We Tried 8 Ways of Making Caramel Sauce and the Winner Is Absolutely Foolproof

published May 26, 2022
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spoons with caramel sauce; text: the best way to make caramel sauce: stovetop with brown sugar and condensed milk; microwave with lemon juice, microwave with brown sugar, microwave with corn syrup, instant pot water bath, slow cooker water bath, traditional stovetop, traditional stovetop with corn syrup
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

I have a sweet tooth, but I don’t crave pure sugar. I want my treats to have some depth — whether that’s a touch of salt, a little bitterness, or a frisson of sour. And the rich, just-on-the-edge-of-burnt flavor of caramel sauce gives me what I want.

I love making homemade caramel sauce (and my husband is super happy about this). You don’t need a candy thermometer — just your eyes and nose, because the caramel will tell you when it’s ready to be whisked with cream and butter.

Why would you want to make your own caramel sauce when you can just buy a jar? Well, for the same reasons why you’d want to make anything from scratch: It’s fun (at least I think it is!), it’s not that difficult (at least I think it’s not, when done right), and nothing beats the taste of fresh, warm, and gooey caramel sauce. Plus, homemade caramel sauce lasts for a long time in the fridge, so you’ll have lots of opportunities to drizzle it, spread it, or just scoop it out of the jar. Use it as an ice cream sundae topping, swirl it into brownie batter, add it to an apple pie, use it to make a caramel banana cake, or use it as a fruit dip.

But because caramel sauce has a reputation for being tricky to make — crystallization of the sugars being the biggest potential mishap — there are many hacks out there aimed at making it easier and less fussy. While I’ve long had a go-to method for making caramel sauce (more on that below), I set about to answer some important questions: Is there an easier way? Is there a better way? Can I convince you not to be afraid of hot boiling sugar? Let’s find out.

So, What Is the Best Way to Make Caramel Sauce?

While a number of the methods performed well in my tests, my favorite was the traditional stovetop method with the addition of corn syrup. I also found a variation on this method that I loved. Read on to find out why the old-fashioned way (with a little help from corn syrup) is your bet bet for the easiest, smoothest, and tastiest caramel sauce. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

A Few Notes on Methodology

Granulated sugar is the base of all true caramel sauce — it’s cooked until caramelized to a deep brown to create the signature color and flavor. Some methods use light corn syrup to stabilize the sugar syrup and prevent crystallization, and I tested a few of those here.

I also tried a few “cheat” methods that used brown sugar and sweetened condensed milk to speed up the process. However, I steered clear of any recipe that used sweetened condensed milk as the main ingredient, since that’s more of a dulce de leche recipe than a caramel sauce recipe.

If a recipe called for an additional flavoring like vanilla or cinnamon, I omitted it to keep all methods as close in taste as possible. I also omitted any additional salt for the same reason.

Ingredients: For all the methods tested, I used the same brand of granulated sugar, unsalted butter, and heavy cream, and — when called for — light brown sugar, light corn syrup, and sweetened condensed milk. 

Ratings criteria: I judged each method by the taste, texture, and consistency of the caramel sauce. Was it smooth and thick, or grainy and gritty? Did it actually taste caramelized, or was the sauce generically sweet with no depth of flavor?

I also judged the method on whether it actually worked and produced an edible caramel sauce, as well as its relative ease. If a method required special equipment or a complicated process, it needed to justify the work involved.

And, because I’m always petty this way, I considered the mess each method made. Caramel sauce, despite its stickiness, should be fairly easy to make and clean up afterward.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk
Caramel Sauce with Brown Sugar and Condensed Milk

Caramel Sauce Method: Stovetop with Brown Sugar and Condensed Milk

Rating: 1/10

About this method: This method uses brown sugar and sweetened condensed milk to try to replicate the taste and texture of a traditional granulated sugar caramel sauce, but with a quicker cook time. The brown sugar is melted with butter in a saucepan, then simmered with condensed milk and light corn syrup until thickened.

