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6 tips for making caramel and avoiding potential pitfalls

By Aaron Hutcherson Washington Post

I consider caramel as evidence that cooking is a form of magic. With just heat, you can turn simple, sweet sugar into something deliciously complex with a range of textures (depending on the addition of other ingredients). This is thanks to chemical reactions that create new flavor compounds. But as with any potion, making caramel can be hard to master and even dangerous if not handled properly.

Here are tips to help you make caramel for all of your dessert needs.

Follow the recipe

For those new to the craft, making caramel is something where you want to follow the recipe to the letter, which means measuring all of your ingredients before you start cooking and not making any substitutions. Of particular note: You want to stick to regular granulated sugar, as other sweeteners can burn before they start to caramelize, which starts at around 320 degrees.

If you’re making candies, make sure your dish is greased and lined with parchment. And as soon as you’re done cooking, remove the pot from the heat or the caramel may continue to darken (read: become more bitter).

Pick the right pot

Though a thermometer may come in handy for certain types of caramel, in most cases your eyes and nose will be enough of an indicator. To that end, it’s imperative to use a light-colored pan so that you can more accurately determine the color of the sugar as it cooks.

A heavy bottom will help with heat distribution for more even cooking, and if your recipe calls for adding heavy cream or another liquid, be sure your cookware is large enough (and tall enough) to contain ferocious bubbling when the sugar and liquid meet.

And this might be obvious, but make sure that whatever pot you use is clean before starting as any speck of food can throw the whole thing off.

Add water

There are two methods for making caramel, known as “dry” and “wet.”

“For the ‘dry’ caramel method, you simply heat the sugar in an empty pan until melted and caramelized,” cookbook author Martha Holmberg wrote in the Washington Post. “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 has made it even to light amber.”

The solution is to simply add water for the “wet” method, which takes slightly longer because you then need the water to evaporate, but it reduces the risk of burning and makes the process more foolproof.

Avoid crystallization

The downside of adding water is that there’s the potential for crystallization, which can lead to a grainy mess.

“If any sugar syrup splashes onto the side of the pan, the water in it can quickly evaporate, causing the sugar to crystallize,” Sohla El-Waylly wrote in her cookbook, “Start Here.” “If just one of those rogue crystals makes its way back into the syrup, the whole pot will congeal into a lumpy, white mass. If that happens, don’t worry, just add water to dissolve away your sugary sadness and try again.”

The first key to stopping crystallization from happening is to simply not stir it too much. Stir the pot in the beginning only enough to moisten the sugar, taking care not to splash the sides of the pan. Any tool is fine, but El-Waylly recommends the added precaution of using a fork to prevent any splashing. Once it starts simmering away, it’s best to leave the sugar syrup undisturbed until it starts to brown. “Once just a teeny bit of browning starts, you’re free to stir and swirl,” El-Waylly wrote.

Two steps you can take for preventing crystallization include brushing the walls of the pot with water as it cooks to wash down any sugar syrup, or covering the pot with a lid to trap the steam until all the sugar has dissolved. With the latter, “the water will evaporate, roll down the sides of the pot, and do the work for you,” El-Waylly wrote. (I was taught the wet brush method in culinary school but have not used either of these in my recent – albeit limited – caramel making.)

Another pathway is the addition of an acid or corn syrup, which work by changing or introducing, respectively, new sugar molecules that prohibit ice crystal formation in the first place. El-Waylly is a proponent of vinegar for flavor and texture, Cook’s Illustrated prefers to replace some of the sugar with corn syrup, and the caramel sauce recipe in our archives calls for neither, so it’s up to you and your comfort level.

Be safe

Hot sugar is very dangerous. I’d start by keeping any kids or pets out of the kitchen – and maybe even warning any adults whom you live with. Wearing long sleeves and oven mitts to guard against splatters also isn’t a bad idea.

You may already need to have an ice bath ready to submerge the pot in, to stop the caramel’s cooking, depending on the recipe, but the extremely cautious may also want one if you happen to get any hot sugar on your hand.

In addition to the sugar, you also need to be careful of steam if you’re adding liquid. Anyone who’s had a steam burn before – myself included – knows that they can be very bad. Lastly, do not attempt to taste the caramel until it has completely cooled.

All of this may seem obvious, and I am not trying to scare anyone away from making caramel at home, but it’s important to know the potential dangers beforehand so that you can avoid them.

Clean it up (and try again)

Once you have made a beautiful batch of caramel, it’s time to deal with all of that sticky sugar. The easiest way to clean your pan and metal utensils is to add water and let them soak, or better yet, put the pan back on the stove and bring the water to a boil until the sugar dissolves.

And if you were unsuccessful and perhaps ended up with a caramel that was too bitter for your liking, remember that sugar is fairly inexpensive and you can simply try again.