Learn how to make a simple and delicious caramel sauce made with only sugar, milk, and sea salt. No cream or butter needed!
Quick Note: This is an updated version of a post that originally appeared on Bright-Eyed Baker in 2012. Updates include new text and photos, as well as some details added to the instructions for clarity.
Back in the day, when consuming copious amounts of sugar at once didn't seem like an awful idea, my coffee drink of choice was a caramel frappucino. I later moved to a skinny caramel frap, and then to caramel macchiatos, but my love of all things coffee + caramel persisted. It's for that reason and that reason only that I developed this recipe for making caramel sauce with milk.
I tried multiple other recipes - some using a dry method, some a wet method; some with heavy cream, and some with butter. But here's the thing: they were all problematic for one reason or another. One burned. Another was so thick you definitely couldn't pour it into a latté. And every recipe using cream or butter along with the requisite sugar just seemed a little too heavy for an every-morning drink.
So hear we are now, after *many* failed batches, with a very simple caramel sauce made without any cream or butter. Making caramel sauce with milk is extremely unconventional, and there's a reason for that: milk has a lot less fat than heavy cream, which makes the process trickier. But it can work, it's still delicious, and after a little practice it's really not difficult at all.
What is dry-method caramel?
Like I mentioned before, there are two basic methods for making caramel: a wet method and a dry method. The wet method involves mixing sugar with water before cooking it; as the sugar melts, the water evaporates. With the dry method, the sugar is heated by itself until it starts to caramelize and turn liquid. Some people find the dry method more difficult, but I personally prefer it.
There are only three simple ingredients you need for this recipe: sugar, milk, and sea salt. I've personally tested this recipe with 2% and whole milk, but readers have shared in the comments that they've used all sorts of other milk. See the recipe notes for other types of milk that I've been told work.
Tips for making caramel sauce
This recipe can be tricky until you get the hang of it. Here are some tips I highly recommend you read before starting:
Start with clean tools. Make sure your pot and spatula are clean and dry. Your sugar should also be completely pure; if it has come into contact with bits of flour, etc., that could effect how well it liquifies. Clean conditions help prevent the sugar from crystallizing.
Use a heavy-bottomed, TALL pot. Trust me on this one! A thin pan will lead to burnt caramel, and a pan that's too shallow can lead to a dangerous mess, since the hot caramel will steam and bubble vigorously when you add milk to it.
Wear an oven mitt. Even with a tall pot, I recommend wearing an oven mitt on the hand that you'll use to stir in the milk. You need to keep the caramel stirring constantly once the milk has been added, but the steam can get so hot that this can become close to impossible with a bare hand.
Don't multi-task. Don't try to make caramel at the same time as you're doing something else. The process moves quickly and is extremely time-sensitive. If you're not paying close attention you'll most likely burn your caramel or cause it to seize or curdle, and nobody wants that!
Don't stir the sugar. I can't stress this enough: while the sugar is heating up and starting to liquify, DO NOT STIR. The only thing you want to use your spatula for at this point is to push the liquid sugar on top of the solid sugar so it doesn't burn. Hold off on any stirring until all of the sugar has liquified.
Don't burn the caramel. I realize this seems obvious, but it also needs to be said. Once the sugar turns to liquid, continue to cook it just until it turns a rusty golden-brown color. Then STOP.
Don't give up! Real talk: your first attempt at making caramel might not be a complete success. BUT, I can tell you from my own experience (and that of so many readers who have commented on this recipe!) that the second attempt is usually much better.
For more helpful pointers, check out my top ten tips for making caramel without cream!
There are two main issues you might run into while making this caramel sauce:
The milk curdles: One issue with using milk in a caramel sauce is the possibility of it curdling. This can be caused by a few things: the sugar getting too dark or burnt (and acidic) before adding the milk, using old milk, and/or not stirring the caramel constantly once the milk has been added. In any case, you can usually save a curdled caramel sauce by using an immersion blender to smooth it out again.
The caramel seizes: It is not at all uncommon for your caramel sauce to seize when milk is added to it. When this happens, the liquid caramel hardens into a semi-solid clump and you're left with a pot full of milk and a clump of caramelized sugar. Don't panic! Just put the caramel back on the stove and stir it continuously until the clumps melt back into the sauce. It may take a while but it should eventually happen.
Can I double the recipe?
I would highly recommend that you not double this recipe unless you've made it many times already and are 100% comfortable with the process. Too much sugar in a pot becomes hard to cook evenly, and this can lead to all sorts of difficulties.
