I recently took a great food writing class through UCSD Extension with Deborah Schneider, longtime San Diego chef, author of Cooking with the Seasons at Rancho La Puerta, and owner of Sol Cocina, a modern Mexican restaurant in Newport Beach.
My final project was inspired by caramels that we made as gifts for Christmas this year. We made fleur de sel, chocolate brownie, apple pie, and Marcona almond flavors.
Caramelized sugar is one of the few ingredients that have the power to evoke both warm feelings of home and deep terror. Standing over the pot in the kitchen with slightly spitting boiling sugar on the verge of burning, I kept telling myself that the warm happy part with soft, buttery, chewy caramel candy was coming soon. This was last Christmas when I was making a collection of sweets for holiday gifts and time was running short on getting the caramels done. People loved the flavor, but I never did get the texture right. This year, I was determined to solve the texture and do the whole process without giving myself an ulcer. I think I’ve found a good method.
Chewy caramel candies are actually an American invention that originated in the 1800’s. They were made with sugar, milk, butter, and molasses or syrup that was mixed together and boiled until the right consistency was reached. Before this, caramel was the stage in the process of boiling sugar when all the water had boiled away and the molten sugar began to color. This use lives on in flan or crème caramel, filigree spun sugar, and has been incorporated into yes, many caramel candy recipes.
The caramel recipe here starts with boiling sugar until it changes color; then you add butter, cream, and milk and cook it until it further browns and reaches the right texture. Why bother browning the sugar separately and then the milk, you ask? Well, browning sugar and browning milk proteins are actually two very different chemical processes: caramelization and the Maillard reaction. Each contributes different flavors to the overall taste profile and the combination makes for a complex, layered experience when you chew the caramel.
The Science of Caramel Sidebar
Caramelization is the process by which sugar alone turns brown. Sugar molecules start breaking down and reacting with each other higgledy piggledy. New molecules like diactyl, the molecule that makes butter and microwave popcorn taste like butter, get formed. The darker you go, the more the reaction continues. Take it to coffee color and you’ll have a smoking, bitter concoction called caramel color that is used to add color and flavor to colas. Depending on the sugar, caramelization occurs at different temperatures. Fructose caramelizes at lower temperatures (220 F), with glucose higher (300 F), and sucrose (table sugar) even higher (340 F).
When sugars are heated in the presence of proteins, a different reaction occurs between some types of sugar and the amino acids of the protein. Called the Maillard reaction, after Louis Camille Maillard, the French scientist that described it, this is the same process as browning meat in a pan. In caramel candies, the lactose from milk as well as glucose and fructose, if present, react with the amino acids in the milk and butter proteins. Table sugar, or sucrose, oddly doesn’t play a role here. Sucrose is made up of glucose and fructose, but they are bound together at the same part of the molecule that is required to react with amino acids. So, as long as sucrose stays sucrose, it doesn’t make Maillard products. Maillard reactions can occur at much lower temperatures than caramelization and we’ll see most of ours around 225-250 F.
So, why is caramelizing sugar so stressful? Well, the classic method requires split-second timing. Sugar and a little lemon juice or corn syrup are mixed together until it looks like wet sand. The lemon juice breaks down sucrose to glucose and fructose, effectively making a version of corn syrup in the pan. We’re using corn syrup because it is easier to control. The sugar is heated until it begins to melt. Stirring the sugar can make it crystallize into a giant globular mess, so it is swirled gently to mix the ingredients. The melting is usually uneven, though: some parts of the sugar may melt and darkly caramelize, while others are still crystallized. And you want to stop it before it burns. But the sugar needs to melt before adding the liquids or else crystals can form in the finished candy. And then the phone starts ringing and the kids start yelling. You get the picture.
An alternative method is to dissolve the sugar in water first. The water is then boiled off and molten sugar is left. The crystals are fully dissolved and the caramelization of the sugar is even, resulting in much more control over when we want to add the liquids. We still swirl, not stir, but we’re swirling a liquid, not a slushy mix.
