I have had issues with making caramels and toffee in the past, so I decided to do some research and testing to find a safe and reproducible method for dealing with caramel. The results of this experimentation are some recipes and techniques that work well.
The first and most important thing is having the correct equipment on hand to do the job correctly. You need a large (at least 3 quart) heavy saucepan that is not non-stick. The All-Clad D5 pan works great here, as you need a steel interior to be able to judge color of the cooking sugar, and having a pan whose aluminum core is on the sides as well as the bottom is much better for even heating. I have the luxury of using a wonderful large sauteuse made of heavy French copper lined with nickel which is ideal for this purpose. A large wooden spoon, large silicone spatula, and a candy thermometer are also needed.
Working with boiling sugar is somewhat dangerous, so some precautions are needed. Make sure your work area is uncluttered. Have all the ingredients set aside, measured, and available. Wear a long sleeved shirt and have access to cold water to use if the hot sugar spatters on you.
The first two recipes are from watching a youtube video from “Cupcake Jemma”, her “masterclass on caramel.” Jemma Wilson is well known in Britain for being part of Jamie Oliver’s Food Tube, and is the owner of Crumbs and Doilies, a popular London bakery. Here is the link for the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ihHytr6MTro&t=401s
Wet Caramel Sauce
A Wet caramel is ideal for pouring on ice cream, and topping baked goods. Just be sure to be patient and watch the temperature, for the caramel can go from perfect to burnt in seconds.
- 220 grams of superfine sugar (what in Britain is called caster sugar, but regular granulated sugar is fine to use) (7 3/4 ounces)
- 245 milliliters heavy cream (8 1/4 ounces)
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 120 milliliters water (4 ounces)
- Mix the vanilla extract into the heavy cream. Set aside.
- Put the sugar in the saucepan. Add the water by putting it in on the edges of the pan, and swirl the pan so the sugar is hydrated.
- Put the pan on medium heat and leave it undisturbed. As the water starts to boil, be sure not to stir the mixture, as this will cause sugar crystals to form at the edges. If this happens, use a pastry brush dipped in cold water and brush above the edges of the crystals to let them fall back into the mass of bubbling sugar. Another trick I have learned is to use a tight fitting cover to the saucepan. This will trap the steam that is forming, and it will condense into water that falls down the sides of the pan and dissolves any crystallization.
- Do not increase the heat, but let it slowly build. Once the water is boiling, the temperature will start to rise, and this is the time to watch closely. I use an infrared thermometer to monitor the temperature as well as visual and olfactory clues know when the caramel is done.
- The sugar is done when a medium brown (not dark) color is reached, and the temperature is about 345 degrees F. Take off the heat immediately, and using the wooden spoon as a mixing tool, add a little of the cream/vanilla mixture. Be careful as this will foam up and perhaps splatter (this is why a high sided saucepan is needed). This will temper the sugar so the rest of the cream can then be added safely. Do not add the cream all at once! Stir until completely mixed and transfer to a bowl to cool.
- Store the cooled caramel sauce in the refrigerator.
Dry Caramel aka Chewy Caramel
- 450 grams caster sugar (15.87 ounces)
- 300 milliliters heavy cream (14.14 ounces)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- 150 grams unsalted butter (5.3 ounces)
- Use a candy thermometer (or digital thermometer) mounted on the side of the heavy saucepan. Do this first, as it is not safe to try to do it later with a hot pan.
- Add the vanilla extract to the cream, mix and set aside. Cut the butter into small pieces and set aside.
- Put the sugar in the saucepan. Put the heat on medium to medium-low. The sugar will start to melt on the edges of the pan, so use a silicone (heat-proof) spatula or a large wooden spoon to move the melting sugar towards the center of the pan, and continue to do this until all the sugar has melted.
- The sugar is finished when a medium golden amber color (I find this is at about 345 degrees F).
- Remove from heat, and using a wooden spoon, add a little of the cream mixture, mix carefully, and then with the mixture having been tempered, add the rest of the cream and mix thoroughly. Add the butter and mix thoroughly.
- Return the pan to the heat and using medium heat, stir continuously until the temperature hits 118 degrees C (245 degrees F). This step dries the caramel to a chewy consistency. As soon as the temperature is reached, remove from heat.
- I lined a half sheet pan with parchment paper, and poured the caramel mixture onto the parchment paper to cool. After cooling, the dry caramel can be cut into convenient size pieces, and refrigerated or frozen.
Now these two recipes are relatively foolproof as long as you don’t get impatient or walk away at the wrong time. Here are two more recipes for caramel that also work well. The first is from Ina Garten:
Barefoot Contessa Caramel Sauce
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 1/3 cup water
- 1 1/4 cups heavy cream
- 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
- Mix the water and sugar in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan. Cook over low heat for 5 to 10 minutes, until the sugar dissolves. Do not stir. Increase the heat to medium and boil uncovered until the sugar turns a warm chestnut brown (about 350 degrees F on a candy thermometer), about 5 to 7 minutes, gently swirling the pan to stir the mixture. Be careful – the mixture is extremely hot! Watch the mixture very carefully at the end, as it will go from caramel to burnt very quickly. Turn off the heat. Stand back to avoid splattering and slowly add the cream and vanilla. Don’t worry – the cream will bubble violently and the caramel will solidify.
