Though the end result is complex and has incredible depth when it comes to flavor, the concept is actually pretty simple: It’s just melted sugar. Think of it that way and it’s already less intimidating.
And yet it’s so versatile in its final form. Pair it with apples, chocolate, coffee, pumpkin, vanilla ice cream…the list goes on. Sure, you can buy pre-made caramel products for pairing, but making it yourself is a lot easier than you may imagine.
There are two basic methods for making caramel: dry or wet.
1. Spread a layer of white sugar evenly in a clean saucepan and place it on the stove over medium heat. Don’t step away; you’ll want to be close by to avoid it burning!
2. As the sugar starts to melt, use a wooden or silicone spoon to keep moving the sugar around to avoid clumps or burning. The sugar must reach at least 110 degrees Fahrenheit for caramelization to take place (certain sugars have to be heated at slightly higher temps for the same reaction), but too much higher and it could burn and spoil the batch.
3. Use a thermometer or just trust your eyes and nose to know when it’s done. You can take it to a deep tawny color before it burns, but the darker it is, the more complex and less sweet; take it just up to edge of almost-burned and it’s even sort of smoky.
Related Reading: Explore the Deliciously Dark Side of Savory Caramel
Fine Cooking has more info on specific temperatures and colors of caramel to help guide you. Once you pull it off the heat, you can use the caramel as is for desserts like flan or pralines, or add in cream or vanilla for additional flavor and a more sauce-like consistency.
1. Use a ratio of ⅓ cup of water per one cup of sugar and combine in a clean saucepan. Optional: Oil the inner sides of the pan to help prevent crystallization, or add a bit of corn syrup, lemon juice, vinegar, or cream of tartar to the mixture in the pan. Set it on high heat and stir gently until the water starts to boil.
2. At this point, the water will begin to boil off and the sugar will start to caramelize. Keep a close eye on the sauce as the color begins to deepen and pull it off the heat once you’ve found the tone you’re going for.
This method will help you end up with a more liquidy version of the confection (like the kind that is used to make caramel apples)—but it’s also more prone to crystallization, which will make the caramel grainy. To avoid that, do not stir the mixture once it begins to boil until/unless you see uneven browning begin to occur. You can run a wet (but not dripping!) pastry brush over the inside walls of the pan partway through the process too.
A few things to keep in mind for either method:
Looking for more ways to use your homemade caramel? Here are some delicious ideas.
If your familiarity with Bundt cakes begins and ends with “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” (you know the scene!), then it’s time to school yourself on this hole-y dessert. Pumpkin flavor and warm spices combine to make an autumnal treat that you’ll want to eat all year. A salted caramel sauce is the icing on the cake—literally. Get our Pumpkin Spice Bundt Cake with Salted Caramel Sauce recipe.
Need a way to justify enjoying sweet, gooey caramel for breakfast? Here you go! With rich challah or brioche, ripe bananas, and plenty of golden sauce, it’s indulgent enough already—and yet, you may as well add some chocolate chips or chunks for good measure. Get our Salted Caramel Banana Breakfast Strata recipe. (Try our Caramel Apple Cinnamon Breakfast Casserole recipe for an autumnal twist.)
Making a homemade pie crust and homemade caramel may seem daunting, but with an end result as delicious as this one, it’s worth the work. Chopped pecans pair with a layer of salted caramel sauce for a drool-worthy cheesecake. Get our Pecan and Salted Caramel Cheesecake recipe.
Whether you’re trying to cut back on refined sugar or just looking for an easier, fool-proof method, these plant-based takes on caramel sauce actually don’t use heat; they use lots of blending instead! Grab your food processor and watch a bowl of dates transform into a nutty, thick, caramel-like topping that is vegan and gluten-free with this Three-Ingredient Date Caramel recipe. Or, if you want something runnier to use as a sauce, try the Raw Caramel recipe pictured above.
Were you the kid who plotted out which houses had the best Halloween candy growing up? Then this grown-up take on one of your favorite treats will make your inner child beyond happy. The creamy-crunchy-salty-sweet snacks won’t last long, so enjoy them before they fly off the plate. Get our Chocolate Caramel Apple recipe.
If you were more of a popcorn ball kid, these crunchy, salty, and sweet caramel popcorn confections are the perfect thing to whip up at home. Get our Salted Caramel Popcorn Balls recipe.
You can also mix your homemade caramel sauce into a batch of fluffy frosting, perfect for slathering on cakes and cupcakes all fall. It pairs perfectly with almost any cake flavor, including vanilla bean, chocolate, spiced apple, and pumpkin. Get our Salted Caramel Frosting recipe.