Here are two ways to caramelize sugar, with step-by-step photos so you don’t miss a beat. Plus, I’ll also show you how to make this incredibly luscious caramel sauce.
If you are under the assumption that caramel is tricky or difficult, I am here today to tell you that it doesn’t have to be! I know the process of caramelizing sugar can be quite intimidating, I really do, because I’ve been there. But once I got over my fear and practiced it a few times, I discovered how simple it really is, and that all I was lacking was a little confidence.
And I have confidence in you! You got this. I’ll show you how.
The Wet Method
Real caramel begins as granulated sugar placed over heat to melt, darken in color and take on a deep and bittersweet flavor. As the name suggests, this method of caramelizing sugar uses sugar + water. It’s the easier of the two, and the one I’d recommend for caramel newbies.
First, combine 1 cup of granulated sugar and 1/4 cup of water in a medium saucepan and set over medium heat.
As the sugar melts, resist the urge to stir and instead swirl and gently shake the pan back and forth to distribute the liquid and make sure it melts evenly. Stirring the sugar causes recrystallization and clumps to form— not a good thing.
Even without stirring, crystals can still form on the sides of the pan. Simply dip a pastry brush in water and brush the sides of the pan down to dissolve the crystals.
Now, all there is to do is wait and watch. In a matter of minutes, the sugar will change color from clear, to light amber, and finally a nice dark amber. Continue to swirl the pan as needed to make sure it’s caramelizing evenly (no stirring!).
The caramel can burn quickly, so keep a close eye on it. As soon as it reaches dark amber, immediately remove it from the heat.
Note, this right here is just caramelized sugar. If you don’t do anything to it, it will harden into a solid mass within just a few minutes. To make caramel sauce, see the recipe below! There are still a few simple steps.
The Dry Method
Unlike the Wet Method, this method uses only sugar. It will caramelize more quickly, and therefore can burn more easily.
Start with 1 cup of granulated sugar sprinkled evenly on the bottom of a medium saucepan and place over medium heat.
And then wait.
All on its own the sugar will melt and caramelize, starting with the edges and moving inward.
You’ll be really tempted to stir it, but don’t. Again, swirl and shake the pan to distribute the caramelized sugar in and around the unmelted sugar and to promote even browning.
As soon as it reaches that dark amber color, remove it from the heat.
And that’s it, you’ve caramelized sugar! Whew. Now, let’s make some caramel sauce and drizzle it over vanilla ice cream to celebrate.
How to Make Caramel Sauce
The easiest use for caramelized sugar is a basic caramel sauce. There’s no substitute for the real thing and it’s a perfect topping for all sorts of desserts.
Picking right up from where we left off, once your caramel has reached that perfect dark amber color, remove it from the heat and immediately add 3/4 cup heavy cream in a small steady stream while whisking constantly. The caramel will bubble violently and may even seize up slightly, and that’s okay.
Return the caramel and cream mixture to medium heat and simmer, stirring constantly, until any clumps have been dissolved and caramel is smooth.
Remove it from heat and stir in 2 tablespoons of butter, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and any desired flavorings such as vanilla extract, vanilla beans, or even whiskey.
Whatever you decide to do with your homemade caramel, I hope you give it a try!
Homemade Caramel Sauce
Making Caramel - Method 1 (Wet Method)
- 1 cups granulated sugar (200 grams)
- ¼ cup water (60 ml)
Making Caramel - Method 2 (Dry Method)
- 1 cup granulated sugar (200 grams)
For the Caramel Sauce:
- Caramel from above
- ¾ cup heavy whipping cream (178 ml)
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter (28 grams)
- ½-1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 vanilla bean , seeds removed from the pod (optional)
- 2 tablespoons whiskey (optional)
Making Caramel - Method 1 (Wet Method):
- Combine sugar and water in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Allow sugar to melt and bring to a boil. Let the mixture caramelize and wait for it to turn dark amber in color. Do not stir, swirl pan as needed to promote even caramelization.
Making Caramel - Method 2 (Dry Method):
- Sprinkle sugar evenly on the bottom of a medium saucepan set over medium heat. Allow sugar to melt and caramelize, swirling as necessary to promote even caramelization. Do not stir.
To make the Caramel Sauce:
- As soon as the caramel is dark amber in color, immediately remove it from the heat and slowly add the heavy cream while whisking constantly. Caramel will bubble violently.
- Return mixture to medium heat and simmer until any clumps have dissolved and mixture is smooth.
- Remove from heat and stir in butter and salt. Add vanilla extract and if desired, vanilla bean and whiskey.