Part of what fascinates about caramel is the seeming alchemy involved in the transformation of odorless crunchy white sugar grains into aromatic, sweetly gooey golden liquid. We tested every possible variable to get a grip on what makes caramel succeed or fail and created a technique that every home cook can feel confident about.
Making caramel candies and sauces involves nothing more than melting sugar on the stovetop and then usually adding cream and butter, but it’s tricky. To break down its molecules correctly and trigger the cascade of necessary chemical reactions, the sugar must be heated slowly and carefully, or else it can melt unevenly and burn or it can seize and turn grainy.
Traditional recipes call for combining sugar and water in a pan, stirring to dissolve the sugar as it heats and brushing down the inside walls of the pot with a wet pastry brush to prevent crystallization. But with our method, you add the sugar after the water, pouring it right into the middle of the pan, making stirring not only unnecessary but also undesirable. Increasing the proportion of water to sugar prevents the sugar from traveling up the sides of the pot, making brushing down the sides unnecessary. To keep the caramel from turning grainy, incorporate corn syrup: The sucrose molecules of white sugar have a strong tendency to cling together in larger grains, but incorporating corn syrup (which contains glucose) “dilutes” the sucrose molecules and keeps them separate.
We strongly recommend using an instant-read thermometer for the most accurate measurements. Relying on color alone, as many recipes suggest, isn’t foolproof, since factors like the depth of your pan and its finish can affect how your caramel looks. We suggest a large, high-sided saucepan; using a smaller vessel will most likely result in a Mount Vesuvius–style eruption when the caramel foams up after adding the cream.
After adding cream, it’s imperative to stir the caramel so it doesn’t burn. Please, remember the temperature of that caramel when you’re tempted to stick your finger in to taste the magical buttery mixture you’ve just made.
1 After combining corn syrup and water in pan, pour sugar into center of pan without letting it hit pan sides. Bring to boil.
2 Cook without stirring over medium-high heat until sugar has dissolved, syrup is faint golden color, and temperature registers 300 degrees.
3 Lower heat to medium-low and continue to cook, gently swirling pan, until mixture is amber colored and registers 350 degrees. Tilt pan slightly for most accurate reading.
4 Remove from heat, stir in cream mixture (it will foam up), return to mediumhigh heat, and cook, stirring frequently, until caramel registers 248 degrees.
5 Pour into prepared pan and smooth surface with a greased silicone spatula. Refrigerate until thoroughly chilled.
6 Lift parchment sling out onto cutting board and peel away parchment. Cut caramel into pieces and wrap in waxed paper for storage.
Makes about 50 caramels
WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS Gourmet caramel candies sprinkled with sea salt are the ultimate in sweet sophistication—and making them from scratch is an alluring prospect. When it came to cooking the sugar syrup, the most important lesson we learned was not to turn your back on it. It can go from golden amber to dark mahogany to burnt beyond recognition in the blink of an eye. But we cracked the code for achieving chewy, delightfully sticky caramels. Caramel candies aren’t just about the caramelized sugar; you need to add cream so that the caramel has a rich flavor and chewy—not toothbreaking—texture. When the caramel developed an amber color, we added the cream mixture, watched it bubble, and cooked the caramel to the right temperature. We then transferred the molten mixture to a baking pan, sprinkled it with salt, and let it set before cutting the caramel into candies. If you like, substitute smoked sea salt for the flake sea salt. When taking the temperature of the caramel in steps 3 and 4, it helps to tilt the pan to one side.
1cup heavy cream
5tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into ¼-inch pieces
1½teaspoons flake sea salt, divided
¼cup light corn syrup
1⅓cups (9⅓ ounces) sugar
1 Cut vanilla bean in half lengthwise. Using tip of paring knife, scrape out seeds. Combine vanilla bean seeds, cream, butter, and 1 teaspoon salt in small saucepan over medium heat. Bring to boil, cover, remove from heat, and let steep for 10 minutes.
2 Meanwhile, make parchment sling for 8-inch square baking pan by folding 2 long sheets of parchment paper so each is 8 inches wide. Lay sheets of parchment in greased pan perpendicular to each other, with extra parchment reaching beyond edges of pan. Push parchment into corners and up sides of pan, smoothing parchment flush to pan. Grease parchment.
3 Combine corn syrup and water in large saucepan. Pour sugar into center of saucepan, taking care not to let sugar granules touch sides of saucepan. Bring to boil over medium-high heat and cook, without stirring, until sugar has dissolved completely and syrup has faint golden color and registers 300 degrees, 7 to 9 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low and continue to cook, gently swirling pan, until mixture is amber and registers 350 degrees, 2 to 3 minutes.
