Homemade salted caramel sauce is the perfect recipe to have on hand! It can be used for practically anything. Drizzle it on ice cream, cupcakes, pies or whatever you can think of! And if you run out of ideas, just grab a spoon and enjoy!
In its most basic form, a caramel sauce is simply made up of caramel which is later thinned out with water. This type of caramel sauce is also known as a clear caramel sauce. But today, we’ll be focusing on the deliciously creamy, decadent caramel sauce which contains cream and butter.
What Is Caramel?
Caramel is made by heating sugar until it reaches the caramel stage, from about 160-177°C (320-350°F)1. The sugar will go through a series of changes when exposed to the heat. You’ll first notice that it starts to melt and become clear. The color will then start to turn golden and will deepen the more you heat it.
If you don’t have a thermometer, you can determine when to take the caramel off the heat by the color and smell of the caramel. The flavor will deepen as you keep cooking it. But it’s also good to remember that the sweetness of the caramel will decrease the longer you cook it. And the bitterness will increase.
To stop the cooking process, you then add other ingredients, such as cream. Or dip the pan in a bowl of cold water.
There are two ways to make caramel: the wet method and the dry method.
The sugar is heated in the pan in a thin layer – without any added water – until it caramelizes. When making a large quantity, the sugar is added gradually. It’s important to wait for the sugar in the pan to melt before adding another layer, to avoid burning the sugar.
- Caramelizing sugar without any water added takes less time.
- Lower risk of crystallization.
- You are more likely to overcook the caramel and end up with dark and bitter caramel.
A small amount of water is added to the sugar and the mixture is heated until the water has evaporated and the sugar has caramelized. The more water you add to the sugar, the longer it will take to caramelize.
Why add water to sugar when making caramel2? Although the water will in fact evaporate, it will protect the sugar from the heat. You’ll be able to cook the sugar at higher temperatures than with the dry method. The sugar will take longer to caramelize when water is added, giving more time for complex flavors to develop.
- The sugar won’t caramelize as quickly since the water first has to evaporate. Beginners might favor this method so they aren’t caught off-guard when the color quickly starts changing.
- Less hands-on. You don’t have to stare at the sugar like a hawk to know when to add more sugar and when to stir, as you would with the dry caramel! Since you put all the sugar from the beginning, you just swirl the pan occasionally and let it do its thing.
- Wet caramel takes a bit longer to make than dry caramel.
- Caramel made through the wet method is more likely to crystallize and become grainy if it isn’t properly done.
Which method to use is really up to you and how much caramel you are making. If making a small quantity of caramel (such as 50 g/1.8 oz. of sugar in a small pot), I’d recommend the dry method. Since you’ll only need to caramelize one thin layer of sugar, you are less likely to overcook the caramel.
The wet method is more suitable for larger quantities of sugar. You’ll probably find it extremely boring to have to add one thin layer of sugar after another through the dry method!
Okay, time to make a delicious caramel sauce! Let’s see what ingredients and equipment we will need!
- Sugar: To make the caramel sauce, we will first start by making caramel. We will need white granulated sugar.
- Water: If you choose to make a wet caramel, you’ll need water.
- Heavy cream: To thin out the caramel and prevent it from becoming rock hard once cool, we’ll be adding heavy cream.
- Butter: Adding butter will make your caramel sauce creamy and rich. Some recipes skip the butter and rely only on the heavy cream. But I personally feel that the butter gives more body and a longer mouthfeel to the caramel sauce. You’ll still be enjoying the taste in your mouth even after you finished gobbling up the caramel sauce! One thing to keep in mind is that the butter will firm up again once refrigerated. You might have to warm up the sauce again before using it if you like it runny.
- Salt: The salt will balance out the sweetness of the caramel and enhance all the flavors. You can add as much salt as you’d like. I would recommend starting with slightly less than what you have in mind. Taste it, then you can just add more salt if needed. The caramel sauce will be hard to enjoy if you added too much salt.
- Lemon juice or glucose (or corn) syrup: You won’t need these ingredients when making dry caramel. But some people like to use them when making wet caramel to avoid crystallization. If you carefully follow the tips in the recipe directions, you probably won’t need to add these ingredients when making a wet caramel.
Equipment Needed When Making Caramel Sauce
Best pan for making caramel
It’s best to use a heavy-bottomed pan that offers a bit more protection from the heat source. You want the sugar to cook evenly without burning.
The size of the pan will depend on how much sugar you want to caramelize.
- If the pan is too small, the sugar won’t caramelize evenly. You might end up with dark caramel while some sugar crystals remained undissolved. A small pan can also be unsafe as the caramel will sputter and boil over when you add heavy cream for example, to make a rich caramel sauce or filling.
