Caramel is a really versatile building block for dozens of desserts, and making your own caramel is a simple process. But there are a few pitfalls to watch for: one is the sugar crystallizing out, which makes the mixture solidify. The other is overcooking or undercooking the caramel. In this video, you’ll learn how to make a basic caramel that stays liquid and is perfectly cooked. You’ll also learn how to turn the caramel into an easy, creamy sauce.
To set up, have a cup measure half-filled with water, a pastry brush, and a 2-quart saucepan.
In the saucepan, combine 1 cup of sugar, 1/4 cup of cold water, and 1/4 tsp. of lemon juice. Including a little lemon juice is one way to help prevent your caramel from crystallizing and seizing up as it cooks. Use the wet pastry brush to wash down any crystals from the side of the pan.
Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat. Rather than stirring to dissolve the sugar, which could cause crystallization, gently swirl the pan.
Food Science: Learn more about the science of caramel.
Once it’s come to a boil, continue to cook, and occasionally wash the sides of the pan with a pastry brush until the color starts to change—this will take about 5 minutes.
When it starts to brown in spots, swirl it occasionally just to even out the color, and keep the hot spots from burning. Once the color starts to change, watch your caramel very closely—it can go from undercooked to overcooked within a few seconds.
You can check the color by putting a dab onto a white plate. Very light caramel won’t really have that bittersweet caramelized-sugar flavor. The darker you go, the more bitter and complex the flavor gets, but you don’t want to take it so far that it tastes burned.
When your caramel is medium amber in color, you’ve reached the optimum color, consistency, and flavor for Rich Caramel Sauce and many of our recipes that incorporate caramel.
A mere 30 second later, your caramel will reach a dark amber, which is what you’d want to use for Crème Caramel or other desserts with a really assertive caramel flavor. As soon as the caramel is at the stage you want it, take it off the heat. The caramel will harden quickly as it cools, so you want to be ready to use it in whatever recipe you’re making.
One of the simplest uses for this basic caramel is to turn it into a quick caramel sauce. To do that, bring your caramel to the medium amber stage and stir in 3/4 cup of heavy cream off the heat—the mixture will bubble up and spatter so add it slowly and be careful.
Put the pan back over medium-low heat to melt any little hardened bits of caramel that stuck to the bottom of the pan. Once those are dissolved, stir in 2 Tbs. of butter, cut into small pieces, and 1 tsp. vanilla extract.
Your caramel sauce should be smooth, creamy and loaded with caramel flavor. It’s perfect for drizzling over ice cream, fruit, or chocolate desserts.