How to Make Caramel Sauce
Read on for step-by-step instructions on how to make caramel by melting sugar, and how to turn it into a rich, spoonable dessert sauce by adding butter and cream.
Two Ways to Make Caramel
You make caramel by melting sugar, and there are two methods for melting (or cooking) sugar: "wet" and "dry." For either method, you need a perfectly clean saucepan and clean white sugar. Stray crumbs of any sort can cause the caramel sauce to crystallize and become grainy.
1. Dry Sugar Cooking Method
For the dry sugar cooking method, simply heat sugar in a heavy saucepan until it melts and begins to brown. You don't stir the pan at all — you just watch it all happen from a safe distance. The browning (caramelization) of the molten sugar happens quickly, so you really don't want to walk away while it's happening.
- To help prevent the caramel from crystallizing, you can add an acid to the sugar before you begin: add about half a tablespoon of lemon juice to each cup of sugar and mix it with your hands; it should be the consistency of wet sand.
- Heat the sugar over medium-high heat until it melts. You can shake the pan gently to redistribute the melting sugar, but don't stir.
- When all the sugar is melted and caramelized, immediately remove the pan from the heat and submerge the bottom of the pan in an ice water bath to stop the cooking process. (You need to use a heavy pan for this step, or your cookware can warp.)
2. Wet Sugar Cooking Method
Many cooks believe this wet sugar cooking method offers greater control over the degree of caramelization, offering the option of stopping at pale gold or taking it all the way to a deep amber or even a mahogany color, for a pleasant burnt-sugar taste. You can use the wet sugar cooking method for any caramel sauce recipe:
- Using a heavy-bottomed sauce pan, add ¼ to ⅓ of a cup of water to every cup of sugar in your recipe and heat over medium-high heat.
- You can stir the pan to dissolve the sugar, but once the mixture comes to a boil, stop stirring: the agitation can promote crystallization, which will result in grainy caramel.
- You can also use a lid on your pan to speed up the boiling process, but once it's boiling, leave the lid off: all of the water needs to evaporate before the sugar can start to caramelize.
- When you get to a nice medium caramel color, pull the pan from the stove and pour the caramel into ramekins if you're using the caramel for flan.
Again, you don't want to walk away while you're making caramel because sugar changes from golden to mahogany brown very quickly, so watch it constantly once it begins to color. (It's also a good idea to have ice water nearby, just as a precaution. Sugar burns are extremely painful, so be careful when working with caramel.)
How to Turn Caramel Into Caramel Sauce
Once you make caramel, it will harden as it cools, and you'll have to heat it up again to use it. However, if you want to turn it into a more spoonable sauce, you add other ingredients like butter or cream to the melted caramel.
Caution: As soon as you add butter and cream to your pot, it will spit and foam and rise up the sides of the pan, so be sure to use a pot with very high sides. Turn off the heat and keep stirring until the butter melts and the ingredients are all incorporated. (Tip: Adding very cold cream will cause the caramel to harden; if that happens, keep cooking the sauce over low heat until it melts again.)
Allow the caramel sauce to cool, and transfer to an airtight container. Store in the refrigerator for up to a week. The sauce can be reheated on the stove over medium-low heat or in a microwave.
Homemade caramel sauce makes splendid food gifts for the holidays.
More Ingredients to Add to Caramel Sauce
You can flavor caramel with liqueurs, fruit juices, and extracts. For example, you can make an apple cider caramel sauce for your next apple pie by adding about a third of a cup of apple cider to the warm caramel. Let it cool and pour the sauce over the apples in your pie (toss them with cornstarch and spice first). Toss gently and transfer the apple mixture to the crust-lined pie plate.
- Salted Caramel Sauce: A little coarse Kosher salt is added for a more nuanced sauce. Taste, and add more salt if desired.
- Vanilla Caramel Sauce: This caramel sauce is made with brown sugar, butter, and milk, with a touch of vanilla extract to enhance the flavor
- Coffee Caramel Sauce: Stir 1 teaspoon of instant espresso powder into the cream and mix until dissolved. Proceed with your basic caramel recipe and add the espresso cream to make the sauce.
Watch Chef John Make Salted Caramel Sauce
More Recipes with Caramel Sauce
Try these top-rated recipes that call for caramel sauce.
"Awesome caramel for dipping apples, bananas, etc," says SPLACE. "Great for topping on ice cream too."
"I work at a coffee shop and my favorite coffee drink is a caramel macchiato," says Dawn. "So I created a caramel macchiato cheesecake that has become my favorite cheesecake."
"The Venezuelan quesillo recipe, pronounced ke-see-yo, has bounced around our family since as long as I can remember," says imgoingbananas.
It's easy to make homemade caramels. All you need to make these satiny-smooth, chewy candies are sugar, corn syrup, evaporated milk, whipping cream, and butter. Cool the caramel in the pan, cut into squares, and wrap them up in waxed paper, twisting the ends to seal.
"A rich, creamy pumpkin poke cake with caramel and bourbon," says Stasty Cook. "One slice is never enough!"
More Ways to Use Homemade Caramel:
Check out our collection of Caramel Sauce Recipes.