How do you make caramel sauce? You just cook white sugar at a very high heat.
Before You Get Started
There are two methods for cooking sugar: "wet" and "dry." For either method, you need a perfectly clean saucepan and clean white sugar. Stray crumbs of any sort can cause the caramel sauce to crystallize and become grainy.
Dry Sugar Cooking Method
For the dry cooking method, simply heat sugar in a heavy saucepan until it melts and begins to brown. You don't stir the pan at all--you just watch it all happen from a safe distance. The browning (caramelization) of the molten sugar happens quickly.
- To help prevent the caramel from crystallizing, you can add an acid to the sugar before you begin: add about half a tablespoon of lemon juice to each cup of sugar and mix it with your hands; it should be the consistency of wet sand.
- Heat the sugar over medium-high heat until it melts. You can shake the pan gently to redistribute the melting sugar, but don't stir.
- When the sugar is melted and caramelized, immediately remove the pan from the heat and submerge the bottom of the pan in a water bath to stop the cooking process. (You need a heavy pan for this step, or your cookware can warp.)
Many of our recipes use the dry sugar cooking method:
Wet Sugar Cooking Method
Many cooks believe this method offers greater control over the degree of caramelization, offering the option of stopping at pale gold, or take it all the way to a deep amber or even a mahogany color, for a pleasant burnt-sugar taste.
You can use the wet sugar cooking method for any caramel sauce recipe: simply add 1/4 to 1/3 of a cup of water to every cup of sugar in your recipe.
To make the caramel, pour the water into a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add the sugar and heat over medium-high heat.
- You can stir the pan to dissolve the sugar, but once the mixture comes to a boil, stop stirring: the agitation can promote crystallization, which will result in grainy caramel.
- You can also use a lid on your pan to speed up the boiling process, but once it's boiling, leave the lid off: all of the water needs to evaporate before the sugar can start to caramelize.
The water is boiling off and the sugar is just beginning to color.
You don't want to walk away during this step, because sugar changes from golden to mahogany brown very quickly, so watch it constantly once it begins to color. (It's also a good idea to have ice water nearby, just as a precaution. Sugar burns are extremely painful, so be careful when working with caramel.)
When you get to a nice medium caramel color, pull the pan from the stove and pour the caramel into ramekins if you're using the caramel for flan.
If you're adding other ingredients like butter or cream, now's the time to do it. It'll spit and foam and rise up the sides of the pan, so be careful.
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Turn off the heat and keep stirring until the butter melts and the ingredients are all incorporated. (Adding cold cream will cause the caramel to harden; if that happens, keep cooking the sauce over low heat until it melts again.)
Adding butter and cream to hot caramel will keep it soft and sauce-like--otherwise, it'll firm up solid and need to be melted again before you can use it (see the sidebar for a basic caramel sauce recipe). Drizzle your caramel sauce over ice cream, cheesecake, or bread pudding.
- You can flavor caramel with just about anything: add liqueurs, fruit juices, or extracts. I made a pineapple caramel as a topping for upside-down cake.
- Try making an apple cider caramel sauce for your next apple pie--you'll still need to add a thickener, like cornstarch or flour: toss the fruit with the flour and spice mixture, but use the sugar in the recipe to make a caramel sauce. Add two tablespoons of butter and a third of a cup of apple cider to the caramel in Step 5. Let it cool, and pour the sauce over the sliced apples. Toss gently and transfer the apple mixture to the crust-lined pie plate.
Basic Caramel Sauce
- ¾ cup white sugar
- ¼ cup water
- ½ cup heavy cream
- 1½ tablespoons unsalted butter
1. Add the water and sugar to a heavy bottomed saucepan. Cook over medium heat and stir until the sugar dissolves. When the mixture comes to a boil, stop stirring.
2. Cook to desired caramel color. Add butter and cream, taking care to avoid splatters as the mixture bubbles up.
3. Continue cooking and stirring until the caramel is smooth.
4. Allow the sauce to cool, and transfer to an airtight container. Store in the refrigerator for up to a week. The sauce can be reheated on the stove over medium-low heat or in a microwave.
- Salted Caramel Sauce: make the sauce recipe above. When the mixture has cooled to a warm room temperature, stir in ¼ teaspoon coarse Kosher salt. Taste, and add more salt if desired.
- Vanilla Caramel Sauce: make the sauce recipe above. When you remove the pan from the heat, stir in 1 teaspoon vanilla extract.
- Coffee Caramel Sauce: while the sugar is cooking, stir 1 teaspoon of instant espresso powder into the cream and mix until dissolved. Proceed with the sauce recipe above. Instant espresso powder can be found in some grocery stores, specialty markets, and online.