One Ingredient: Caramel
by Julie Van Rosendaal
There are few culinary transformations as delicious as that
of sugar into caramel; high heat turns sugar from onedimensionally
sweet to something altogether different,
creating new flavour compounds and a nutty complexity.
Caramel comes with an adjacent bitterness that depends on
the depth of the caramel – the longer the sugar has spent
over heat, the deeper, more intense and bitter-edged it becomes.
Its flavour is so distinct, caramel is often referred to
in wine and whisky tasting notes.
If you consider it an ingredient, caramel can be used as a sweetener, as you might
use sugar, molasses or honey, incorporated into a cookie, cake or filling, or drizzled
over a dessert to finish; in most sweet applications, it’s considered its own flavour,
like chocolate or strawberry. And because people love the dichotomy of sweet
and salty, caramel has become a famous vehicle for flaky salt. Salted caramel is so
popular, it transforms everything from ice cream to granola bars into bestsellers.
Although caramel is simply sugar that has been heated until it caramelizes, it can
be intimidating to make. As a starting point, there are two basic ways to do it: dry
caramel is made by setting a pan of dry sugar on the stovetop and allowing it to
melt; it will do this gradually, starting in spots that identify your pan or burner’s hot
spots, and tends to go from white to dark quickly. Wet caramel is made with the
addition of syrup (corn or Roger’s golden) and/or water to the sugar to help move
things along. If there’s water in the mix, it will take longer to simmer the caramel,
as the excess moisture must then cook off, but it can be easier to work with a liquid
mixture that can more easily be moved around the pan, and is slower to darken
and caramelize. Some recipes instruct the cook to stand at the pot, brushing down
the sides with a pastry brush dipped in water, which will wash down any sugar
crystals – it will, but will also slow down your caramel-making process as the added
water will then need to be cooked off. Adding a few drops of lemon juice will help
convince the mixture to stay liquid, and not crystallize around the edges.
If you want to get the hang of making caramel, sugar is inexpensive, and worth
playing around with until the technique is no longer scary. Once you have a pan
of caramel, cooked to the degree of darkness that coincides with the intensity of
flavour you’re going for, it can be turned into chewy caramel candies or a pourable
sauce by whisking in butter and/or cream, or into syrup by whisking in water. (You
may choose to warm your liquid first; introducing something cold to the hot sugar
will cause it to splatter, and if some of the candy solidifies in the process, more
heat and stirring will melt it back into the mix.) Left alone and poured into puddles
on parchment, you’ll have hard caramel candy. If it starts to smoke, you’ve likely
gone too far: actual burnt sugar is a bit too bitter. And if things do go sideways
and you wind up with a mixture that’s not the exact texture you were going for,
I can almost guarantee it will still taste delicious.
Read One Ingredient in the digital issue of City Palate.