The ins and outs of caramel, fall’s other favorite flavor
While it is undeniably true that it is impossible to escape the media circus that is pumpkin spice this time of year, and even if you manage to ignore its latte-drenched haze, you’re likely to be sucked, full force, into apple mania, I’m here to argue that neither of these are the defining flavors of fall.
Fall doesn’t taste only of nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon. It also tastes firmly of caramel — bittersweet, buttery, and quite literally mouthwatering, caramel.
And I’m not just talking about caramels, plural. Chewy caramel candies are delightful, sure, but deeply bronzed sugar is a perfect foil to all of our favorite fall ingredients — just ask apples, which turn from trick to treat with a quick dip into caramel sauce — and its deep umami even plays nice with savory fall dishes like roast pork and duck.
The best part of caramel, though, is that anyone with a bag of sugar, perhaps a pint of cream, and some patience can harness its magic at home. All you need is a little scientific know-how.
What is caramelization?
Read any food blog or watch culinary television and you’ll see this term thrown around a lot. It is often used incorrectly to refer to the browning on meats; however, true caramelization only occurs with pure sugar. The other form of browning, known as the Maillard reaction, occurs when sugars and proteins are heated together and form a different array of flavors, most notably umami.
In both instances, however, sugars are superheated and begin to “vibrate with energy,” writes food scientist Ali Bouzari in Ingredient. “When they vibrate hard enough, they explode. Each microscopic piece of sugar shrapnel then explodes again, and those shards start smacking one another, forming new compounds. This rippling cascade of reactions transforms sweet, colorless, odorless sugar into some of the deepest, most complex mixture of taste, color, and aroma in existence. Browning is a sugar supernova.”
The more a sugar is cooked, the darker, less sweet and more bitter it becomes. Think about the difference between simple syrup used in cocktails versus a caramel sauce versus a deeply browned hard caramel candy — each increases in complexity and bitterness the darker they appear.
Caramel candies take advantage of caramelization and the Maillard reaction
Most caramel candies are made from more than just sugar. Most also include at least one dairy product, if not more. Typically, caramel candy recipes start with a deeply caramelized sugar syrup, cooked to at least an amber color. Then a warm mixture of cream and often butter is added, which will set off a second series of reactions with the dairy sugars, proteins and fats in the cream. Those proteins and sugars will blast together to create the Maillard reaction, causing the entire caramel mass to brown more quickly and develop deeper layers of flavor.
This is why chewy caramel candies have more complexity than, say, caramelized spun sugar. These dairy products also change the texture and mouthfeel of the candy; casein proteins add chew and butterfat gives the candy a smooth lushness and it contributes moisture. (In fact, butterfat is the reason, according to Harold McGee, why chewy caramels will literally make your mouth water.) Butterfat also helps to prevent the candy from sticking to your teeth.
Caramelized sugar doesn’t, of course, just come in bite-sized candy shapes. It is also found in everything from simple butterscotch ice cream sauce and creme brulee to spun sugar placed atop a tower of cream puffs. Depending on its use, it’ll be cooked for more or less time and be mixed with all manner of ingredients. Our favorite apple cake gets shellacked with an ultra simple caramel-y sauce made from brown sugar and milk and our salted caramel ice cream is infused with pure brown sugar for ultimate depth of flavor.
How to make caramel at home without going crazy
Homemade caramel has a reputation for being finicky. And it is, sorta. You do need to dedicate the time to stand by the stove and monitor sugar syrup, as well as make sure nothing crystallizes and boils over. But there are a few tricks to making sure you pull off perfect caramel each and every time — no matter if you’re making a Sundae sauce or a candied treat.
First, choose your pot wisely. Always look for a pot that fits perfectly over the burner you’ll be using on your stove. Hot and cool spots are the perfect breeding ground for sugar crystals, which are your main enemy here. And while you’re rummaging through your cabinet, make sure to pull out a pot that has higher sides than you think you’ll need. When it comes time to add in your dairy mixture, the caramel will bubble and expand quite violently, and you definitely don’t want that screaming hot mixture to overflow.
Speaking of equipment, you’d also be wise to invest in a candy thermometer or digital instant read thermometer. While candy experts can often make caramel by visual cues alone, you’ll want to reassurance that a reliable thermometer brings, especially when it comes to the final, dairy-filled cooking stage.
Second, pull out the Karo and take care how you add your ingredients to the pot. Again, this advice has to do with crystallization. Corn syrup (glucose) is a different form of sugar than table (sucrose) and its structure will help to tangle up the sucrose molecules of table sugar and prevent them from joining up into larger crystals. Think of it as extra insurance. I also like to always start by mixing corn syrup and water in my caramel pot and then pile the sugar in the center, keeping it from the edges of the pot. What’ll happen as you heat the pot is that the water-corn syrup mixture will come to a boil first, around the edges of the pot, and prevent those pesky sugar bits from hitting the sides of the pot and, again, crystallizing. The sugar will gradually dissolve into the water and the mound will disappear.
Why add water to the caramel mixture at all? Even though you end up boiling it all off anyway, water is often added to caramel recipes because it makes it possible to cook the sugar over relatively high heat without as much worry about burning. It also delays browning, which gives all of those chemical reactions more time to occur and, consequently, develop more flavor.
Third, don’t stir, swirl. This advice is common, as stirring will agitate the sugar and can contribute to crystallization. I’ve found that once the sugar is mostly dissolved, you can gently give the pot a swirl or two to encourage it to finish dissolving and to reduce the chance for hot spots, but do resist the urge to stick a spoon in there and stir everything around.
Fourth, always remove the pot from the heat when you add dairy. You’ll be happy you did, and be happy you chose a high-sided pot, the first time you see that milky hot foam shooting up from the pot. Once the foam subsides, return the pot to the heat and now, only now, can you stir. In fact, you should definitely stir the pot as the caramel mixture continues to cook; once the dairy gets added, the thickened mixture has a tendency to stick and scorch. Cooking over relatively low heat helps, too.
At this point, you’re almost finished — once dairy is added, caramel doesn’t need to be cooked that much longer. Depending on your desired texture, you may only need five minutes, or none at all. Caramel sauce doesn’t need to see heat again once the dairy is dissolved. Chewy caramels need only to be cooked to 245 to 250 degrees, but harder toffees and brittles need to hit over 300 degrees before being removed from the heat.
Once you’ve reached your target temperature, immediately remove the pot from the heat and pour the caramel into a separate vessel. I like to use a parchment-lined and and greased brownie pan for most of my caramel projects, but anything that you can easily remove the caramel from later will work just fine.
Whether you pronounce it caaaramel or caahramel (or some other way entirely), you’re now on your way to becoming an expert.