About Me

I have been cooking my way through life for over 50 years, beginning with mud pies as a child. I've turned a corner now and feel a Renaissance in my life. Recipes and Random Thoughts is my personal spin in a blog about how to prepare good food and how it prepares you for life. I want to share with you, honest to goodness food punctuated with perspective from the special memories and moments that have marked my journey.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Tips for Caramel Confidence

dry method with butter & cream
Caramel is sugar cooked to a temperature where it breaks down to its components glucose and fructose and then dairy ingredients added, most often, cream and butter, then flavorings (vanilla and salt).  Cooked sugar can take the form of brittle, icing, sauce, or candy, to name the most familiar. I've already published a caramel sauce recipe(Sept. 15 2014-Apple Walnut Cake with Caramel Sauce) and frankly, any form of caramel takes practice, so these are some tips that will give you confidence when cooking sugar.  I usually get it right 99% of the time but there's that occasional moment  of distraction or something in the chemistry  that turns my favorite dessert sauce to a burned, lumpy nasty mess in a second.  There are some basics of cooked sugar that should lessen your chance of disaster when attempting a caramel of any style.  No matter how you make your caramel, it will add a fabulous complexity of flavor to any dish.

There a two methods for making caramel: wet and dry.  The dry method is simply heating sugar in a dry pan until the sugar liquefies and browns.  This requires careful attention to heat and color without a candy thermometer.  Use a wide surface heavy fry pan for this method so the sugar is distributed in a thin even layer. This encourages more even browning.  The technique for moving the melting sugar may be swirling the fry pan and never stirring or stirring the sugar a little in the beginning to get the flow going but after that point a stirring device will cause crystallization to form around the spoon so swirling is desirable as soon as the sugar starts to liquefy. Add, butter, cream and flavoring (salt & vanilla) once the sugar liquefies and you have a caramel sauce.  The finished, cooled sauce should be smooth and thick enough to fall in a ribbon from a spoon.  It will thicken more as it cools.

perfect dry method caramel sauce
The wet method adds a little water to sugar,  then boils the mixture to a certain temperature.  Using a heavy, wide sauce pan you must always be on guard to keep any crystals from forming on the side of the pan because it can cause a chain reaction and turn the clear syrup to opaque and grainy.  The wet method is a little more forgiving as the water slows the heating and there are various techniques to avoiding crystallization. Washing down the sides of the pan with a damp pastry brush or covering the pot with a lid to trap steam will dissolve those crystals.  Don't stir the syrup until it starts to show color.  This is an indication 80% of the water has evaporated.  Use a candy thermometer for accuracy and keep a bowl of cold water handy to cool the temperature down when you see the right color.  Submerge the bottom of the pan for a quick cooling method.

wet method cooking with a thermometer

Know what temperature you need.  Caramelization begins around 320 degrees when the sugar melts.  At 340-350 degrees, the color progresses to medium brown and, when cooled, will still be hard but not brittle.  At 365-380 the caramel is dark brown and will cool to a softer texture.  This is where to add cream and butter, etc. to make sauces or candy.  Anything above 410 degrees is "black caramel"  typically only used by professional bakers.

I prefer the dry method for sauces and in making caramel. For this post both techniques did develop a few lump which I just strained out with a gravy stainer.  Lowering the temperature will usually help them dissolve. Any recipe could dictate which method you need but it is the dedicated home cook who can master both, so give both some effort.  Your friends and family will be impressed.

Beware of molten sugar.  It's hotter than boiling water and can adhere to the skin and cause serious burns!!  Don't taste until it cools.

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