4 Off heat, carefully stir in cream mixture (mixture will foam up). Return mixture to medium-high heat and cook, stirring frequently, until caramel reaches 248 degrees, about 5 minutes.
5 Carefully transfer caramel to prepared pan and smooth surface of caramel with greased silicone spatula. Sprinkle with remaining ½ teaspoon salt and let cool completely, about 1 hour. Transfer to refrigerator and chill until caramel is completely solid and cold, about 1 hour.
6 Using parchment overhang, remove caramel from pan. Peel off parchment. Cut caramel into ¾-inch-wide strips and then crosswise into ¾-inch pieces. Individually wrap pieces in waxed-paper squares, twisting ends of paper to close. (Caramels can be refrigerated for up to 3 weeks.)
Salted Caramel Cupcakes
Makes 12 cupcakes
WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS For caramel flavor in every bite, we started by giving these cupcakes a core of salted caramel sauce, cooking it until it was dark for flavor complexity. To ensure the caramel didn’t dribble out of the cupcakes at first bite, we added extra butter to help it set up. Since we were already putting in the effort to prepare the caramel sauce for the cupcakes, we decided to add it to our frosting as well, for a double flavor hit: We made an easy vanilla frosting and then whipped in ¼ cup of the caramel sauce. We like to pipe the frosting into swirls before drizzling it with more caramel sauce and sprinkling it with sea salt for an eye-catching presentation. When taking the temperature of the caramel in steps 3 and 4, it helps to tilt the pan to one side.
1¾cups (8¾ ounces) all-purpose flour
1cup (7 ounces) granulated sugar
1½teaspoons baking powder
¾teaspoon table salt
12tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 12 pieces and softened
1½teaspoons vanilla extract
2tablespoons light corn syrup
⅔cup (4⅔ ounces) granulated sugar
½cup heavy cream
4tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
½teaspoon vanilla extract
½teaspoon table salt
Frosting and Topping
20tablespoons (2½ sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 10 pieces and softened
2tablespoons heavy cream
2teaspoons vanilla extract
⅛teaspoon table salt
2½cups (10 ounces) confectioners’ sugar
Flake sea salt for sprinkling on cupcakes
1 For the cupcakes Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Line 12-cup muffin tin with paper or foil liners. Using stand mixer fitted with paddle, mix flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt on low speed until combined. Add butter, 1 piece at a time, and mix until mixture resembles coarse sand, about 1 minute. Add eggs, one at a time, and mix until combined. Add milk and vanilla, increase speed to medium, and mix until light, fluffy, and no lumps remain, about 3 minutes.
2 Divide batter evenly among prepared muffin cups. Bake until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 18 to 20 minutes, rotating muffin tin halfway through baking. Let cupcakes cool in tin on wire rack for 10 minutes. Remove cupcakes from tin and let cool completely on rack, about 1 hour. (Cupcakes can be refrigerated for up to 2 days; bring to room temperature before continuing.)
3 For the sauce Combine corn syrup and water in small saucepan. Pour sugar into center of saucepan, taking care not to let granules touch sides of saucepan. Bring to boil over medium-high heat and cook, without stirring, until mixture is light amber and registers 330 degrees, 4 to 6 minutes. Reduce heat to low and continue to cook, swirling saucepan occasionally, until mixture is amber and registers 355 to 360 degrees, about 1 minute longer.
4 Off heat, carefully stir in cream, butter, vanilla, and salt (mixture will bubble and steam). Return saucepan to medium heat and cook, stirring frequently, until smooth and caramel reaches 240 to 245 degrees, 2 to 4 minutes. Remove from heat and allow bubbles to subside. Carefully measure ¼ cup caramel into heatproof liquid measuring cup and set aside. Transfer remaining caramel to heatproof bowl and let both cool until just warm to touch, 15 to 20 minutes.
5 While caramel is cooling, use paring knife to cut out cone-shaped wedge from top of each cupcake, about 1 inch from cupcake edge and 1 inch deep into center of cupcake. Discard cones. Fill each cupcake with 2 teaspoons caramel sauce; set aside remaining caramel to drizzle on frosting.
6 For the frosting Using stand mixer fitted with paddle beat butter, cream, vanilla, and salt on medium-high speed until smooth, about 1 minute. Reduce speed to medium-low, slowly add sugar, and beat until incorporated and smooth, about 4 minutes. Increase speed to medium-high and beat until frosting is light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Stop mixer and add ¼ cup caramel to bowl. Beat on medium-high speed until fully incorporated, about 2 minutes.
7 Spread frosting on cupcakes, drizzle with remaining caramel sauce (rewarming sauce as needed to keep fluid), and sprinkle with flake sea salt. Serve. (Cupcakes can be stored at room temperature for up to 4 hours.)