One Ingredient: CARAMEL
by Julie Van Rosendaal
The kitchen can be a scary place, especially when you’re attempting to make things like caramel from scratch. Molten sugar is extremely hot and relentlessly sticky. It must be swirled and not stirred, and can darken unevenly and burn quickly, turning a shade beyond salvageable in a few seconds. But the thing to remember about making caramel yourself is that the caramelization part, the cook- ing of sugar until it melts and transforms to a deep amber, is an inexpensive experiment. It’s just sugar. And even if you do cook it for too little or too long and wind up with caramel that’s too soft or too crunchy, all stages that come before burnt are delicious.
The way to push past your fear of DIY caramel is by doing it – after a few batches, it will be significantly less terrifying, and the end result is its own reward. The process of making caramel is ridiculously simple, before you get into the nitty gritty of tips and rules: simply heat sugar until it melts and turns the colour of
beer (ranging, like beer, from a pilsner to an amber ale; if it’s the shade of a stout, it’s gone too far). The longer you cook it, the snappier it will be. What cookbooks refer to as “the dry method” requires you to start with dry granulated sugar in your pan, set over heat, which can be scarier; it won’t melt as evenly, and can go from zero to mahogany with little opportunity for you to swirl the pan. Adding a small amount of water or corn syrup to the sugar right off the bat helps get things started, allowing the sugar to dissolve and heat more evenly. It will be a tad more prone to crystallization (I’ve never had a problem) and will add a few minutes to the process, but will also take some of the pressure off.
The standard rule of caramel making is that you can’t dip a spoon or spatula in to stir it, which may cool the candy down in spots and trigger it to crystallize. Some cooks stand by the pot, mopping the sides with a pastry brush dipped in water, washing down grains of crystallized sugar, slowing the process down to make
it more manageable. In my experience, this isn’t necessary, but won’t hurt if it makes you feel better – just remember that any water you add to the mixture via your pastry brush will need to be cooked off. A drop of lemon juice will encourage the caramel to stay in its liquid state. Swirling the pan is enough to keep the sugar combined and caramelizing even, and you won’t find yourself trailing hot caramel across the counter from your spoon.
If you plan to add cream to your caramel, for chewy candies or sauce, be prepared for it to splatter – if it’s your first time (and even if it’s not), it’s a good idea to have oven mitts and a bowl of cold water at the ready. Ice water does double duty; dribbling a bit of hot syrup into it will cool it down quickly and allow you to test its pliability without the need for a candy thermometer. Also, you can quickly plunge your hand in if any syrup should wind up on your skin.
Once you’ve mastered caramel, everything else in the kitchen will be slightly less scary. In terms of deliciousness, of all the things that are better homemade than store-bought, caramel in all its forms tops the list.
Read One Ingredient in the digital issue of City Palate.