How to make the best caramel sauce? Give it a bitter edge.


May we have a show of hands: Who thinks chocolate is the best flavor in the dessert world? Now, who thinks caramel is the best? Not as many hands in the air, but mine is one of them. While chocolate is perfectly nice – and we’ll be seeing plenty of it during this sentimental season – caramel is the truly sensual treat.

Tawny-gold and glossy (why is “The Girl From Ipanema” suddenly playing in my head?), a good caramel sauce starts sweet and finishes just short of bitter. For me, bitterness is the key. That edge prevents caramel from being cloyingly sweet, which is a common hazard, as it’s pretty much pure sugar, and it seduces you into taking just one more taste.


Beyond the luscious factor, another brilliant aspect of caramel is its simplicity. Anyone can make it anywhere, because for the most basic sauce, all you need is sugar, heat and a final liquid. And while I do add salt and vanilla extract . . . and, okay, few chunks of butter, caramel’s complexity comes from chemistry.


Let’s look at the basic process: Boiling, melting, burning (almost), enriching.

– Boiling involves evaporating all the water in the sugar to yield pure sucrose that can get hot enough to melt. Paradoxically though, when I make caramel, I begin by adding water to the sugar. This method, called a “wet” caramel, takes a few minutes longer but ensures a more even caramelization. For the “dry” caramel method, you simply heat the sugar in an empty pan until melted and caramelized. It’s quick and direct, but the risk is that some parts of the sugar melt faster than others, and can burn before the rest had made it even to light amber. The way to make the dry method work is to swirl the melting sugar gently and strategically for a uniform result.

For either method, choose a pot with a heavy base to help prevent hot spots and one whose sides are high enough to contain the caramel sauce as it bubbles during cooking. Please be aware that caramel at all stages is sticky and beyond hot, so be super careful as you go. Make sure your shoelaces are tied.

– Melting. During this phase, you’ll be jousting with the forces of crystallization. As the sugar liquefies, a crystal can reform at any moment and begin a domino effect which, before you know it, will produce a chunky mess.

You may discover many techniques for avoiding crystallization, including cooking with the lid on to create steam to dissolve sugar crystals; sluicing the inside walls of the pot with a water-soaked pastry brush to wash down any crystals; and never letting a spoon come close to the initial sugar syrup.


I’ve tried all the tricks, and while crystallization is rare with any sugar method, it occasionally happens no matter. Hence, I don’t stress about it. If you see that your sugar syrup is starting to look like a pond covering over with ice, don’t worry. Keep cooking it. Those new crystals will eventually melt again and start behaving.

– Burning/not burning. Once the melting begins, good things occur. Your granulated sugar, or sucrose, breaks down into glucose and fructose, which then recombine to form hundreds of new compounds including three called caramelan, caramelen and caramelin, and I find that oddly charming. A sister act! All the newly developed molecules contribute specific flavor notes to the complex caramel profile, including nutty furans, buttery diacetyl and toasty maltol. Toffee,anyone?

Once it starts, the caramelization process moves very fast and is irreversible. If you cross the line into truly bitter, you can’t go back. This just means you need to have your liquid enriching ingredient, which will cool down the sugar, measured and ready to deploy. And you must pay attention as you cook, using both sight and smell as your guides.

You may not achieve your personal caramel perfection the first time you make the sauce, because, unfortunately, you can’t taste for doneness (do NOT be tempted to swipe your finger through the hot caramel for an exploratory lick). So perhaps err on the lighter side until you’re comfortable with finding that edge. If you decide that your finished caramel sauce is too sweet, you can always cook another 1/4 cup of sugar to a darker stage and whisk your sauce into it, for a boost of bitter.

Visually, you should strive for a very deep amber color, like that of strong iced tea. The aroma will go from cotton-candy sugary to nutty with a tiny bit of burnt sugar; the latter is the moment to stop the temperature climb by adding liquid.

– Enriching. Most caramel sauces and confections use cream for this, but there’s no law saying dairy has to be involved. I make a citrus-juice caramel sauce that is truly scrummy, as Mary Berry likes to say, though the flavor’s more Jolly Rancher than Sugar Daddy.

Once you’ve got your liquid caramel, it’s time to enrich and customize the flavor. The classic additions are cream, vanilla and salt (yes, even before “salted caramel” became a thing, most of us were adding salt to our caramel). But creme fraiche instead of cream, a splash of dark rum and a drop of almond extract, are all delicious options.

I like to finish my caramel sauce with butter, to lock in the most unctuous, satiny texture. And if unctuous and satiny aren’t good Valentine’s Day words, I’m not sure which ones are.

Caramel sauce keeps quite well in the refrigerator, for up to a month, and it freezes just fine in a zip-top freezer bag for about three months. So go all-in on this easy and impressive sauce and the two others, with plenty to give to your loved one(s) for Valentine’s Day and enough left over for yourself and a pint of ice cream on any day.

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GO-TO SALTED CARAMEL SAUCE

Serving: 1 cup

Cookbook author Martha Holmberg likes to take her caramel right up to the precipice . . . keeping it just this side of bitter. But if you like a sweeter, mellower caramel, stop the cooking a bit sooner. In any case, be sure you have your cream measured and ready to go, because the caramel will continue cooking and darkening, even once you’ve pulled it off the burner.

From cookbook author Martha Holmberg.

INGREDIENTS

1 cup sugar

1/4 cup water

3/4 cup heavy cream or creme fraiche

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or more as needed

1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract, or more as needed

1 tablespoon cold, unsalted butter

STEPS

Combine the sugar and water in a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir a lot at first to dissolve the sugar. Once it is dissolved, boil, undisturbed, until it begins to turn light golden. At this point, the water has cooked off and the sugar is starting to caramelize.