Results: While the texture of the sauce was creamy as promised, it did not come close to thickening to the rich, taffy-like ribbons of caramel sauce that I expected, nor did the color darken at all to a deep bourbon hue. After cooking for the full eight minutes called for, my sauce was gritty and still too pale in color to be really considered caramel. I also had to stir constantly to prevent the sauce from sticking and burning on the pan, which is the exact opposite of easy and hands-off. In the end, I had to toss the whole batch.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Caramel Sauce Method: Microwave with Lemon Juice

Rating: 1/10

About this method: As part of my research, I discovered quite a few recipes that call for using the microwave to make caramel sauce. There were also a number that recommended lemon juice as an ingredient in caramel sauce to prevent crystallization. I tried the combo in this test, cooking a mere 1/4 teaspoon lemon juice along with granulated sugar, corn syrup, and water in a microwave-safe bowl. Once the syrup darkened and rested after being removed from the microwave, I added cream and unsalted butter.

Results: Hey, who wants caramel sauce that tastes lemony? Anyone? As much as I’m a fan of lemon desserts, I found the taste of that tiny splash of lemon to be way too prominent in this method.

The overall stop-and-start method of making caramel sauce in the microwave was super annoying to me as well. Unlike on the stovetop, where you can keep an eye on the changing color of the sugar syrup as it cooks, the microwave method makes you stop the cooking time every 15 to 30 seconds, open the door, check the color of the syrup, and repeat until it starts to go from clear to golden.

Unless you make caramel sauce frequently this way and know the exact quirks of your microwave, that’s a lot of stopping and starting. And you might not even time it exactly right anyway! I pulled my sugar syrup a little earlier than the traditional microwave version (below) and it wasn’t dark enough after the five-minute rest period — so I had to cook it a little longer, rest it again, and it still didn’t taste great. For all of those reasons, I’d pass on this method.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Caramel Sauce Method: Microwave with Brown Sugar

Rating: 4/10

About this method: Another “cheat” caramel sauce that uses brown sugar to replicate caramelization, this method was in fact much easier than the two microwave versions with granulated sugar I tested. You simply cook melted butter, brown sugar, and cream together in the microwave for 4 minutes, stirring halfway through the cook time and again when the sauce is done.

Results: Unfortunately, the ease did not translate to a superior caramel taste. Again, the brown sugar did not deepen and darken as much as a true caramel sauce should. And once the sauce cooled in the microwave, the butter separated from the rest of the sauce. It’s not a deal-breaker, as it could be stirred back in once warmed, but it’s a little unappealing and something that never happens with my usual caramel sauce recipe.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Caramel Sauce Method: Microwave with Corn Syrup

Rating: 4/10

About this method: This method was essentially the same as the lemon juice method (see above) but without the lemon juice. You boil granulated sugar, corn syrup, and water in a microwave-safe bowl or container just until the syrup starts to turn golden. After a 5-minute rest, you add cream and unsalted butter.

Results: The taste of this caramel sauce was much better than the lemon juice version, with a richer flavor and a thick smoothness. But the method still lost points for the overall annoyance of stopping, starting, and guessing at how dark the caramel might be after the rest period. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Caramel Sauce Method: Instant Pot Water Bath Method

Rating: 4/10

About this method: In this method, granulated sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, and condensed milk are stirred together with melted butter in a heatproof bowl that fits inside the Instant Pot. Cover the bowl with foil and place on the Instant Pot trivet, then add water to the Instant Pot and pressure cook.

Results: As with many Instant Pot “hacks,” the process was much more complicated (and took longer) than just making caramel sauce on the stovetop. So much water was required that the inner metal bowl actually started floating and bobbing around inside!

After pressure cooking and allowing for a 10-minute natural release, the caramel had been cooking for more than an hour. The lumpy texture smoothed out with a vigorous stirring, but like all the brown sugar-condensed milk recipes so far, it wasn’t as dark or rich in taste or color as I wanted it to be. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Caramel Sauce Method: Slow Cooker Water Bath

Rating: 8/10

About this method: Just like the Instant Pot water bath method, this recipe combines alllll the sweeteners — granulated sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, and condensed milk — with melted butter in a bowl that fits inside a slow cooker. Add hot tap water, leave the bowl uncovered (!), and put the lid on the slow cooker, then allow the sauce to cook on high heat for up to 10 hours.

