Turning sugar into deep, golden caramel has always been more magic than chemistry to me. Though it may be culinary chemistry, the technique is surprisingly quick and easy. And once you learn it, you can put it to all kinds of delicious uses. Caramel is great for coating nuts, fresh fruit, or the bottom of ramekins for crème caramel and other caramel-topped desserts. And it can add a touch of sweet and gooey to anything from cakes to tarts to brownies.
In this article are some of my favorite caramel desserts, starting with a satiny caramel sauce enriched with cream and butter. Vanilla ice cream never had it so good. The fudgy caramel-topped brownies and decadent chocolate-almond tart make the most of another delicious marriage: caramel and chocolate. Sweet caramel-glazed pears top a tender ginger and cinnamon cake, and orange and espresso flavor a classic crème caramel. No matter which of these desserts you make, you’ll be making magic.
5 Tips for Perfect Caramel
One of two things can go wrong when making caramel: The caramel burns, or sugar crystals form, so the caramel goes from liquid and smooth to crystallized and solid. Here are a few pointers for making a perfectly smooth caramel every time:
1. Watch bubbling caramel like a hawk. Caramel cooks quickly and will turn from golden amber to a smoking mahogany in seconds. Burnt caramel has an unpleasantly bitter taste.
2. Use clean utensils. Sugar crystals tend to form around impurities and foreign particles.
3. Acid helps. Adding lemon juice to the sugar and water helps break down the sucrose molecules and prevents sugar crystals from forming.
4. Swirl, don’t stir. Stirring tends to splash syrup onto the sides of the pan, where sugar crystals can form. So once the sugar is completely dissolved in water, just gently swirl the pan to caramelize the sugar evenly.
5. A pastry brush is your friend. Keep a pastry brush and some water next to the stove; you’ll need it to wash off any crystals that might form on the sides of the pan.
The color of caramel
The longer you cook caramel, the darker it gets. For most of my recipes, cook it to medium amber (below left); take it to medium-dark amber (below right) for the Crème Caramel.