will be sweet and mellow, while a dark caramel will be sweet and slightly bitter.
Whenever you decide to stop, make sure to stop the cooking process once the caramel has reached the desired color by plunging the bottom of the pan in an ice bath or adding cream or butter to the caramel and taking it off the heat.