How to make 3 different types of caramel

Caramel's final texture changes the longer you cook it.
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The decadent, buttery confection known as caramel can be enjoyed in a myriad of ways. Depending on how it is prepared, it can be drizzled on top of ice cream, layered into a dessert, enrobed in chocolate, or enjoyed in a hard candy form (just to name a few options). Sticky and sweet, with just a hint of salt, it's a treat that has won the hearts of dessert fans everywhere.

At its core, caramel is just melted sugar that has deepened in color, taking on more complex and nuanced flavors (like toasted notes and hints of toffee) during the cooking process. It is surprisingly easy to make, as it only requires a handful of ingredients and a watchful eye.

Dry caramel vs. wet caramel
Whether you choose the dry or wet cooking technique, the end result will be the same.

There are two ways of making caramel: dry and wet.

For dry caramel, sugar is heated in a dry, clean pan until it liquefies and darkens in color. This method is quick, but if you aren't careful, you run a high risk of burning the sugar. The pan needs to heat as evenly as possible so that all of the sugar melts at the same time, otherwise you'll end up with uneven browning.

Wet caramel is made by adding water to the pan to help the sugar to dissolve and heat evenly. You're less prone to burning the syrup this way, but this method carries the risk of crystallization - where the sugar starts to return to its original solid state. The reason for this can be due to stirring, a foreign substance getting into the mixture, or simply just because sugar crystals prefer to naturally sit in their solidified structure.

Successfully executed, the end result of both the methods is the same - caramel. So which method is best? It's really a matter of preference.

"You can ask 10 different people which they prefer and you will get 10 different answers," says Ruth Kennison, chocolate and confections educator at The Gourmandise School in Santa Monica. "Because the water boils off as the sugar caramelizes, the wet method also prolongs the total time that the sugar is heated, which would help complex flavors to develop. [With the dry method] you have a lower risk of crystallizing the sugar, it's faster, and you have more control over the sugar caramelizing."

What you need

  • Sugar
  • Water (if using the wet caramel method)
  • Heavy cream (if making sauce or chewy candy)
  • Butter
  • Salt
  • Heavy bottom saucepan or copper pan
  • Heatproof spatula or wooden spoon
  • Parchment paper (for candies)
  • Candy thermometer

How long to cook caramel to achieve the right texture

When making caramel, you'll need to decide what texture you're looking to achieve, whether it's liquid, semi-solid, or completely solid. "As sugar syrup is cooked, water boils away, the sugar concentration increases, and the temperature rises," says Kennison. The higher the temperature, the harder the syrup will become as it cools - this is where a candy thermometer is important.

Texture Target temperature Cook time (approx.)
Caramel sauce 215 - 235 degrees Fahrenheit 5-10 minutes
Chewy caramels 245 degrees Fahrenheit 10-15 minutes
Hard caramels 300 - 310 degrees Fahrenheit 15-20 minutes

How to make caramel sauce
For a thinner sauce, only cook to the lower end of the target temperature spectrum.

    1. Measure the ingredients. For caramel sauce, you'll need 1 cup of granulated sugar, ¼ cup of water, ½ cup of heavy cream, 6 tablespoons of unsalted butter, and a pinch of salt.
    2. Make syrup. Heat sugar and water over medium heat . Gently stir a couple of times so the mixture is evenly distributed on the bottom of the pan and do not stir again.
    3. Bring to a simmer. After a few minutes, the sugar will dissolve and the syrup will start to bubble. Swirl the pan gently if clumps start to form, but don't stir - leave it alone as much as possible and let it darken into a medium to deep amber color.
    4. Add butter. Once the syrup has darkened, use your wooden spoon or heat-proof spatula to stir the unsalted butter into the syrup mixture. It may sputter when the cooler butter mixture hits the hot syrup, so be very careful! Let it cook for an additional minute without stirring.
    5. Add cream and salt. Stir continuously to incorporate the cream into the syrup, then add a pinch of salt and stir. If you want salted caramel, add an additional ½ teaspoon of kosher salt. Let it cook, without stirring, until it reaches anywhere from 215 to 235 degrees Fahrenheit - the higher the temperature, the thicker the sauce will be.
    6. Remove from heat. Let the sauce cool for 10 minutes and it's ready to serve or store.

