What Is Caramel?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

Caramel candy block and pieces

Kim Love / Flickr / CC 2.0

Caramel is a candy created when sugar is heated to 340 degrees Fahrenheit (170 degrees Celsius). As sugar is heated slowly to this temperature, the molecules break down and form new compounds that have a deep, rich flavor and dark golden brown color. This process is known as "caramelization" and can be achieved with any variety of sugar.

Fast Facts

  • Varieties: Caramel varies in consistency, due to ingredient proportions
  • Main Component: The main ingredient in caramel is sugar
  • Origins: Salted caramel was invented in 1977 in France

Butterscotch and Toffee vs. Caramel

Toffee and butterscotch are similar to caramel but are made with brown sugar or molasses and have butter added, whereas caramel is made with white sugar. The two are also cooked to different candy-making stages. These stages refer to a specific temperature range when cooking sugar syrups and indicate how pliable or brittle the candy will be. Butterscotch is boiled to the soft crack stage. Toffee is heated further to the hard crack stage. The soft crack stage occurs at 270 to 290 F. During this stage, the sugar concentration of the syrup is 95 percent, which affects how pliable or brittle the candy will be. This differs from the hard crack stage, which occurs at 300 to 310 F. When the sugar syrup reaches the hard-crack stage, it will form brittle strands in the water and crack as you bend it.

Varieties

Caramel can be mixed with cream and other ingredients to make caramel sauce or soft caramel candy, such as milk caramels. Caramel-coated apples are a popular autumn treat. A pinch of salt is used in most caramels because it helps counter the bitterness that develops during caramelization. Adding more salt to make salted caramel is a popular variation, with salt either added to the top of candies or mixed with caramel sauce. Caramel-flavored coffees and hot cocoas are also common, and their salted caramel variations also have become popular.

Caramel Uses

Caramel can be eaten alone as a candy or used to flavor other candies, desserts, or beverages. A layer of caramel is used to top the classic desserts flan and creme brûlée. Caramel is the binding agent for several candies such as pralines, caramel corn, and peanut brittle. When it only contains caramelized water and sugar as it does for these desserts, it is known as clear caramel.

How to Cook With Caramel

In order to cook with caramel, you can either make it or buy it pre-made. There are two methods for making caramel—dry or wet. Dry caramel is made simply by heating sugar until it liquefies. Wet caramel is made by combining sugar with water before heating to the point of caramelization.

Whichever method used, the sugar must be stirred constantly to prevent hot spots that can quickly pass the point of caramelization and end up burned. Making caramel at home can be tricky because of the narrow temperature range in which sugar becomes caramel before it burns.

Other ingredients, such as butter, milk, or vanilla, can be added to caramel for more flavor and texture. These ingredients are usually added after the sugar has caramelized. When milk or butter is added before heating the sugar, the milk sugars themselves can caramelize, producing a slightly different flavor and texture. Adding milk or butter helps achieve the chewy caramel texture, as opposed to hard candy.

Another option is to buy pre-made baking caramels. These are usually individually wrapped, bite-sized candies. They can be eaten alone or you can unwrap a lot of them, heat them, and then use them as you would homemade caramel.

What Does It Taste Like?

Caramel has a rich, very sweet taste. The consistency of caramel is pretty sticky and only becomes stickier as it gets warmed in your mouth. Caramel color is a compound used for coloring foods, most notably colas. This highly concentrated product is nearly 100 percent caramelized sugar and has a strong, bitter flavor. Caramel color is used in small quantities and only for color rather than flavor.

Substitutes

While there is no exact swap for caramel, it is possible to make a vegan version. Instead of using butter and dairy, you can create a vegan caramel sauce with 1/4 cup coconut oil, 1/4 cup maple syrup, and 2 tablespoons almond butter. Melt the oil and syrup together and then whisk in the almond butter. Add a bit of salt or cinnamon for taste.

Caramel Recipes

Caramel treats are sweet and tasty. Once you know how to make the caramel sauce, you'll want to add it to every dessert.

Where to Buy Caramel

Caramel candy can be found at most major grocery stores in bagged packages. Premade caramel sauce is sometimes sold as an ice cream topping in a glass jar. Otherwise, it's pretty easy to make your own with pantry ingredients.

Storage

If you make your own caramel sauce, let it come to room temperature. Then transfer it to a sealed jar and refrigerate. You can store it in the refrigerator for one month or in the freezer for up to three months. Store caramel candies in a cool, dark, dry location and make sure the wrappers are tight.

Nutrition and Benefits

The nutritional value of caramel depends on how it is made. Since it's a sugary treat, there is little nutritional benefit. Check individual calorie counts on the recipe or package.