The perfect caramelization point depends on the other flavors in the recipe. Light fruit flavors may benefit from a lighter caramel, while toasted nut caramels may like a darker flavor. The first time you caramelize sugar, take a sample at various points as the sugar goes through lemon, gold, amber, and coffee colors. Take some with a spoon and let cool on a lightly oiled heat-proof surface. When cool, you can taste these stages and decide what will be best for your flavors. The recipe here uses a gold colored caramel, which is reached at about 340 F. As the color gets close, take the pan off the heat. It will continue to brown, just more slowly. If you want it darker, put it back on the heat.
Adding the liquids can be exciting, but you can take it slow. Since the sugar is much hotter than the boiling point of water, all the water in the butter, milk, and cream will start to boil when you add it to the molten sugar, making for a bit of a bubble show. Start adding just a bit, stir, and wait for the bubbles to quiet down before adding more.
Choosing the time to take it off the heat and pour it into a lightly oiled container is another critical stress point. Hardness is determined by the temperature when you take it off the heat and slight variation in temperature can be important. I had been under the impression that if you cooked it too much, there was nothing you could do. You just had to deal with hard caramel. But that isn’t true. You can just add liquid and it will soften. It was like a weight had been lifted. As temperature reaches close to the end, just take the pan off the heat and test the hardness by drizzling a small amount in ice water. As soon as it goes from soft to strongly resisting, pour it out. Too hard? Just add a spoonful of milk or water and try again.
The last point is to let it rest after pouring for at least 12 hours. Touch it any sooner and the oil will start to break and ooze out of the candy. After 12 hours, you can cut easily with a chef’s knife or a pizza cutter. Wrap individually in plastic candy wrappers or waxed paper, put in a pretty box, and you’ve got an enviable holiday gift that was faster and less stressful than parking at the mall.
Recipe: Salted Caramels
The best things in life are often the simplest. Caramelized sugar, salt, and butter are a holy trinity of flavor.
220g (1 ¼ c.) sugar
30g (2 T.) corn syrup
55g (¼ c.) water
90g (6 1/2 T.) unsalted butter (splurge on the European style, here)
220 g (1 c.) half-and-half or:
160g (½ c. + 3 T.) milk
60g (¼ c. + 1 T.) heavy cream
1 t. sea or flaky kosher salt (a good sea salt like fleur de sel is great here)
¼ t. sea or flaky kosher salt
Mix sugar, corn syrup, and water in a heavy 4 qt. saucepan and stir until evenly distributed. Cover with a lid and set to high heat. The steam as it comes to a rolling boil will dissolve any stray sugar crystals on the side of the pan. When boiling hard, take off the lid and set a candy thermometer in the liquid such that the bulb is submerged, but is not touching the bottom of the pan to get an accurate temperature reading.
Heat the half and half or milk/cream mixture in a separate saucepan with 1 t. salt. Stir until the salt is dissolved. Set aside.
Boil at high heat without stirring until the temperature reaches 300 F. Then, turn the heat down to medium and monitor the solution for color change. It should turn a lemon yellow before turning golden. If the color appears uneven, swirl the pan. As the color changes, moderate the heat by taking the pan off the burner as needed. When the solution is golden, take the pan off the heat and add the butter. Stir with a wooden spoon until melted. Then, slowly add the half-and-half or milk/cream. Let bubble and stir.
Place saucepan on medium to medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Turn the temperature down if the caramel is in danger of boiling over. Boil, stirring often to constantly, until the solution reaches the desired consistency. This should be about 248 F. To test for consistency, drizzle a small amount into ice water, let cool, and taste. The candy should give resistance when bitten, and feel hard when ice cold, warming to soft at body temperature.
Pour into an 8×8 lightly greased heat-proof container, like pyrex. Sprinkle with remaining salt. Let cool at room temperature at least 12 hours. Remove from container and cut into 1×1 inch squares. Wrap in plastic or waxed paper.
Makes 64 pieces. Keeps well at room temperature for 2 months.