A Guide to Homemade Caramel

(can be vegan, gluten free)

After multiple weeks worth of attempts, millions of cups of sugar, and lots of intense pot scrubbing, I am proud to say I have *perfected* (somewhat) the art of caramel!

Now, I realize I did not make homemade caramel sound very approachable or simple by saying it took me a long time to master, but that’s mainly because I was finding the perfect, foolproof way of doing it, so that the first time you make it, you can have success!

White Sugar or Brown/Coconut Sugar?

I have developed 2 different ways of making caramel – one with white sugar, one with brown or coconut sugar.

In order to keep this organized, I will box all the information that pertains only to brown/coconut sugar, and keep the information on white sugar unboxed.

White sugar information / pertains to both (unboxed)

Brown/coconut sugar information (boxed)

It’s really up to you on which one you choose, but I’ll give you some information on the difference between the two before you decide:

White sugar is the traditional sugar used in caramel. When you melt it and add some butter or cream, the result is a sweet, subtly toasty/nutty/bitter caramel, that characteristic flavour we all know and love! In terms of the process, it is easier and at the same time trickier than brown/coconut sugar. Easier in that you can easily observe the mixture’s progress by looking at color – it starts out clear and slowly becomes a light amber. Trickier in that it takes longer and a bit more skill to get right.

stages of caramel (white sugar)

Brown sugar on the other hand, is a darker sugar due to the addition of molasses. Caramel made with brown sugar is technically not true caramel, because the molasses (and therefore darker color) acts as a disguise. The fructose and organic compounds in brown sugar smoke and burn long before the actual sucrose browns properly. Therefore, caramel made with brown sugar is called butterscotch, instead! You can still create a nice, caramel texture with brown sugar, or even coconut sugar, and it is easier to do! So if you are looking for the easier option, I would recommend using brown or coconut sugar.

white sugar (left), coconut sugar (right)

Wet or dry method? Why do you add water?

There are two common approaches to caramel. There is the “wet method” (which I prefer), where you add and dissolve the sugar in a bit of water, or the “dry method”, where you just add the sugar and melt it that way. Although the dry method is quicker, you run the risk of the sugar melting unevenly in the pan and possibly burning. This is why I prefer the wet method, as the sugar is dissolved and distributed more evenly.

What is crystallization?

The wet method of making caramel is sometimes prone to crystallizing. What this means is that as the syrup boils, the sugar starts to revert back to its crystal form, causing a grainy caramel. Sugar that’s already dissolved in water can’t cause this only undissolved sugar crystals can encourage dissolved sugar molecules to re-crystallize. This is often caused by excess stirring during the dissolving process. Sugar crystals may get on the sides of the pan, and if this happens, the water will evaporate and leave a crystal behind that could cause crystallization later on.

This is not what you want to happen!

So how do I prevent crystallization?

  • Place the water in the pan first, and then add the sugar to the centre of the pan — don’t try to mix or spread to the edges! Just let it do its thing and it will spread at its own rate. However, if there are any undissolved sugar crystals sticking to the bottom of the pan after most have dissolved, there is no harm in GENTLY loosening them with a spoon or spatula.
  • Ensure all your tools do not have any raw sugar crystals on them (measuring cups, spoons, spatulas).
  • Simply do not aggressively stir/swirl the pot as the sugar is dissolving to prevent the edges of the pot from getting sugar crystals on them.
  • If sugar water splashes up onto the sides of the pot, use a pastry brush a gently brush with FRESH water to brush them away.

How long does it take?

The rate at which your caramel develops will depend on your stove, and also how much caramel you are making. If it is a smaller amount (~ 1/4 or 1/2 cup sugar) it will caramelize quicker, and may only take around 10 minutes. For bigger quantities, it will take longer. The amount of water you use also has an impact on time – the more water, the longer it takes.

My best tip is to be on medium-high heat at first, and then go low and slow once it starts to change into a straw color (this is mainly for white sugar).

How do I know when it’s done? If it’s burning?

It depends what flavour and consistency of caramel you want. Generally, for caramel that stays soft at room temperature, heat the caramel less. For caramel that hardens at room temperature, heat the caramel for longer (look below for specific temperatures).

Use all your senses when making caramel!

COLOR: Color is major indicator of your caramel, if not the most important. It should start out a clear liquid, and then gradually change into a light yellow, and further into a deep amber/orange. If it starts to burn, usually an edge starts to turn a dark brown, unevenly from the rest of the pot — swirl to mix.

Note that if you use brown/coconut sugar, your caramel will be a dark color from the beginning because of the molasses (see earlier note on using brown/coconut sugar instead of white).