Making a thicker sauce
If you don't cook the caramel sauce for more than a couple minutes after adding the milk, it will be thin, which is perfect for mixing into coffee. But if you're looking for a thicker caramel sauce, just cook it longer (about 10-15 minutes after adding the milk) while stirring constantly.
This caramel sauce can be stored in a jar in the refrigerator and should last for several weeks, if not longer. But I have no doubt you'll use it faster than that!
More caramel recipes
Once you've got the hang of making caramel, it's easy to adapt the method to different recipes. Here are some recipes using caramel that you can try:
Caramel Latté Ice Cream - A silky, luscious ice cream that tastes like the frozen version of an ultra-creamy caramel latte. Cannot recommend enough.
Salted Caramel and Candied Pecan Biscotti - Classic biscotti gets an exciting twist with the addition of crunchy candied pecans, a heavy caramel drizzle, and a sprinkle of sea salt to top it all off.
Boozy Chocolate Caramel Cups - Mini chocolate cups filled with rum-spiked caramel. It's homemade candy at its finest!
A final tip
Read through the entire recipe below before you start making this caramel sauce! The process moves very quickly and you'll be much more likely to succeed if you know what to expect.Print
Caramel Sauce with Milk
A simple and delicious caramel sauce made with only sugar, milk, and sea salt. No cream or butter needed!
- Prep Time: 5 minutes
- Cook Time: 20 minutes (up to 30)
- Total Time: 25 minutes (up to 35)
- Yield: 1 to 1-¼ cups caramel sauce* 1x
- Category: candy
- Method: stovetop
- Cuisine: American
- Diet: Low Fat
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 ¼ cups milk**
- ¼ - ½ teaspoon sea salt***
- Heat sugar in saucepan: Place the sugar in a large, tall, heavy-bottomed pot, shaking it so that the sugar is in a thin, even layer. Place the pot over medium-low heat. Set a timer for 8 minutes while the sugar starts to heat up. During this time, leave the sugar untouched.
- Continue cooking: Check on the sugar once the 8 minutes are up. If you're starting to smell it, or see areas where it appears light brown or translucent, it's about to start turning liquid. If this happens, skip to step 3 now. Otherwise, set the timer for another 8 minutes, but this time, keep an eye on the sugar. Around 8 minutes later you should see it starting to liquify.
- Warm milk: Meanwhile, prepare for the next few steps, as they will come quickly. Warm the milk in a microwave-safe container for about a minute, and stir to even out the temperature. Place the warm milk near the stove along with a trivet (where you can quickly place the pot of caramel once ready), and a heat-safe spatula.
- Finish melting sugar: As soon as you see the sugar turning liquid, take your heat-safe spatula and carefully start to scoop the liquid sugar over the solid sugar. Continue to do this as more sugar turns liquid; the idea is not to stir the sugar, but just to keep the liquid parts from burning. Once all of the sugar has turned liquid, stir gently until it turns a rusty golden-brown color. This should only take a few seconds; be careful not to let it burn.
- Add milk to sugar: As soon as the caramel turns the appropriate color, remove it from the stove, place it on the trivet, and quickly stir in half of the warm milk. It's important to keep stirring the caramel during this time. The milk will cause the caramel to steam and bubble rapidly, so be careful as you stir. Continue to stir as the bubbling subsides, and then stir in the remaining milk.
- Return to heat: Some (or much) of the caramel may have hardened when the milk was added. If so, or if you want a thicker caramel, return the pot to the stove. Stir constantly over medium-low heat until any hardened caramel has melted back into the mixture. Be sure to carefully pry any hardened bits off of the bottom or sides of the pot as necessary, melting these pieces back in as well. Be patient; it may seem like they aren't going to melt, but with time it should.
- To make a thicker caramel: If you want a thicker caramel, better for drizzling onto baked goods, cook the caramel, stirring constantly, for an additional 10-15 minutes after adding the milk. It will not look very thick while it's hot, but as it cools, it will thicken substantially.
- Add salt and cool: Once all hardened pieces of caramel have melted (as needed) and the caramel has cooked longer (as desired), remove the pot from the heat. Whisk in the sea salt. Pour the caramel into a heat-proof container (if using glass, you can put a metal spoon in it to prevent shattering). Cover and place in the refrigerator to store; it will thicken as it cools.
*A thinner caramel sauce will yield about 1-¼ cups, while a thicker caramel sauce (cooked longer) will yield about 1 cup.
**I typically use 2% milk or whole milk. Readers have told me that the following will also work: 1%, skim milk, rice milk, goat's milk, almond milk, soy milk, and lactose-free milks such as Lactaid. (I haven't tested these alternatives myself.)
***For more of a "salted caramel", use ½ teaspoon of sea salt. Otherwise, ¼ teaspoon should do it.