How To Perfect Your Homemade Caramel

Reach caramel nirvana with these tips.

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You love caramel but making it seems to be such an intimidating task. How can you prevent the sugar from clumping up? How can you keep it from burning? How can you tell if it's done if you don't have a candy thermometer?

Rest those fears aside, we've got handy tips to help you finally make gooey caramel at home.

First off, you don't need a candy thermometer. Unless you're making candy which needs certain temperatures to achieve different kinds of textures, then you can eyeball your caramel. However, you should know that caramel gets super hot. Melted sugar is very, very hot, so use oven mitts and have a bowl of ice-cold water nearby just to be on the safe side. If you accidentally scald yourself with hot caramel, dunk your hand into the cold water immediately.

Fair warning though, but making caramel does take practice and a few tries to get it right. If this is your first time making caramel, make it using the dry-burn technique, which isn't as tricky as making a wet caramel. This journey to caramel-making success won't take long, thanks to these tips.

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This cast iron skillet, stainless steel pan, and nonstick pan are basic pans every kitchen should have.
Photo by Patrick Martires

1 Choose The Right Pan.

Use a pan that's larger than what you think you'll need. This is because you might add butter or cream after the sugar has caramelized, and when you do this, the mixture will bubble up vigorously. Also, use a light-colored pan if you have one and try to avoid non-stick pans. A dark-colored pan prevents you from accurately seeing the color of the caramel as it develops.

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2 Use the dry method first.

There are two ways to make caramel: the dry method and the wet method. When making dry caramel, you place sugar in a dry pan and melt it as is.

For wet caramel, you first dissolve the sugar in water and then bring it to a boil. This technique, which will also produce a delicious result, is prone to crystallization. A caramel that has crystallized will turn grainy, cloudy, clumpy, or all of the above. You can avoid this by adding a little bit of acid and swirling the pan instead of stirring with a spoon.

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3 Stir or swirl gently.

You may be tempted to stir the sugar in the pan. You can but be gentle. You might cause the sugar crystals to reform and crystallize. Better yet, swirl the pan instead by holding the pan by the handle and swirling the melting sugar in the pan into the not-yet melted sugar granules. If you see crystals form on the side of the pan or the edges of the sugar begin to melt and darken, you can gently stir using a silicone spatula and gently push the sugar around until everything has melted and transformed into an even amber color (a dark brown with a reddish tinge).  

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4 Don't overcook your caramel.

Some people love a deep dark, bitter caramel, so you can let your caramel cook beyond the amber color. If you don't, then it's vital that you not only reach the golden, amber hue of caramel but also that you keep it at that stage by stopping it from cooking any further.

To do this, you may want to remove it from the stove as soon as it turns amber. However, doing this is sometimes not enough to stop your caramel from becoming a darker color, so be on the safe side and remove your caramel at the moment the caramel turns a transparent yellow hue.

5 Work quickly.

Once you have reached the desired color and your caramel is perfect, you will need to work quickly. If using for leche flan, quickly transfer the caramel into your llanera to keep it from cooking any further. If not, dunk the bottom of your pan in a bowl of cold water. If you're making caramel sauce, add in your cold cream or butter. This will effectively stop your caramel from cooking any further.

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If you're turning your caramel into pretty, amber, hard candy décor, then make sure to mold it while it's hot. This caramel will harden in the pan as it cools, but you can gently reheat it or keep it over a low flame to keep it liquid while you work.

Now that you have the tips and tricks you need to make caramel, here is how to make dry caramel:

Start by placing white sugar in an even layer in a large saucepan over low medium heat. Shake the pan to spread the sugar evenly, then watch the pan closely. As the edges of the sugar begin to melt and darken, swirl the pan. Place it back on the heat to allow the sugar to melt again. Swirl as needed until all the sugar has melted completely and the sugar begins to turn amber in color. Once you've reached the desired color, quickly move the pan off the heat so it stops cooking. Transfer to llaneras or add additional ingredients if making caramel sauce and continue with the recipe. 

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You can try this dry caramel recipe right now. All you need, after all, is plain sugar. So get going! We know you can do it.

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