- If the pan is too large, the layer of sugar will be very thin and too exposed to the heat. You’ll have trouble controlling the caramelizing process and might end up burning the caramel.
The pan should preferably be light-colored so that you can easily determine what color the caramel is and when to take it off the heat.
If you are making a wet caramel, I would recommend choosing a pan with a lid (to trap the steam in temporarily).
A heat-resistant rubber spatula
Caramel is extremely hot. As such, it is important to use tools, such as a high-quality rubber spatula, that can handle such high temperatures. Pfeiffer3 does not recommend using a wooden spoon as the caramel can easily get stuck to it. You might end up chipping off pieces of wood while trying to remove the caramel.
A pastry brush
A pastry brush can come in handy when making wet caramel. You can brush down the sugar crystals that are stuck to the edges of the pan, to prevent crystallization.
Protective gloves and outfit
It’s best to wear long sleeves and heat-resistant gloves when working with caramel to avoid getting splattered and burnt. If you want to be extra cautious, keep a bowl of ice water near you, in case you burn yourself.
Making Caramel Sauce (Using The Wet Method)
Step 1: Prepare the wet caramel
- Pour the water into a medium-sized pan then slowly add the sugar towards the center of the pan.
- Gently tap the pan to spread the sugar and cover it with water. Be careful not to splatter any sugar onto the sides of the pan. Do not stir, to avoid introducing impurities from the spatula.
- Bring to a boil on medium-high heat (heat 6 out of 9 for example), swirling occasionally to dissolve the sugar.
- When it starts to boil, place a lid on the pan and keep covered for 2 minutes. The trapped steam will condense and wash off the sides of the pan, getting rid of any stray sugar crystals there. You can also use a wet pastry brush if needed, to wash down the sides of the pan whenever you see sugar crystals on it.
- Remove the lid and keep heating until the sugar has caramelized and reaches a medium amber color or is slightly lighter than desired color. A light colored caramel will be sweeter than a darker one. The more you cook the caramel, the deeper the flavor and the more bitter it will become.
Tip: Once the color starts changing, reduce the heat to medium-low to have more control over the degree of caramelization.
Well, you just made caramel! You can use it as is, or you can proceed to making the caramel sauce. If you do decide to stop at this point, dip the pan in a bowl of cold water for a few seconds to stop the cooking process. This isn’t necessary when making caramel sauce since the ingredients (heavy cream, butter) you will be adding will lower the temperature of the caramel anyway.
Step 2: Add the cream to make caramel sauce
- Remove the caramel from the heat. Keeping the pan far from you, pour a small amount of heavy cream into the caramel. Stir immediately with a spatula, being very careful not to splatter any hot caramel on yourself. The extremely hot caramel will bubble up so please be very careful not to burn yourself.
- Add the remaining cream in several additions, stirring in-between.
- Optional: For a thicker, chewier caramel, return to medium-low heat and let it boil for 2 minutes.
Step 3: Add the butter and salt to the caramel sauce
- Transfer to a small bowl and let it cool down slightly before adding the butter and salt. Stir until fully combined. You should be able to get a homogeneous sauce by simply mixing with a spatula but you can use an immersion blender if needed. I now prefer to cool down the caramel sauce slightly before adding the butter so it doesn’t separate. But if you are in a rush, you can simply add it to the caramel sauce (in the pan) after the cream. Stir until fully combined.
If you’d rather make a dry caramel, then follow the step by step pictures below to make caramel. Then simply add the cream, butter and salt as explained above (steps 2 and 3).
Making Dry Caramel
- Pour just enough sugar into the pan to make one thin layer. Heat over medium heat until the sugar has dissolved, shaking the pan every now and then. You can occasionally gently push the remaining sugar crystals towards the melted sugar with a heatproof spatula. Reduce the heat if you notice that some of the sugar is already caramelizing while there are still undissolved sugar crystals. It shouldn’t cook too quickly or the first layer of sugar might end up burning while you are trying to melt the rest of the sugar.
- Add another thin layer of sugar (over the melted sugar) and wait for it to dissolve before repeating the process with more sugar, if necessary.
- Keep cooking until the sugar has caramelized. If you see darker spots of caramel (see 3rd picture below), swirl the pan to even out the heat. It’s best to take the caramel off the heat slightly before the desired stage as it will continue cooking a bit longer when taken off the heat.
- Use as desired.
Don’t worry if you get sugar clumps in your caramel. They will eventually melt. Just lower the heat if needed to avoid burning the caramel and stir the caramel until all the sugar melts.
We’ll be making a dry caramel to coat the ramekins for our crème caramel next time.
How To Know When Caramel Is Done
This will depend on what you are making and how deep you want the caramel flavor to be. Use the color of the caramel and the wonderful smells wafting through your kitchen to help you decide when to take the caramel off the heat.
