Troubleshooting this delicious but finicky sauce.
Caramel is delicious. The simple combination of sugar and water, cooked until it has a golden brown color, is great by itself and also the basis for all sorts of interesting dishes. Add vinegar and you've got a gastrique, in addition to lots of other fancy sauces. Add butter and cream and you've got a caramel sauce that's a perfect ice cream topping. Pour it over popcorn for caramel corn. Heck, you can even do what Andrew Zimmern does and make a fish sauce caramel sauce for pork or seafood.
But for something that has such a simple ingredient list—sugar and water, really, that's it—caramel can be tricky to make. There are two basic methods: dry, where you add sugar directly to the pan to melt it; and wet, where you add water to the sugar, allow the water to evaoprate, and then the caramel starts. Either way, you can run into problems. Here are a few things that could go wrong, and how to fix them.
You're Using the Wrong Pot
Caramel sauce requires more space than the ingredients would have you believe. That's because sugar and water can bubble up furiously, particularly when you add ingredients to it in the last step. And you know what is a real pain to clean off your stovetop? Sugar syrup. Plus, if it gets on your skin it can cause a serious burn. Use a pot that's bigger than you think you'll need, and make sure it heats up evenly. I usually use my 4-quart Cuisinart pot, and it works like a charm. This is not the time for thin-walled or nonstick pots. If you need to, break out the Dutch oven.
You Forgot to Make Sure the Pot Is Really, Really Clean
Even when you've cleaned a pot, it can be easy to miss a stray bit of peppercorn or leftover herb hiding in the bottom of the pot. Make sure you give it a good wipedown before using it for caramel. This isn't only because the flavor might infuse into the caramel in a weird way, but also because any little bit left in the pot encourages sugar to crystallize, which is the enemy of good caramel.
You Don't Have Ice Water Standing By
Why bother with a bowl of ice water? It's not an extra ingredient. It's just a safety precation. If you get any caramel on your hands, immediately plunge them into ice water. Hot sugar burns you and then sticks to your skin until it cools, making the burn that much worse. Ice water is also useful if you start seeing crystals form on the side of your caramel. You can use a pastry brush to brush down the sides of the pot and it will halt the crystallization process. You can also use the ice water to cool the caramel once it's at the point that you want—with a big enough bowl, or a sink full of ice water, you can put the pot in the water to cool it, making sure no water gets into the caramel itself.
Your Sugar Is Crystallzing
This is the most annoying part about making caramel. If your sugar has any impurities in it—and most does—it can cause a chain reaction that makes the whole pot crystallize. This means you to have to start all over again. That's annoying! There are a couple things you can do to halt the process, though. If cystals start to form—they look grainy and they'll start to form around the sides of the pot—either brush down the sides with ice water or put a lid on the pot for a minute or so. The condensation should halt the crystallization process. As long as the whole mixture isn't crystalized, you should be able to pull it back from the brink.
You're Stirring With the Wet Caramel Method
With the wet method, you add sugar to water in the pot, turn up the heat and... wait. Unless you see crystals forming, that's all you do. Don't stir it! That encourages those pesky crystals. Plus, have you ever tried to get set caramel off a whisk? It is really hard! Dry caramels allow you to stir, but the process also goes much faster, so wet is a little easier for beginners. The problem is just watching the pot until the sugar begins to darken into that telltale caramel color.
You're Not Watching the Pot and the Syrup Got Too Dark
Caramel isn't one of those things you can set and forget—once the sugar starts to brown, the caramelization process happens quickly. If you're not careful, the sugar can burn and take on a bitter, unpleasant taste. If you're nervous, another good thing to have on hand is a candy thermometer. You're looking for a temperature of 340 degrees. Once your sugar syrup hits that mark, you're safe to add the cream and butter, or cool it off however you like. You can go a little longer for a darker caramel taste, but watch that it doesn't burn.
Your Pot Is Now Covered In Hardened Sugar Syrup
This is the worst part of making caramel—cleaning up. Luckily, there's an easier method than scrubbing off all that hardened sugar syrup. Just fill the pot with water and let it come to a boil. The sugar should dissolve again. Once it cools, you should be able to just toss the water down the drain and clean the pot as usual. This will also work for any metal implements that accidentally got all crusted in sugar syrup.