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Michael Smith: Each molecule of homemade caramel is more addictive than the last

You really only need to master a few essential skills to enjoy a rich and satisfying life. Drop-kicking a computer off a cliff. Losing your cellphone and not noticing. Road trips without maps. Swimming after a meal. Making caramel.

When was the last time you cooked something just for kicks? Unleashing flavour mayhem can be very therapeutic. The next time you need a break, head for the nearest kitchen to cook yourself a well-deserved treat. Then share it. That's the essence of homemade caramel.

I can't imagine life without luxuriously smooth, golden brown caramel. It's an obsession, really - the flavour of forbidden fruit. And I'm not talking about the industrial stuff. I make it at home every chance I get - often with the flimsiest of excuses - then shamelessly spoon-dip the jar empty.

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I definitely enjoy my front row seat, gazing fondly as a pile of plain white sugar magically transforms with just a little water and some gentle heat. It's metaphorically inspiring: From nothing comes something. From plain white sugar - engineered with one of nature's simplest molecular structures to be nutritionally vacant and devoid of aromatic flavour - comes an evolving cascade of complexity and flavour. Caramelizing unleashes a procession of new flavours and fragrances, each molecule more nuanced and addictive than the last.

The basic technique is easy to master: Dissolve the sugar in water, gently heat and melt it, evaporate the water and eventually it will brown. But learn it at your peril. Create your own caramel just once and you might spark a lifelong addiction.

A jar of homemade caramel sauce is a classic kitchen staple and the friend of chefs everywhere. This classic topping is full of flexible flavour. Once cooled it thickens into a decadently rich topping. Gently warmed it becomes an easily poured sauce. The basic wet method is adaptable for all your other caramel needs. Doubling and tripling the recipe are excellent options as well.

CARAMEL SAUCE

What you need

Makes two cups

1 cup water

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2 cups white sugar

1 cup cream

A dribble or two of pure vanilla extract

A sprinkle or two of sea salt

What you do

Pour the water into a small saucepot. Pour the sugar in a small, tight pile into the pot. The sugar will easily dissolve without forming gritty crystals on the sides of the pot. This is known as the "wet" method. The "dry" method calls for only sugar but it tends to cook unevenly.

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Begin heating over medium-high heat but don't stir. Stirring encourages crystallization with gritty results. The water and sugar will quickly dissolve together and form a simple syrup. As the heat increases the mixture will simmer and steam, the water will gradually evaporate allowing the steam to die down and the mixture's temperature to rise. The temperature of the remaining pure, melted sugar syrup will rise past the boiling point of water and enter the flavour zone.

As the heat continues to rise the sugar will begin to turn pale golden, here and there, around the edges. When you see the first hints of colour, gently begin swirling the

pan to help the mixture col-our evenly. Continue heating and swirling. The mixture's temperature will gradually

rise and continue to darken reaching an even, deep golden brown. When it looks great turn off the heat. This will slow but not stop the browning.

Carefully add the cream. It will sputter and hiss a bit. The much lower temperature of the cream will instantly drop the caramel's temperature out of the sugar-browning range preventing it from overbrowning. Turn the heat back on and stir or whisk until the caramel is smooth. Add the vanilla and salt - both will enhance flavour.

Pour the caramel into a jar and refrigerate it for several hours, until thickened. Keep refrigerated. You may rest the sauce at room temperature for an hour or so to warm it to a pourable consistency. If you're in a hurry, simply pulse and stir in your microwave.

Feel free to try

For a touch of grown-up flavour, you may add a splash of your favourite rum or liqueur to the sauce before cooling it.

Hints

Water helps the sugar dissolve and melt evenly without getting grainy. Don't stir the sugar syrup though. Small bits of sugar will splash on the side of the pot then dry and fall back into the syrup where they'll then crystallize and turn the whole syrup gritty.

Instead of the cream you may add a second cup of water - the results will be a bit thinner but still tasty.

Michael Smith is the award-winning host of the Food Network's Chef at Home, Chef at Large and The Inn Chef. He is based in Fortune, PEI.

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