- Simmer over low heat, stirring constantly, until the caramel dissolves and the sauce is smooth, about 2 minutes. Allow to cool to room temperature, at least 4 hours. It will thicken as it sits.
The next recipe is from Michelle Norris aka “The Brown Eyed Baker.” Michelle has a cooking blog from Pittsburgh, and has a lot of followers. This is flavored with sea salt at the end of cooking, and because of the addition of butter, is more creamy.
Salted Caramel Sauce
Preparation Time: 5 minutes
Cooking Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 1 cup heavy cream at room temperature
- 12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter cut into pieces, at room temperature
- 1 tablespoon fleur de sel
- Add the sugar in an even layer over the bottom of a heavy saucepan, with a capacity of at least 2 or 3 quarts. Heat the sugar over medium-high heat, whisking it as it begins to melt. You’ll see that the sugar will begin to form clumps, but that’s okay. Just keep whisking and as it continues to cook, they will melt back down.
- Stop whisking once all of the sugar has melted, and swirl the pan occasionally while the sugar cooks.
- Continue cooking until the sugar has reached a deep amber color. It should look almost a reddish-brown, and have a slight toasted aroma. This is the point where caramel can go from perfect to burnt in a matter of seconds, so keep a close eye. If you are using an instant-read thermometer, cook the sugar until it reaches 350 degrees F.
- As soon as the caramel reaches 350 degrees, add the butter all at once. Be careful, as the caramel will bubble up when the butter is added. Whisk the butter into the caramel until it is completely melted.
- Remove the pan from the heat and slowly pour the cream into the caramel. Again, be careful because the mixture will once again bubble up ferociously.
- Whisk until all of the cream has been incorporated and you have a smooth sauce. Add the fleur de sel and whisk to incorporate.
- Set the sauce aside to cool for 10 to 15 minutes and then pour into your favorite glass jar and let cool to room temperature. You can refrigerate the sauce for up to 2 weeks. You’ll want to warm the sauce up before using.
With these caramel making skills, you can do many things. I have 2 great examples for you to try.
This dessert relies on good caramel making and is very rich. A tart, it can serve 8 large portions or 12 less generous slices. From Bon Appétit’s site, it has a chocolate crust, but a normal pastry crust can be substituted.
Salted Caramel–Chocolate Tart
You can use a 9″ or 10″ tart pan, but the layers will be thinner in the larger pan. We also found that Morton kosher salt won’t dissolve completely in the caramel filling, so use Diamond Crystal for the best results for this tart recipe. Then, a generous sprinkling of flaky sea salt before serving brings out the flavor of the chocolate and tempers the sweetness of the caramel.
- ⅓ cup unsweetened cocoa powder (we like Guittard’s Cocoa Rouge Cocoa Powder Unsweetened)
- 2 Tbsp. sugar
- ½ tsp. Diamond Crystal kosher salt
- 1⅔ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for surface
- ¾ cup (1½ sticks) chilled unsalted butter, cut into pieces
- 1 large egg yolk
- 3 Tbsp. chilled milk or water
- 1½ cups sugar
- ⅛ tsp. cream of tartar
- 1/3 cup water
- 6 Tbsp. chilled unsalted butter, cut into pieces
- ⅓ cup heavy cream
- 1 tsp. Diamond Crystal kosher salt
- 4 oz. semisweet chocolate (do not go above 70% cacao), finely chopped
- ½ cup heavy cream
- 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
- Flaky sea salt
- A 9″ or 10″ tart pan with removable bottom
- Whisk cocoa, sugar, salt, and 1⅔ cups flour in a medium bowl. Add butter and toss to coat. Using your fingers, smash butter into dry ingredients until it nearly disappears (you shouldn’t see any large bits) and mixture holds together when squeezed—you’re working it more than you would pie dough. Make a well in the center and add yolk and milk. Using a fork, gradually incorporate flour mixture until you’ve got a shaggy dough. Knead a couple of times in bowl until no dry spots remain and dough is smooth. Flatten into a ¾”-thick disk, wrap tightly in plastic, and chill until firm, about 2 hours. (You can make the caramel filling during this time.)
- Preheat oven to 350°. Let dough sit 5 minutes to soften slightly. Roll out on a lightly floured surface to a 14″ round about ⅛” thick, dusting with more flour as needed to prevent sticking. Lift dough on one edge and throw a pinch of flour on surface. Then we’ve got a trick from the School of Mary Berry to prevent cracks and tears in the dough: Slide the removable bottom of tart pan under dough, positioning it roughly in the center (Pro tip: Use a bench scraper in the first step for easier lifting.).
- Fold the edges of the rolled dough inward toward the center, working all the way around so it rests on top of the tart pan bottom. Then lower the bottom into the tart pan.