Results: It really weirded me out to leave the bowl of caramel sauce uncovered as it cooked in the slow cooker, but it was so nice to be able to see the progression as the liquid turned from pale straw to golden and finally a rich brown. The texture was smooth and thick after a final whisking, and tasted almost spot-on. It was a little too sweet for my personal taste, but my husband, who has an extra-sweet sweet tooth, had no complaints.

It also only took eight hours to reach the desired color and texture in my slow cooker, so I’m grateful I didn’t have to keep peeking at it for another 2 hours. (Yes, sometimes you get up at 6:30 a.m. just to start testing caramel sauce on the off chance that you still might be making it as you’re prepping dinner.) While this method produced tasty caramel sauce, having a slow cooker going all day isn’t always the most convenient. Plus, it made a whopping four cups (a quart) of sauce, which could be a plus or minus, depending on how you look at it.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Caramel Sauce Method: Stovetop Traditional Wet Caramel Method

Rating: 9/10

About this method: The traditional “wet” caramel method, as described in this Kitchn recipe calls for simply cooking sugar and water together in a saucepan until the sugar dissolves into a syrup, then bubbles and simmers until it’s caramelized. (The “dry” method is to cook sugar without the assistance of water, which definitely works too, but takes longer and can be a little nerve-racking. Wet is easier!)

Once the sugar is caramelized to a deep amber color — and smells amazing — you whisk in cream and butter to make it saucy and pourable.

Results: I’ve made caramel sauce approximately a million times using both the wet method and the dry method as well as the corn syrup-boosted method (spoiler alert: that’s below). I have watched many, many pans of sugar bubbling into beautiful bourbon-hued caramel on my stove burner, so I didn’t expect any shocking turn of events here. And sure enough, this method produced a fantastic caramel sauce.

In addition to the stovetop test, I also tested this method using the Sauté function on the Instant Pot and I was pleasantly surprised to see that it worked just as well as the old-school stovetop method. I can’t tell you if I’ll ever be in a situation where I’ll have to make caramel without a stove accessible, but if I do, I hope to have my Instant Pot handy so I can do it this way.

The only strange thing about both of these caramel sauces is that once again, the butter separated as the sauce was cooling. Again, it’s easy to stir it back in, but that’s something that never happens with the addition of corn syrup. Which brings us to…

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Caramel Sauce Method: Traditional Stovetop with Corn Syrup

Rating: 10/10

About this method: Full disclosure: The traditional wet caramel method with the addition of corn syrup, is method I always use these days. In fact, it’s the caramel recipe you’ll find on my website Good. Food. Stories. Adding just a touch of corn syrup to the sugar and water helps stabilize the sugar syrup and prevents chunks of crystals from forming as the sugar simmers away. While I’ve rarely had an issue with crystallization since the first few times I tried the dry and wet methods of making caramel, I think it’s good insurance.

Results: As expected, this made the caramel sauce I wanted: deeply hued, smooth and thick, sweet but with a hint of toastiness. And now I’m thinking that the corn syrup works as insurance in yet another way — to prevent the butter from separating as the sauce cools. When it comes down to it, simmering on the stovetop is far simpler and much more effective than any so-called cheat or hack methods. And it’s like your own tasty scientific experiment, watching the sugar bubble and simmer, with a much more rewarding finish than getting a blue ribbon at the science fair! 

Final Takeaways

While you can certainly use one of the brown sugar-condensed milk methods to make an approximation of caramel sauce, they will mostly be pale imitations of the real thing. 

The slow cooker method might be the right one for you if you’re making a huge batch of caramel sauce for holiday gifts or, I don’t know, a caramel fountain for a wedding reception? (I’m trying to think of a situation where you’d need an entire quart of caramel sauce.)

But otherwise, I strongly encourage you to get over any fear of cooking sugar syrup on the stovetop and go for it. I swear, it’s not as intimidating as you might think, and you’ll end up with the caramel sauce you’ve been wanting all along.