How to Make Burnt Sugar (aka Caramelized Sugar)

Caramelized Sugar on slotted spoon

Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr.com/CC BY 2.0

  • Total: 4 mins
  • Prep: 2 mins
  • Cook: 2 mins
  • Yield: 3 tablespoons (1 serving)
Nutritional Guidelines (per serving)
394 Calories
28g Fat
38g Carbs
0g Protein
See Full Nutritional Guidelines Hide Full Nutritional Guidelines
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 3 tablespoons (1 serving)
Amount per serving
Calories 394
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 28g 36%
Saturated Fat 2g 9%
Cholesterol 0mg 0%
Sodium 0mg 0%
Total Carbohydrate 38g 14%
Dietary Fiber 0g 0%
Protein 0g
Calcium 0mg 0%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)

Burnt sugar is an important flavor and color ingredient used in Trinidad and Tobago cuisine, but it has a place in American cooking as well (usually as a syrup), such as in pound cake, burnt sugar cake, as a syrup spooned over cheesecake, and in beef and poultry recipes. Making it can be tricky because—despite its name—you must avoid actually burning the sugar or it will become it bitter. The goal is to melt the sugar, which can be a somewhat delicate process but is worth the effort when you get the knack and have your timing down. 

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil
  • 3 tablespoons cane sugar

Steps to Make It

  1. Add the oil to large pot or pan. If you'll be using the sugar in a meat or poultry dish, use the same pot or pan you'll be cooking it in. 

  2. Warm the oil over medium-high heat until it's hot but not smoking.

  3. Sprinkle the sugar into the pot in an even layer. Let it melt until it begins to froth and bubble.

  4. Immediately add the remaining recipe ingredients as soon as the edges of the froth and the bubbles begin to turn a slightly darker shade. 

  5. Continue with the recipe you're making. 

Tips

  • In this recipe, timing is everything. You'll have a small window of time—literally seconds—to add the other recipe ingredients before the sugar turns bitter. Practice making the burnt sugar a few times before attempting to use it in a recipe.
  • You can substitute brown sugar for cane sugar, although this makes it more difficult to pinpoint exactly when the sugar is cooked (since it's already dark). To do so, melt the sugar in a pan without oil. Remove it from the heat and slowly add in 2 times the amount of very hot water (i.e., if you start with 1/2 cup of sugar, use 1 cup of hot water). Stir well, then return the pan to the heat and simmer on low for 5 minutes. The syrup will thicken when it's allowed to cool.

Using Burnt Sugar

Burnt sugar can be part of both sweet and savory recipes, cocktails, desserts, and main dishes. The combination of sugar with oil is for a savory use, as in the iconic Caribbean dish trini pelau. This brown chicken stew is studded with pigeon peas and flavored with herbs, coconut milk, and burnt sugar. Rice, onions, carrots, and peppers add texture and heft to the dish, while Worcestershire sauce, garlic, ketchup, and soy sauce bring the flavor profile up a notch.

For desserts and cocktails, the burnt sugar is made with hot water into a syrup. To make an Old Fashioned cocktail, add 3/4-ounce of burnt sugar syrup to 1 ounce bourbon and a dash of bitters. Pour over ice and serve. Burnt sugar is, of course, a star ingredient in the Southern burnt sugar cake, making its way into the cake batter itself as well as the frosting.