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How to Make Caramel

By TBSP Angela
Updated March 25, 2020
Caramel is really just heated sugar—not so intimidating, right? It’s the complex flavor of caramel and its variety of uses that make it everyone’s favorite topping.

The great thing about caramel is that it’s easy to make and can be used a ton of different ways. Caramel is a simple confection—it can be described as "nearly burnt sugar." You heat up sugar slowly and once it reaches a specific point, then bam! It starts bubbling and turns brown. Turn off the heat and you have caramel.

Obviously, it is a bit more complex than that simple explanation, but in essence, you are causing a chemical reaction in the sugar once it reaches a specific temperature—generally about 335ºF. The chemical structure of the sugar changes and gives the resulting caramel a distinctive flavor.

How to Make Caramel

To make your own caramel, you just need sugar. Take a fair-sized saucepan and put in sugar to cover the bottom—then add a little bit more. Turn the stove on low and let the sugar start to melt. After a few minutes stir the sugar to make sure it doesn’t burn. Once stirred, let the sugar melt some more before stirring again.

Caramel can be easily burnt if left too long, but stirring too much will get you some lumpy caramel. Use a candy thermometer occasionally to see how close you are getting to the magical caramelization point. Once the sugar has liquefied keep a close eye on it—once it starts turning brown, you’ll want to cook it for a minute longer. Take it off the stove after your caramel gets that nice light brown hue.

Using Caramel in Recipes

cajeta caramel mexican sauce

If you let the caramel sit and cool, it will eventually harden and make a caramel hard candy. If you want thinner caramel sauce, you can mix in other ingredients such as cream or butter, such as in this recipe for Mexican caramel sauce.

caramel apple popcorn

Caramel for popcorn is typically made in a similar fashion, but instead of only cooking sugar, you use brown sugar and add in corn syrup and vanilla. Once this sauce has caramelized, you can pour it over your popcorn, mix it up and bake at a low temperature. This helps dry out the caramel and gives the popcorn a nice crunchy texture. Baking the caramel corn for a shorter time will result in chewier caramel corn.

sea salt caramels

If you want to make caramel candies, you can use sugar, butter, cream and vanilla. Once heated to about 250ºF, the mixture will start to caramelize. The end result is milk caramel—the milk is caramelized but not the sugars. You still get that great tasting caramel though. Who’s going to complain?

Of course, caramel can also be used for covering apples or any number of desserts. Or you can eat it plain with a spoon. We’ll happily join you.