Continue cooking, carefully swirling the pan a bit so the caramelizing is even, until the syrup is a deep amber color, like the color of a strong iced tea; this should take between 8 and 12 minutes. This process goes very fast, so watch closely. You might see the tiniest wisps of smoke coming from the syrup, too.

Remove from the heat. Immediately add about 1/4 cup of the cream. The mixture is going to bubble and create a lot of steam. The caramel might seize up; this is all okay.

Add the remaining heavy cream or creme fraiche. Return the pan to the stove top, over medium-low heat; cook for 3 or 4 minutes, stirring with a whisk or heatproof flexible spatula until smooth and slightly thickened.

Add the salt and vanilla extract. Taste a cooled-off sample, and adjust with more salt or vanilla extract as needed. Finish by whisking in the butter.

Serve warm or cool; the sauce thickens as it cools, so to make it more pourable, just warm it up a bit.

Nutrition per 2-tablespoon serving: 190 calories, 0 g protein, 26 g carbohydrates, 10 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 35 mg cholesterol, 80 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 26 g sugar

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OH MY DARLING CLEMENTINE CARAMEL SAUCE

Servings: 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons

This citrus-based caramel is fruity and delicate, but with the mellow sweetness of classic caramel. The sauce is somewhat thinner than a typical caramel.

You can make this sauce vegan if you leave out the butter at the end. Be sure to strain the juice thoroughly so that you don’t have bits of pulp that can burn in the hot caramel.

From cookbook author Martha Holmberg.

INGREDIENTS

1 cup sugar

1/4 cup water

3/4 cup fresh strained clementine or tangerine juice (from about 6 clementines or 3 tangerines)

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, or more as needed

1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract, or more as needed

1 tablespoon cold, unsalted butter (optional; see headnote)

1/2 teaspoon orange blossom water (optional)

STEPS

Combine the sugar and water in a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir a lot at first to dissolve the sugar. Once it is dissolved, boil, undisturbed, until it begins to turn light golden. At this point, the water has cooked off and the sugar is starting to caramelize.

Continue cooking, carefully swirling the pan a bit so the caramelizing is even, until the syrup is a deep amber color, like the color of a strong iced tea; this should take between 8 and 12 minutes, and the process goes very fast, so watch closely. You might see the tiniest wisps of smoke coming from the syrup, too.

Remove from the heat. Immediately add about 1/4 cup of the clementine juice and stir for a few seconds. The mixture is going to bubble and create a lot of steam. The caramel might seize up; this is all okay.

Add the remaining juice. Return the pan to the stove top, over medium-low heat; cook for 3 or 4 minutes, stirring with a whisk or heatproof flexible spatula until smooth and slightly thickened.

Add the salt and vanilla extract, taste a cooled-off portion, and adjust with more salt or vanilla extract as needed. Finish by whisking in the butter, and then the orange blossom water, if using either or both.

Serve warm or cool; the sauce thickens a bit more as it cools.

Nutrition per 2-tablespoon serving: 100 calories, 0 g protein, 24 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 30 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 24 g sugar

– – –

BOTH CHOCOLATE AND CARAMEL SAUCE

Servings: 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons

Here, you get the tawny sweetness of caramel and the earthiness of chocolate, with of course a gorgeous texture. Martha Holmberg likes using milk chocolate, but only when she can get a good variety. She says: Don’t use a Hershey bar for this one.

From cookbook author Martha Holmberg.

INGREDIENTS

3 ounces good-quality milk or dark chocolate, chopped into pea-size pieces

1/2 cup sugar

2 tablespoons water

3/4 cup heavy cream or creme fraiche

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or more as needed

1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract, or more as needed

2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter

STEPS

Put the chocolate into a medium stainless-steel or nonreactive bowl.

Combine the sugar and water in a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir a lot at first to dissolve the sugar. Once it is dissolved, boil, undisturbed, until it begins to turn light golden. At this point, the water has cooked off and the sugar is starting to caramelize.

Continue cooking, carefully swirling the pan a bit so the caramelizing is even, until the syrup is a deep amber color, like the color of a strong iced tea; this should take between 8 and 12 minutes, and the process goes very fast, so watch closely. You might see the tiniest wisps of smoke coming from the syrup, too.

Remove from the heat and immediately add about 1/4 cup of the heavy cream or creme fraiche and stir for a few seconds. The mixture is going to bubble and create a lot of steam. The caramel might seize up; this is all okay.

Add the remaining cream. Return the pan to the stove top, over medium-low heat; cook for 3 or 4 minutes, stirring with a whisk or heatproof flexible spatula until smooth and slightly thickened.

Add the salt and vanilla extract. Pour the hot caramel sauce over the chopped chocolate. Let it sit for 30 seconds or so, and then start whisking to encourage the chocolate to melt evenly. Taste a cooled-off portion and adjust the flavor with more salt or vanilla extract, as needed.

Finish by whisking in the butter. Serve warm or cool; the sauce thickens as it cools, so to make it more pourable, just warm it up a bit.

Nutrition per 2-tablespoon serving: 180 calories, 1 g protein, 17 g carbohydrates, 13 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 35 mg cholesterol, 75 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 17 g sugar

– – –

Holmberg is the author of “Modern Sauces” (Chronicle, 2012) and co-author with Joshua McFadden of “Six Seasons: A New Way to Cook Vegetables” (Artisan, 2017).


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