A jar of caramel sauce in your fridge is the gift that just keeps on giving. Drizzle it over ice cream or a slice of pie (or both), add a spoonful to your morning oatmeal, use it as a dip for slices of apple, stir it into cocoa — need I go on?
Caramel sauce is also a good first project if you've never worked with sugar before and are eager — if a bit nervous — to enter the world of candy-making. It's a very forgiving sauce, and you don't even need a thermometer. Here's the scoop!
The Ingredients for Caramel Sauce
Caramel sauce is made by cooking sugar until it liquifies and cooks to a dark amber color, and then whisking in cream and butter. The caramelized sugar is what gives the sauce its flavor; the cream and butter are what turns it into a rich sauce. You don't need to get fancy when buying ingredients — basic grocery store staples will do. This said, if you want to up your caramel game, spring for some fancy butter and good cream.
Use the Right Size Pot
Before you even start cooking the sugar, make sure you're using a big-enough pot. When you add the cream halfway through the process, the sugar mixture will bubble up, nearly tripling in volume. Make sure your pan holds at least 2 to 4 quarts to allow for this bubbling. If you're not sure how big your pan is, just eyeball it when you add the sugar; if you have enough room in the pan for the sugar to bubble up to three times its volume, you're golden.
What to Expect When Cooking the Sugar
It's this stage of cooking the sugar that can feel the most intimidating and scary if you're not familiar with it. First, mix the sugar with a little water; you don't strictly need the water, but it helps control the process and slow it down a little. Once you've mixed the sugar and water, don't stir the sugar again — stirring can make the finished sauce taste grainy.
With the pan over high heat, let the sugar come to a boil. First you'll see little bubbles around the edge of the pan or in just a few spots. Then the whole surface will come to a boil and you'll see the sugar go from opaque to clear. Next you'll see streaks of yellow in the sugar, which will quickly darken to amber. When you see those darker, amber streaks, give the pan a gentle swirl to make sure everything is cooking evenly and there are no hot spots.
Keep cooking the caramel sauce as dark as you like — you don't strictly need a thermometer here, but if you'd like to check, the caramel should be between 325°F and 350°F at this point. The longer and darker you cook the caramel, the deeper the flavor; conversely, the shorter and lighter you cook the caramel, the lighter and sweeter the flavor. If you see wisps of smoke, that means you've hit the upper limit on the temperature and are good to move on to the next step.
Be Careful When Adding the Cream
When you add the cream, first of all make sure it's warm. I usually warm the cream in a pot on a back burner before I start cooking the sugar, but you could also warm it in the microwave. Cold cream straight from the fridge will cause the sugar to seize up. If you forgot to warm the cream and the sugar seizes, however, it's not the end of the world; you'll just need to be extra attentive to whisking out the lumps when you cook the sauce in the next step.
Also when you add the cream, be prepared for the whole mixture to bubble up. It happens very quickly and can make your heart skip a few beats, but it's all part of the process. Just keep pouring in the cream while whisking the mixture and the bubbling will subside after a few minutes.
Once the bubbling has calmed down, whisk in the butter and get ready to cook the sauce.
Cooking the Caramel Sauce
The last step in making a caramel sauce is cooking it a little longer on the stove. This helps bring everything together and cook out some of the liquid, making your sauce thicker and creamier. Cook for five to 10 minutes or so — cook shorter for a thinner, more drizzle-worthy sauce, and longer for a thicker, gooier sauce. Also, know that the sauce will thicken up more as it cools, so stop cooking when the sauce is still a bit loose for your liking.
Let the sauce cool, then transfer it to a jar and stash it in the fridge for up to two weeks — or as long as you can manage to keep it around!
How To Make Caramel Sauce
Makes about 3 cups
What You Need
1 1/2 cups
butter, cut into chunks
1- to 2-quart saucepan
2- to 4-quart saucepan
Instant-read or candy thermometer, optional
Jars, for storing the caramel sauce
Warm the cream: Pour the heavy cream into the smaller pot and put it on a back burner over low to medium heat. Don't let it come to a boil; just keep it warm.
Stir together the sugar and water: In the larger pot, combine the sugar and water. Set over high heat. Stir until the sugar is completely wet and looks sandy, then stop stirring.
Caramelize the sugar: Let the sugar cook undisturbed for 8 to 15 minutes, depending on your stove. First it will begin to bubble around the edges or in just a few spots around the pan. Next the entire surface will come to a boil and the sugar will go from opaque to clear. Next you will see yellow streaks, and the sugar will eventually turn amber. When you start to see very dark streaks, swirl the pan gently to make sure the sugar is cooking evenly. When the sugar is very dark amber, or if you start to see wisps of smoke, remove the pan from heat. If you'd like to double-check on a thermometer, the sugar should be between 325°F and 350°F at this point — the longer and darker you cook the caramel, the deeper the flavor.
Add the cream: As soon as the caramel is dark amber, remove the pan from heat and pour in the cream. The mixture will bubble up to almost twice its volume and release a lot of steam — be very careful! Use a long-handled whisk to whisk vigorously until the bubbling subsides.
Add the butter: Add the salt and butter to the pan, and whisk until the butter has melted and the mixture is smooth.
Cook the caramel sauce: Return the pan to medium-high heat and continue simmering the sauce for another 5 to 10 minutes. Cook for less time for a thinner caramel sauce, or for longer for a thicker sauce. The sauce will also thicken as it cools, so stop cooking when the sauce is still a bit loose for your liking.
Cool and refrigerate: Transfer the cooled sauce to jars and refrigerate. The sauce will keep refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.
This post has been updated — first published August 2007.