Color of the caramel: The color of the caramel can be used to determine the sweetness of the caramel and how complex the flavors will be. The sweetness will decrease as the color darkens and intensifies. The darker the caramel, the more bitter it will become.
It’s best to take the caramel off the heat just before the desired color. The caramel will keep cooking a bit longer and get darker when taken off the heat. You should ideally stop cooking the caramel when it is light golden brown and a candy thermometer registers 160°C (325°F). If you are unhappy with the color after a few seconds, you can return it to the heat and cook it a bit longer.
Depending on the color of the pot you are using and the amount of caramel, you might find it hard to determine what color the caramel really is. I find it helpful to pour a drop of caramel onto a piece of parchment paper (using a spoon). When making caramel sauce, I will usually add the cream at the stage pictured here, when the caramel is not too sweet nor bitter. Note that the color of the caramel looks darker in the pot.
Why Is My Caramel Grainy?
Grainy caramel is most likely the result of crystallization.
What is crystallization?
When making wet caramel, you are dissolving the sugar in water. The sucrose molecules (in table sugar) however will try to return to a crystalline form, by clinging to any undissolved sugar crystals.
If you accidentally splashed sugar solution onto the sides of the pan, once the water evaporates, you’ll be left with stray sugar crystals that will prompt crystallization to occur. This can also happen if there are any impurities in your sugar or your pan. And if you stir too much.
How to prevent crystallization when making caramel
- Add glucose or corn syrup which reduce the chances of crystallization by getting in the way.
- Add an acidic ingredient such as lemon juice or cream of tartar. A few drops of lemon juice for example will break down some of the sucrose into fructose and glucose. I personally dislike the smell of the caramel when adding lemon juice.
- Make sure your sugar and equipment are clean: If you spot anything in your sugar that shouldn’t be there, remove it before caramelizing the sugar. Check that there are no residues on your pan, spatula etc.
- Keep the sugar away from the edges of the pan: 1) The water should be poured into the pan before you add the sugar. If you pour the water over the sugar, some sugar might splatter onto the edges of the pan, which would later cause crystallization. 2) Pour the sugar towards the center of the pan.
- Don’t stir: You might get impatient and try to speed up the process by stirring the syrup (when making wet caramel) but this will cause the sugar to crystallize. Simply swirl the pan gently every now and then.
- Use a saucepan lid: When the syrup starts to boil, cover the pan with a lid for 2 minutes. The steam created will be trapped by the lid. As it condenses back, it will wash down the sides of the pan, getting rid of any stray sugar crystals.
- Wash off the sides of the pan with a wet pastry brush: This isn’t usually necessary if you covered the pan with a lid for a few minutes.
- Find the right heat setting: If the heat is too high, you risk burning the caramel. But if it is too low, the sugar will take too long to caramelize and crystallization is more likely to occur.
How To Control The Thickness Of The Caramel Sauce
Using the same recipe, you might find that the consistency of your caramel sauce varies from one time to another. This will depend on several things such as:
- How much you cooked your caramel (how dark it was) before you added the cream and butter.
- Whether or not you returned the sauce to the heat after adding the cream.
If you prefer your sauce on the runny side:
- Don’t heat it for too long: Once the caramel has reached the desired stage, take it off the heat to add the cream, butter and salt. Don’t return the caramel sauce to the heat unless you want it to get thicker and chewier.
- Replace the butter with cream: If you want a sauce that stays runny in the fridge, use only cream. It will thicken slightly but will still be pourable straight out of the fridge.
- Thin the sauce out with milk: If you are unhappy with the consistency of the sauce once it has cooled down, thin it out with a little bit of milk. You might have to gently reheat the caramel sauce before adding the milk if it is very firm.
How To Clean The Pan After Making Caramel
Once you’ve poured out the caramel, fill the pan with water and let it sit until the caramel has melted. If the pan is still warm, this shouldn’t take long. But you can let it sit overnight if you find that the caramel is still stuck. It should now be easy to wash off with a soapy sponge, without scrubbing.
If you are in a rush, you can fill the pan about halfway through with water and bring to a simmer. Stir occasionally with the spatula you used to make the caramel, to melt off any caramel residues.
And that’s it! I hope you enjoy this caramel sauce! I’d love to know what you used it for!
You Might Also Like
1Suas, M. (2008). Advanced Bread and Pastry: A Professional Approach (1st ed.). Delmar Cengage Learning
2McGee, H. (2004). On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Scribner.
3Pfeiffer, J. & Shulman, M. R. (2013). The Art of French Pastry. Alfred A. Knopf.
Gisslen, W. (2005). Professional Baking (4th ed.). Wiley
Zuckerman, K. (2006). The Sweet Life: Desserts from Chanterelle. Bulfinch Press.