Nina’s Tips: Your Questions, Answered! Making Caramel Sauce

peachicecreamAlana from Healthy Living asks: how the heck do you make a perfect caramel sauce? I’m strugglin’! 🙂

Sugar is one of the most temperamental and challenging ingredients in the kitchen – up there with eggs and chocolate! It is no surprise that anyone, even the most seasoned cook, would have trouble making caramel and caramel sauce because there are a number of things that can go wrong in the process! First, let’s really define “caramel sauce,” because there are a number of confectionaries that can be made from caramel. Caramel sauce is sugar, heated to the caramel stage (above 170 degrees F) with cream added – yum! There are three very common things that can go wrong when making caramel sauce. I’ll outline them below along with my tips on how to remedy these mistakes:

1.) The caramel crystalizes: Sugar is a crystal. If you have ever made rock candy as a kid you understand how one seed crystal can grow a colony of other crystals. This property in sugar is true no matter how you work with it, and if you get a seed crystal in a liquid sugar solution it can cause the entire batch to crystalize. You’d know if your caramel is crystalized because it will be all grainy (like wet sand) instead of sheer. To avoid crystalizing your caramel, try adding water to your white sugar before you begin to heat it. Make sure to wash down the sides of your pan so there are no sugar granules stuck to the sides, as these can sometimes fall in and cause the batch to crystalize. Make sure to cook your caramel down on low heat so the mixture doesn’t throw crystals onto the side of the pan. And don’t stir! I know everyone loves to stir things, but adding a foreign object to your sugar mixture is basically asking for crystallization! A more certain way to keep your caramel from crystalizing is to stabilize it with an invert sugar (a sugar that is liquid at room temperature) – like corn syrup. Adding corn syrup also helps the caramel not harden into a rock when it is cooled.

2.) You over-caramelize the sugar: There are many stages of “caramel” from very blond to almost black, sometimes called black jack. Dark caramels are frequently used in Southeast Asian dishes because of their bitter qualities, but dark caramel is not pleasing to many on its own. The challenging part is that caramel will get darker and darker if you don’t halt the process, even if you take it off the heat. Many folks are worried about adding the cream when it is so hot, so they wait too long and the caramel gets too dark – and the whole sauce tastes off. Add the cream as soon as your sugar reaches the darkness you desire. If you’re looking to make caramel but not add cream, you can pour your caramel out onto a cool sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Exposing so much surface area to the air will cool it quickly.

3.) The cream curdles: Lastly, it is easy to curdle, or break, heavy cream when it’s added to hot things. (For those who I scolded for stirring too much, this is your chance to shine!) As soon as you add the cream, you must stir! A lot! And fast! And also remove the mixture from the heat source!

Recipe: Peach Sundaes with Salted Caramel Sauce