Used in all sort of ways in desserts and sweets, caramel is simply sugar that has been melted and browned. Making caramel at home may seem a little intimidating but once you get the hang of working with hot sugar, it’s a quick and easy process.
There are a couple of ways of making caramel. A wet caramel is made by cooking sugar with water until it caramelises. An easier method involves heating only the sugar itself until it liquefies and browns. Known as dry caramel, it’s perfect for using in crème caramels, brulees and flans, and for making caramel sauces, pralines and brittles.
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How to make caramel
1. Place your caster sugar in a frying pan or a heavy-based saucepan over a medium heat. Choose a tall saucepan if making a caramel sauce, as the caramel will bubble up when cream is added. A non-stick pan will help with the clean up but, if dark, it can be tricky to see when the caramel has reached the desired shade of amber.
2. After a few minute, the sugar will begin to melt and turn liquid around the edges. Carefully shake and tilt the pan so that the melting sugar dissolves the remaining dry patches until it’s all liquid. Stir sparingly with a wooden spoon or heatproof spatula if necessary to prevent any lumps from burning.
3. Lower the heat and let the sugar cook until it’s almost the desired colour. Watch it like a hawk – caramel goes from perfect to burnt in the blink of eye. Remove the pan from the hob: the residual heat will finish the job.
4. Once it turns the perfect shade, quickly lower the base of the pan into ice-cold water to stop the cooking process or use the caramel straightaway in your recipe. Here are some ways to use your caramel:
- If making crème brûlée, pour a thin layer of caramel onto the custards and leave to cool.
- If making a flan or crème caramel, pour the caramel into the moulds or ramekins.
- When making spun sugar, dunk the bottom of the pan in ice-cold water to stop the cooking process so the caramelized sugar doesn’t burn.
How to make praline
To make praline, add an equal amount of toasted nuts (equal to the sugar by weight or volume) once the caramel has finished cooking. Stir them in quickly with a pinch of salt, then pour the mixture on a lightly-greased baking sheet. Once cool, crush and use to top ice cream and other desserts or break into pieces to enjoy on its own.
How to make caramel sauce
To make a caramel sauce, slowly add 150ml of double cream to the caramel (made with 250g of caster sugar) in the pan – the mixture will bubble up violently as the steam escapes so be very careful to avoid splatters. Put the pan back over medium-low heat to melt any hardened bits of caramel stuck to the bottom of the pan. Then stir in 50g of butter cut into small pieces, and a teaspoon of vanilla extract. Serve your caramel sauce with fruit, in desserts or drizzled over ice cream.
Liquid sugar is extremely hot, so be very careful when making caramel – and don't be tempted to touch or taste the finished caramel until it’s completely cold.
Don’t spend hours scrubbing your pot to remove the caramel residue. Just fill the pan with water covering all the residue – throw in any spoons you’ve used too – and heat the water on the hob. Let the water simmer until the caramel melts away.
Try caramel sauce drizzled over our recipe for vanilla ice cream.