Technique Post: Caramel (Candy #1)

I like to call this "The Sugar Series." I'll be taking you through making different kinds of concoctions with a sugar base, from caramel, to fudge, to maple candy, and beyond. All of these share their reliance on the chemistry of sugar to transform into something entirely different than the table sugar we start with.

Let me be clear: Candy is magic. It's essentially a really tasty science experiment, where you convert sugar to different molecules and manipulate it to get the output you want, like cooking it to higher temperatures so that the water or other liquid evaporates, or incorporating components like milk or acid to keep crystals from forming.

This article is an interesting reference for how sugar works; it wasn't until 2011 that we realized that sugar undergoes "apparent melting" as it decomposes, which occurs at different temperatures depending on the heat at which it's cooked. The word decomposes is accurate because it does not retain its chemical composition - whereas water is H20 whether solid, liquid, or gas, sugar (sucrose) actually breaks down into fructose and glucose around 350 degrees Fahrenheit, although you get a different outcome if you cook it on low heat vs. high heat due to sugar's chemical properties. So, if I say that sugar will "melt" at a certain stage of the recipe, I mean it adopts a liquid form, which is actually changing into different molecules that have different characteristics.

Gosh, this is so interesting!!!!!!!!

Some basics:
All the different types of confections are combinations of sugar, cream, butter, or other fats and flavors, cooked to different temperatures that correspond to certain final consistencies. 

Ingredients: This is how most of the confections are defined. Caramel is just sugar with some dairy added (or not); butterscotch is brown sugar (which is sugar combined with molasses) and butter; fudge is sugar, butter, and cream.

Temperature: Candy thermometers are marked with different levels based on what you'll end up with when you heat it to that temperature. At each stage, if you were to take a bit of the mixture and drop it into cold water (i.e. cool it immediately), you'd end up with the corresponding name - ex. if you drop a bit of fudge at the "soft ball" stage, then it will form a soft ball. If you cook sugar to the "hard crack" stage and drop it to water, it would be very, very brittle. This is what's used for things like toffee. So that would be one way to test it - if you didn't have a candy thermometer. You would see the end result immediately. Caramel is cooked beyond a hard crack 

Crystallization: If you whisk sugar while it's heating, you will end up with a very different result than if you stirred it gently or let it sit. You essentially want to let the sugar be one with the ingredients so that it doesn't crystallize when you don't want it to. The fun, chemistry science experiment thing about crystals, is if you get one while it's cooking, then the other molecules start crystallizing too, like a giant inconvenient game of freeze tag, which is bad (for our purposes today). This can happen if you get sugar on the side of the pan, for example, and then if it falls back into the mixture it can crystallize and you get crunchy fudge, or caramel, or whatever you're making. 

For something like caramel or even hard candy, you don't want crystals ever, which is why it looks smooth. For fudge or taffy, you don't stir it once it starts boiling, and then you let it sit until it cools back down, and then you create crystals, so you end up with small crystals that make it the texture you know and love instead of big crystals that crunch when you bite it. 

Equipment needed:
  • Saucepan
  • Candy thermometer
YES. You need a candy thermometer. Don't be a hero. There's no one here to impress. This is the one I have that I like the most (because I have more than one candy thermometer, you guys). It's like $15 and well-labeled and easy to anchor on the side of the pot. Plus! You can use it for fudge, butterscotch, lemon curd, frying, hard candy... anything!

Are you kind of thinking you're going to be terrible at this and put your candy thermometer away for the next five years?  Then here is a $4 one (that I also have). It's not quite as easy to read as the other, but it'll absolutely work for this.

I don't usually use a thermometer for caramel, and the reason is, caramel is the last stage of sugar. So, frankly, as long as you're standing there looking at it, you're not going to overcook it and end up with the wrong end product. Sugar "melts" at 320, so at 325 you've got a light caramel. Ideal temperature is around 350, but it's usable up to 375 or so. Eventually, it'll overcook and turn black, and that's bad. But you have a lot of leeway here, so this is a good beginner's candy to try your hand at sugarworks. (I just made that up. Sugarworks!) And you can practice while you wait for your thermometer to come in the mail.

You'll need:
  • Sugar
Start with sugar. Actually, end with sugar too. It's just sugar!

For this I used a cup of sugar. (There's no ratios of sugar to water, sugar to fat, etc. to worry about here, so if you need a lot, use more sugar!) Put it in a small saucepan over medium high heat.

I use a wooden spoon to stir it a bit as it starts to melt, just to give equal opportunity to all the sugar to melt. Do not use a metal spoon, or you could cause crystallization, which is bad for caramel and will make it grainy. 

That's the sugar starting to melt and stick together. When it gets like this - where you can see dark brown sugar turning liquid along the bottom, stop stirring. You can swirl the pan a bit to make sure it mixes, but be careful because if you get sugar on the side of the saucepan that falls back in, you could get crystallization.

Almost there... 

Ta-da! It's caramel! Now take it off the heat.

Some recipes will tell you to add butter or cream here - you do this to keep it from hardening. If you're using it right away - for example, in flan - you're all set and the caramel is done. If you want to top ice cream or cookies with it, then at the last step, stir in 6 Tbs butter until incorporated. Then remove from heat and stir in 1/2 cup heavy cream. Now you can refrigerate it and use it later.

Suggested Soundtrack: "Watermelon Sugar" by Harry Styles