- Unfold the edges so they gently slump against the sides of the tart pan and the excess dough is hanging over the edges. Press dough firmly into bottom of pan with floured hands, then use a straight-sided measuring cup to firmly press sides of dough into grooves and up sides of pan. Use a rolling pin over top edge of pan to shear off excess dough:
- Reserve dough scraps for patching any potential cracks later. Prick bottom of dough all over with a fork and chill in freezer until very firm, 10–15 minutes.
- Place tart pan on a rimmed baking sheet and line with a sheet of parchment paper or foil. Fill with pie weights or dried beans and bake until edges of crust are set and starting to look dry, 12–15 minutes. Carefully lift parchment with weights. Patch any visible cracks with reserved dough. Return crust to oven and bake until firm and dry all over, 18–22 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool.
- Do Ahead:Dough can be made 2 days ahead; keep chilled. Crust can be baked 1 day ahead. Store tightly wrapped at room temperature.
- Bring sugar, cream of tartar, and ⅓ cup water to a boil in a large saucepan over medium-low, stirring with a heatproof spatula until dissolved. Cook, swirling pot often but not stirring, until mixture turns deep amber and wisps of smoke rise from the surface, 8–10 minutes. Remove caramel from heat and immediately stir in butter a piece at a time until smooth (be careful; mixture will sputter). Gradually stir in cream, then add salt. Transfer caramel to a heatproof measuring glass (you should have about 1½ cups). Let cool until warm.
- Pour caramel into cooled tart shell. Chill until caramel is set, at least 1 hour.
- Do Ahead:Caramel filling can be made 3 days ahead; cover and chill. Microwave in 20-second intervals, stirring in between, just until pourable. Caramel-filled tart can be made 1 day ahead; once it’s set, cover and keep chilled.
- Place chocolate, cream, and butter in a heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water (bowl should not touch water). Stir with a heatproof spatula until ganache is smooth, about 5 minutes. Let cool until thickened enough to hold an indentation from a spoon—if it’s too warm, it won’t hold its swirls.
- Remove tart from refrigerator and scrape ganache over caramel. Using a spoon, gently work ganache over surface, creating decorative swooshes and swirls. Sprinkle with sea salt; let sit until ganache has lost its sheen, 10–15 minutes.
- Do Ahead:Tart can be assembled 1 day ahead. Chill until ganache is set, then cover loosely. Let sit at room temperature 15 minutes before slicing.
This can become a sort of Snicker’s bar dessert if you add salted chopped peanuts to the caramel layer before adding the ganache. Yum.
The last recipe is a little more fussy. Its author is Donna Gabrilson, owner of Goodytwo’s Toffee Company from Scottsdale, AZ.
- 1 pound unsalted butter
- 1 pound granulated sugar
- 1 tablespoon water
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 8 ounces raw almonds, chopped
- Melted milk and dark chocolates (recommended Belcolade and Callebaut. Callebaut milk chocolate has caramel undertones and marries nicely with the toffee.
- In a saucepan, melt the butter and then add the granulated sugar and 1 tablespoon water. Bring the mixture to a rolling boil and cook to 260 degrees F. One must stir continuously throughout, or it will separate. When the mixture turns medium brown, go to the next step.
- Stir in the raw almonds and continue cooking to 290 to 300 degrees F. Remove from the heat and add 1 teaspoon vanilla. Keep stirring to let some of the steam out
- Immediately, pour the mixture onto a sheet pan that is upside down and covered with heavy aluminum foil. Spread to an even thickness with a heat proof spatula. Let the pan cool, and then cover with plastic, and cool overnight. After cooling, cover with melted chocolate with additional crushed almonds as an option added after the chocolate. Flip the sheet pan over, and cover with more melted chocolate, with more crushed almonds added to the chocolate. The chocolate is heated to and maintained at 108 degrees F for the correct temperature for spreading. Let set completely and then break into bite size pieces.
Note: The author prefers to use raw almonds and to roast them in the butter-sugar mixture, which infuses the nutty flavor into the toffee and creates a toffee that isn’t overly sweet.
The absolute necessity for success with the toffee recipe is the constant stirring necessary for all the time the mixture is on heat. The result is worth the effort required.
Finally, here is Jemma Wilson’s recipe for pecan nut brittle, the last item on her masterclass video.
pecan nut brittle
- 225 grams caster sugar
- 60 ml water
- 15 grams unsalted butter
- 60 grams lightly toasted pecans
- Add the sugar and the water to a heavy saucepan. Swirl the water to mix with the sugar. Heat on medium heat until a rich, almost dark amber color is reached.
- Remove from heat, mix in the butter. Then add the nuts and mix completely.
- Immediately pour the nut/caramel mixture on to a silpat mat (or a greased baking sheet) and using a spatula that has been lightly greased with oil, spread the nut mixture to an even layer.
- This mixture is still very hot, so do not touch until cooled, about 20 minutes.
- The brittle can be picked up and broken into pieces.
You can use different nuts or seeds, but don’t toast the seeds as they will toast in the hot caramel.
Have fun with these!