Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Hot Sauce! Demystifying Caramel

It's taken me awhile to do this, but I finally made caramel sauce with a candy thermometer. I've always cooked caramel by sight, having learned long ago what to look for in color, changes in bubbling, and smell. But this is hard to teach. Giving someone an exact number on a thermometer is a better way to ensure their caramel will come out right.

Caramel is the simple result of heating sugar to a specific temperature. Think broadly about sugar when considering caramel. You caramelize onions for French Onion Soupquiche, and salads just by cooking the sugars in the onions. Extended heating of goat milk will yield cajeta. In this process, it is the sugars in the goat milk that caramelize, lending cajeta it's distinctive flavor.

For a basic caramel sauce, you heat sugar until it reaches a fairly specific temperature: too low and your caramel lacks depth, too high and it's bitter. After the right temperature is achieved you add cream and vanilla.

My candy thermometer lists a caramel range between 360° F and 380° F.  Sugar (sucrose) begins to melt around 320° F and caramelize around 340° F. If you're going to the trouble to make caramel sauce with a candy thermometer, it's probably a good idea to test the thermometer first. Do this by measuring the temp of a cup of boiling water. At sea level, it should read 212° F. If it reads above or below this number, replace it or make necessary adjustments. Oh, and for my Telluride peeps, and those at higher altitude, please note: for every 1,000 feet you are above sea level, subtract 2 degrees F from the temperature you're aiming for.

I like caramel cooked to 360° F - that's the temp at which I find it has the flavor. For a point of reference, 355-360° F is considered medium caramel and 375-380° F is considered dark caramel. I wonder who made those distinctions in the first place. Another scientific tidbit, most caramel sauce recipes I've seen have a smidgen of corn syrup added. This addition adds a wee bit of glucose to the sauce (corn syrup is only about 20% glucose), probably not enough to change the cooking times, but does change the chemical structure and prevent the formation of crystals. Sucrose is a large crystal and it has a harder time bonding with other sucrose crystals when molecules of fructose and glucose are in the mix. I always add a smidgen of corn syrup to my berry sauces and sorbets, just to keep the sauces smooth and crystal-free.

Caramel Sauce
Print recipe only here

2 cups sugar
1 T corn syrup
2 T water
1/2 vanilla bean
1 cup heavy cream
4 T unsalted butter

Heat the water, sugar and corn syrup in a medium-large (but deep) stainless steel or heavy-bottomed saucepan, fitted with a  good candy thermometer. I use a deep 4-quart pot and have a flat-edged candy thermometer

Cut the vanilla bean lengthwise down the middle, only cutting thru one side. Open it up and scrape out the pods. Put the pod paste and the scraped bean into a small saucepan with the cream.

Heat the cream and vanilla bean over low-medium heat. You don't need to boil it (and don't, because it will make a mess if it boils). 

Cook the sugar until it turns a deep amber and approaches 360° F. Once it reaches that temp, immediately remove from the heat and carefully (and slowly!) pour the hot cream and vanilla bean into the amber sugar. It will get very excited and bubbly. Just pour slowly and you won't make a mess or hurt yourself.  Stir and allow to cool for several minutes, then add the butter and stir gently until melted and just combined. Now it's done. You can transfer it to a squeeze bottle or glass jar once it's cooled a bit more.

Warm, refrigerate leftover sauce, reheating as necessary. Keeps for awhile (a few months).


bethstanton68 said...

So, I recently tested the claim that you can completely submerge a can of sweetened condensed milk in simmering water, leave it there for 3 hours, let it cool and you have dulce de leche. It was great! Somewhat less complex, I imagine, but yummy.

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