Gooey, glorious caramel is the hero behind sweet, saucy fruit, glazed sticky buns, and fancypants candied nuts that are perfect for scattering over oatmeal and yogurt. Caramel making might sound tricky or fussy, and it’s true that hot sugar is essentially a weapon and when it's screaming hot and bubbling, it can give you a nasty burn. But you can conjure it in a little pot on the stove while your coffee brews and your breakfast will be all the better for it. I mean this. It’s really very easy to make caramel, and understanding exactly how sugar goes from granular and fine to sticky and amber will make you all the more inclined to try caramel making for yourself.
One first thing to note: Sugar needs a little something to serve as a vehicle for caramelization, some insurance against burning, and an element to help it stay saucy. You can use water or butter or oil, and I like a mix of water and butter to start. This will get you to a place where the sugar is very hot, becomes caramelized, and will be liquid when hot but solidify into very hard, crunchy candy when cooled. This is really good for caramelizing nuts or tossing fruit slices into. (Try apples, peaches, pears, plums, or bananas—all of which will release moisture into the sauce.) This particular blend is also the stuff that crisps up into candy on the bottom of a pan of cinnamon buns, but it’s less suited to drizzling over waffles or ice cream. For that, the caramel needs more fat—in the form of cream—to flow and stay creamy, even when refrigerated.
Caramel in both forms starts the same way: a layer of sugar, a little water and butter, and a hot pan. It will all look pretty separate, and you’ll wonder how it will come together. You may also be imagining a lot of stirring, but with caramel, it’s just the opposite. Turn on the heat and let it rip through the sugar never once stirring, hard though it may be. Stirring can introduce moisture or foreign particles to the caramel, which can lead to unpleasant crystallization.
As the heat reaches the sugar, it will begin to boil, bubbling pretty mildly at first and then furiously, the bubbles small and sharp, and then slow and sticky. Slowly, after about 3 to 3 ½ minutes, the syrup will begin to turn gold, and you can gently tilt and swirl the pan to distribute the caramel evenly around the pan at this point. By minute 6 to 6 ½, the color will be deep and chestnutty. And you’re done. Remove it from the heat, stir in a splash of vanilla extract and a pinch of kosher salt, and let the bubbles relax. This caramel is ready to have nuts or sliced fruit tossed in. Hooray.
If you’d prefer a creamy, un-solid caramel, you can scald heavy cream. That is, heat it almost to a boil but not quite; tiny bubbles will form along the edge of the cream. Caramelize the sugar using the same process as above in a pan or pot large enough to accommodate cream and whisking. When the caramel is ready, turn the heat to low and slowly pour in about half the very hot cream, whisking all the while. There will be a serious bubbling situation, which will subside quickly. When it does, pour in the rest of the cream. It will be runny and pourable at this point; you can let it bubble gently for several minutes more if you’d prefer a very thick caramel.
Need some measurements to start? I like ½ cup white sugar, 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter, and about ¼ cup water for the initial caramelizing. For the saucier caramel, add ½ cup heavy cream.
Minute by minute:
0 minutes: Sugar, dots of butter, and water in a heavy-bottomed pan. Nothing going on here yet.
30 seconds: The pan’s over high heat, the butter’s melting, and the water may be beginning to simmer.
1 minute: The mixture is beginning to look homogenous, and is actively simmering.
1 minute, 30 seconds: The bubbles are shiny, fast, and candy-like. The butter is making things a little foamy.
2 minutes: The bubbles are large, glassy, and sticky-looking.
3 minutes: Some of the bubbles start to look toasty and brown. The bubbles may seem very active but slower, like it’s taking a lot of effort to do their thing.
4 minutes: More caramelization. Swirl the pan gently to distribute, but don’t stir.
5 minute, 30 seconds to 6 minutes: Things may be nearly done and it should be homogeneously chestnut brown. Swirl the pan again, add the splash of vanilla and pinch of kosher salt, and remove from the heat.