There is nothing to be afraid of.
Homemade caramel sauce only requires a few ingredients that you likely already have in your pantry and refrigerator. At its most basic, caramel is simply caramelized granulated sugar. (And bringing cream to the party makes for added richness.) Understandably enough, the thought of boiling-hot sugar makes many home cooks feel a little on edge—even unqualified to make caramel for themselves. But rest assured, you don’t need to be some master confectioner to tackle this simple, sweet sauce. The key to success here is this: Never walk away from your sugar as it bubbles away in the pot. It may seem like the color over your syrupy concoction may never turn to a deep golden brown, but when it does—buddy, does so fast, can proceed to burn in a matter of seconds.
There are two methods for starting caramel sauce that professionals use depending on their personal preference. One way is to allow the dry sugar to melt in a saucepan on it’s own without dissolving it into water. The granules of sugar melt under the heat and turn into a pure sugar syrup. It’s said that this method is a bit faster, but it can be a little nerve-wracking given that your sugar is constantly in direct contact with the hot pan, making it more prone to burning. Just because of that intimidation factor, I would not recommend this method for first-timers.
Instead, try the other option that entails dissolving your sugar into water and bringing the mixture to a boil in a medium-sized, high-sided saucepan. My original go-to recipe for caramel was Bobby Flay’s via The New York Times. As the sugar-water mixture begins to boil, the water will slowly evaporate and the sugars will start to break down. The total time that the sugar mixture will boil is around 10 to 12 minutes. The color changes right around the 7- to 8-minute mark. If you have an experienced eye for making caramel, you can likely trust your instincts as you watch the sugar boil. But for beginners, be sure to have a candy thermometer handy so that you can gauge the temperature of the sugar. The sugar breaks down at 320°F and will caramelize at 340°F. When it reaches 340°F, that’s your cue to pour in the heavy cream. In Flay’s recipe, he recommends warming the heavy cream prior to adding it to your caramel. If you prefer a lighter caramel sauce, I would stir in the heavy cream as it hits the 340°F mark. If you like your caramel a bit more nutty and bittersweet, let the caramel brown for 30 seconds to 1 minute longer for a deeper color. Heads up, the caramel will bubble up when the heavy cream hits—don’t be alarmed. Just continue whisking for about 2 to 3 minutes and the bubbling will subside.
When the mixture settles down, remove your pot from the heat and you have a pot o’ golden caramel. That said, if you wanted a hit of added richness, stir in a tablespoon or 2 of unsalted butter and a healthy pinch of salt for balance. You can also scrape the in the seeds of a vanilla bean pod for floral depth. There are some recipes out there that instruct adding the butter at the same time as the cream, however butter has the possibility of breaking down too quickly upon contact with the hot sugar, thus burning and leaving an unpleasant aftertaste. Stirring in the butter as the caramel cools ensures that you will incorporate the fatty milk solids into your sauce without the risk of scorching. This also gives the caramel sauce a glossy finish.
All it takes is making your own caramel a couple of times to get the hang of it and realize that, all in all, it’s actually pretty easy.