CONSISTENCY/TEXTURE: As the color develops, so will the thickness, and your caramel will become syrupy and eventually the perfect gooey consistency we all know. You must add butter and/or cream in order for it to get this way! Once it is ready, it will have a relatively thick consistency, but will thicken as it cools.

TEMPERATURE: As caramel is heated, water boils away and sugar concentration increases.

If you have a candy thermometer, this is a great use for it, although it is not necessary for great caramel! Here is a temperature guide:

  • 220F – Pourable straight from the fridge
  • 225F -Saucy at room temperature
  • 230F – Soft at room temperature
  • 235F – Soft but slightly chewier
  • 240F – Soft-ball (forms a soft ball when dropped in cold water)
  • 250F – Firm-ball (forms a firm ball when dropped in cold water)

SMELL: As the caramel develops, it will start to give off a deep, rich, sweet scent. If it is burning, it will smell faintly burnt and bitter.

Butter, cream, or both?

This is a relatively subjective and controversial topic. As I performed my extensive caramel research, I came across several recipes using butter and heavy cream, and others that just used one or the other. Honestly, both work fine, and I wouldn’t say one is better than the other. Including both makes a softer, more buttery caramel, while including just cream makes a sweeter and harder caramel.

I prefer using both butter and cream. However, if you choose to use just one, I would recommend cream.

Side note: I prefer adding the butter and cream once the caramel reaches its desired final color, and temperature if using a thermometor. However, you can also try adding the butter/cream before this point is reached (when the colour becomes straw-like). The downside to this is that the caramel will continue to heat, whereas adding butter and/or or cream brings down the temperature.

How can I make vegan caramel?

The best vegan substitute for heavy cream I have found is full-fat coconut milk! Make sure you use only the creamy white part of the can, not the watery clear liquid. I like using the brand Aroy-D, as there is hardly any water in the can. You may also add in some vegan butter in addition to the coconut milk.

What type of pan/pot should I use?

Use a thick bottomed pan to ensure even distribution of heat. I like to use a pan with high sides so that it doesn’t bubble over!


Here’s the basic run-down

  • White sugar makes true caramel and is trickier than brown sugar, which technically makes butterscotch
  • Brown/coconut sugar will not change color much as it cooks, and does not need to be heated to as high a temperature as white sugar.
  • Adding water to the pot to dissolve the sugar in is the “wet method” – this is the method I use
  • Caramel can crystallize (not a good thing) and become grainy. Prevent this by not getting sugar crystals on the side of or in the pot (do not swirl/stir during the dissolving process).
  • For white sugar, start out on higher heat, and reduce slightly once it turns an amber color
  • Use color, consistency/texture, temperature (use a thermometer if you like), and smell to know when it’s done.
  • You may use butter, cream, or both, but if you’re going to choose just one, I recommend cream. Make sure it is chilled!
  • To make vegan caramel, I recommend using full-fat coconut milk and vegan butter.
  • Use a heavy bottomed pot with high sides.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup white sugar (or brown or coconut sugar)
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream (or full-fat coconut milk, use the thick white part)
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter (or unsalted vegan butter)
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • 1/4 – 1/2 tsp salt

Directions

  • Before you begin, prepare/measure out all of your ingredients and gather all the tools you will need! That way you can keep your eye on the pot and not have to worry about it burning or crystallizing as you multitask.

white sugar method:

  1. Place the water into a heavy-bottomed medium saucepan, then add the sugar to the centre (do not mix, it will dissolve on its own).
  2. Bring heat to medium to dissolve the sugar. It will start to bubble very lightly, spread throughout the pan, and then grow into larger bubbles. Do not swirl or stir the pan.
  3. Once the clear syrup changes into an amber color, remove from heat and quickly add in the cream (or coconut milk) and stir!
  4. Mix in the butter, vanilla, and salt, and keep stirring it gently.
  5. Let cool slightly before transferring to a heat-proof container. Allow to reach room temperature before refrigerating in an airtight container. It will keep for around one month.

brown or coconut sugar method:

  1. Place the water and sugar into a medium saucepan (heavy bottom!), and heat lightly until dissolved.
  2. Once the sugar has dissolved, turn the heat up and bubble for around 5 minutes. If starts to burn or bubble too rapidly, reduce the heat slightly. Keep a watchful eye so that it doesn’t burn! It will have a dark colour and deep scent when caramelized.
  3. After this time, add the coconut milk or cream and stir to combine. Keep on heat for around another 4-5 minutes or until it reaches desired consistency.
  4. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla and salt.
  5. Store in an airtight container (I use a small mason jar).

Drizzle over cookies (these salted caramel cookies work great with this!) fudgy brownies, a mug cake, ice cream, or practically anything you can think of!

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