Caramel makes even ambitious home cooks nervous, but it's just sugar, David Collier, pastry chef at Knife at The Highland Dallas, says. It's slightly more complicated than that, but there's no reason to be intimidated. Heat breaks down sugar, chef and cookbook author Joanne Chang explains. Around 335 degrees, it turns amber and nutty. This sounds technical, but with a few guidelines, making caramel is actually quite simple—you don't even need a thermometer. And considering caramel's versatility, it's a handy skill to master.
Clean equipment is key. Copper is the best heat conductor, Kristen Murray of Portland's Måurice says, but it's not essential. A deep, heavy-bottomed saucepan works great, especially if you're adding cream and butter to make caramel sauce. Dana Cree, pastry chef of Chicago's Blackbird, recommends a sauté pan for dry caramel, because there's more surface area for heat transfer. Get any ingredients and equipment ready before you start and work carefully, as caramel is incredibly hot. To clean up afterward, put any tools in the pot, fill it with water and bring to a boil. "The sugar just boils right off," Cree says.
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The Technique: Wet Caramel
Wet caramel has a beautiful even tone and flavor, Cree says. It's perfect for drizzling over ice cream or sweetening fruit but can be used any time caramel is called for. Start by combining sugar with enough water to moisten it and create a sandy texture. This is a simple but important step: Any sugar crystals sticking to the sides of the pot can fall in and trigger crystallization, which means gritty caramel. Most chefs use a wet pastry brush to eliminate sugar crystals, but only do this once or twice at the very beginning. Cree takes extra precaution and stirs the sugar and water in a bowl then carefully transfers it to the pot.
Murray favors high heat, arguing that a lower flame is slow, allowing more opportunity for crystallization. Cree advocates for medium heat, because it's less stressful, and there's less chance of burning. Either way, when the sugar is still clear and dissolving, don't stir or move the pot, as agitation leads to crystallization. However, once sugar develops color, you actually should stir or gently swirl to promote evenness, Chang says. Wait for caramel to reach the desired color, and if it's browning too quickly, lower the flame. When judging color, the pot can be deceptive, Cree says. Dip a small piece of white paper or a paper towel into the caramel for more accuracy. The color is up to you, but if you plan to add additional ingredients, they'll dilute the caramel, so you may want to go darker. As soon as the color is right, stop the caramel from cooking any further. Pour it into a clean bowl or add ingredients to make things like sauce or candy.
The Technique: Dry Caramel
It's more advanced, but dry caramel has advantages over wet: The sugar is added sequentially, creating layers of flavor and a more interesting, nuanced caramel that's not just sweet and nutty but also floral, Cree says. Because there's no water, there's no crystallization risk—sugar crystals will just melt into the hot sugar. Dry caramel is also faster and offers more control, Collier argues. To adjust the color, simply add more sugar.
Start by melting a small portion of the sugar. Cree favors a medium flame, whereas Collier prefers to work more quickly and uses medium high to high. You need to stir dry caramel each time you add more sugar; this promotes even color and compensates for any hot spots. Once the sugar takes on color, add another small portion, Cree says. Continue this layering effect until all the sugar is in the pot then let it cook to the desired color.
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