How to make chewy caramels
Dip chewy caramels in chocolate or wrap them in wax paper to save for later.

  1. Measure the ingredients. For chewy caramels, you'll need 1 cup of granulated sugar, ¼ cup light corn syrup, 3 tablespoons water, ½ cup butter, ½ cup heavy cream, and a ½ teaspoon flaky or coarse sea salt.
  2. Combine butter and cream . In a separate bowl or saucepan, heat the butter and cream gently (either in the microwave or on the stove) until the butter is melted and the cream is warm. Set aside.
  3. Make syrup. Heat sugar, corn syrup, and water in a heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat. Stir a couple of times to make sure the sugar is evenly moistened, then leave the mixture alone for 5 to 10 minutes, until the temperature reaches 320 degrees Fahrenheit and the caramel is light amber in color.
  4. Add butter and cream mixture a little at a time. Pour a little of the butter and cream mixture into the syrup, stirring vigorously. Do not add it all at once. Keep adding the butter mixture slowly and stirring continuously until all of the butter and cream is incorporated. The mixture will lighten to a creamy, golden brown hue which will be close to the finished candy color.
  5. Cook for another 5 to 10 minutes . Heat until the syrup reaches 240 to 245 degrees Fahrenheit. The lower the temperature, the softer the resulting caramels will be. When it reaches the desired temperature, remove from heat.
  6. Pour into a parchment-lined loaf pan. Let cool for 25 minutes, then sprinkle with salt for salted caramel (optional). Allow the caramel to cool for an additional 3 to 4 hours.
  7. Cut into desired shape. Unmold your caramel, then - using a large, sharp knife - cut into rectangles. From here you can serve them as is, dip them in chocolate , or wrap them individually in wax paper and save for later.

Quick tip: To keep your caramel from sticking to the knife as you cut it, spray it with nonstick cooking spray before you start cutting. As the knife gets sticky, wipe it down with a damp cloth and respray as necessary.

How to make hard caramel candies
Cook caramel to this stage to make peanut brittle.

  1. Measure the ingredients. For hard caramels, you'll need 1 cup light brown sugar, ½ cup unsalted butter, and 1 teaspoon of fine sea salt.
  2. Make syrup. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, add butter and melt over medium heat. Add sugar and salt, and stir to combine.
  3. Cook while stirring. Since there is no water in this recipe, you don't run the risk of crystallization, so you can stir it as it cooks. Let the syrup cook until it reaches between 300 and 305 degrees Fahrenheit.
  4. Immediately remove from heat. Pour it onto a small rimmed baking sheet lined with a Silpat or parchment paper, or into candy molds of your choice.
  5. Let cool. After about 20 minutes, it is ready to eat - break it into larger pieces to enjoy like peanut brittle, or smash into smaller shards to use in recipes.

What to do if your caramel crystallizes

If your sugar syrup starts to form crystals that make your sauce grainy, don't panic. "You will want to reheat the sugar and add more water to it and cook it gently," says Kennison. The additional water will help dissolve the sugar crystals again so you end up with a smooth consistency.

Safety tips

  • Do not make caramel with babies, toddlers, or pets nearby.
  • Never walk away from cooking sugar - molten sugar can brown very quickly and burn if it isn't monitored.
  • Keep a bowl of cool water next to your cooking station in case you need to plunge your hand in if burnt.
  • Never lick hot caramel off a spoon, as you will burn your tongue.

Insider's takeaway

Caramel is one of the easiest confections to make at home and only requires a few ingredients. Getting comfortable with the caramelization process requires patience and a watchful eye, but by simply learning how high to heat your molten, browned sugar, you'll be able to make caramel sauce, chews, or hard candies in the comfort of your own kitchen.

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