Caramel and I have quite the history. Cue the day I first decided to try making caramel. Because I wanted it for coffee and therefore wanted to keep it lighter on the calorie side, I decided to try a recipe I found online that included two ingredients: sugar and water. It was a dry-method caramel, and seeing as I had never done anything like this before, I ended up with burnt, liquidy caramel sauce – not what I had in mind for stirring into a creamy latte.
Take two, which took place the very same day, was a wet-method caramel, made with sugar, buttermilk, butter, and baking soda. It was pretty tasty, and definitley thick, but after a few hours in the fridge it was spoonable, as in no longer liquid. It would still melt into my hot coffee, or liquefy in the microwave, but I was pretty sure there had to be a better solution out there. That, and I didn’t exactly want to introduce butter into my morning coffee routine.
Finally, I decided to go back to another dry-method caramel. I chose a recipe with simple ingredients and worked from there. Instead of heavy cream (which most caramel recipes actually call for, and which it seems solely I was trying to avoid), I decided to use milk. I also did a lot of reading, trying to get the dry-method caramel down to a science – what works and what doesn’t. Then I practiced, again and again and again. I went from caramel stuck on the bottom of my pan to caramel that I can now practically make with my eyes closed.
I realize that my method of making caramel – with milk – is extremely unconventional, and partially for scientific reasons, being that 2% milk has a lot less fat than heavy cream. In fact, I wonder if some of the culinary greats of the world would read this and scoff at the fact that I’m making caramel sauce with milk. But, in my oh-so-humble opinion, it can work, it’s still deliciously addicting, and when you’re going through it the way we are at my house, it’s necessary.
In fact, I am now some sort of ultra-caramel proponent. I seem to want to stick it in everything, and it’s intoxicating, sweet, rich, deep, and distinguished flavor has me dreaming up all sorts of culinary creations. Say “caramel” right now, and I’m pretty much in. You’ll see. :)
A few basic tips to keep in mind when making caramel, from my experiences:
Make a single batch at a time, not a double and definitely not a triple, unless perhaps you’re very “caramelly adept”. I know this recipe like the back of my hand, but still I’ve learned that I need to stick to a single batch. Too much sugar in a pot becomes hard to melt evenly, and you might end up simultaneously sweating and crying over a pot of semi-clumpy, semi-melted sugar on a hot stove.
Use a heavy-bottomed, TALL pot. If you don’t, you’ll regret it. A thin pan will lead to burnt caramel, and a pan that is too short can lead to a dangerous mess, as the hot caramel steams and bubbles a lot when you add the milk. Even with a tall pan, I recommend wearing an oven mitt on the hand that you’ll use to stir in the milk. You need to keep the stirring going, but the steam can get so hot that this can become close to impossible with a bare hand.
Make sure your pot and spatula are clean and your sugar is pure. Clean conditions help prevent the sugar from crystallizing.
Don’t try to make caramel at the same time as you’re doing something else that’s time sensitive, unless perhaps you’re a very experienced caramel-maker/baker/cook. With caramel, once things get moving, they move quickly.
Don’t stir the heck out of melting sugar. In fact, don’t stir. Just scoop the melted sugar over the sugar that hasn’t melted yet, and hold off on the stirring until all of the sugar has melted.
Don’t burn the caramel. Just cook it until it turns a rusty golden-brown color and then STOP.
Don’t freak out if you start stirring in your milk and you find that a glob of caramel has hardened up, or worse, all of the caramel has frozen mid-bubble onto the bottom of your pot. This has happened to me before, and usually you can get it all to melt again, simply by putting it back on the stove with the milk and stirring. You’ll still end up with delicious caramel sauce.
And last but definitely not least, don’t give up if you fail once, or twice, or three times…. Caramel can be tricky to make, but you’ll get it eventually. And if you succeed on try #1, my hat’s off to you.
P.S. I would recommend reading through the whole recipe before you start, as the caramel-making process is time-sensitive.
UPDATE: I’ve since made another version of all-milk caramel sauce that I love just as much as this one. If you’re up for something different, try out my Buttery Cinnamon Caramel Sauce Recipe!
DIY Caramel Sauce
A simple and dangerously delicious Caramel Sauce made with only sugar, milk, and sea salt.
- Yield: 1 to 1-1/4 cups caramel sauce* 1x
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 1/4 cup milk**
- 1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon sea salt***
- 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 and let the sugar heat up. During this time, just let the stove do it’s work. Check on the sugar once the 8 minutes are up. It should look the same as when you started, because it hasn’t gotten hot enough yet to start melting. Set the timer for another 8 minutes, but this time, keep an eye on the sugar. Around the end of this 8 minutes it should start to liquefy.
- 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.
- When you start to smell the sugar heating up and it begins to appear light brown and translucent in some spots, it is about to start melting. As soon as you see some liquefied sugar, take your heat-safe spatula and carefully scoop the melted sugar over the unmelted sugar. Continue to do this as more sugar melts; the idea is not to stir the sugar, but just to keep the melted parts from burning while the unmelted parts are allowed to melt. Once all of the sugar has melted, stir gently until it turns a rusty golden-brown color. This should only take a few seconds. If you can’t see the color of the caramel well, spoon a drop onto a white plate.
- As soon as the caramel turns the appropriate color, remove it from the stove onto the trivet and quickly stir in half of the warm milk. It’s important to keep the caramel moving before and during the process of adding the milk. The milk will make the caramel steam and bubble A LOT, so be careful as you stir. Continue to stir as bubbling subsides, then stir in remaining milk.
- Some of the caramel may have hardened into a glob while you added the milk. 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 again. Also be sure to carefully pry any hardened caramel 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 from my experience, they always will.
- 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.
- Once all hardened pieces of caramel have melted again (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, put something metal in it to prevent shattering). Cover and place in the refrigerator, allowing to cool and thicken. Keep the caramel stored in the refrigerator; it will remain pourable.
- Add it to everything!!
*A thinner caramel sauce will yield about 1-1/4 cups, while a thicker caramel sauce (cooked longer) will yield about 1 cup.
**I use 2% milk, and anything with a higher fat content than that will also work. 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 1/2 teaspoon of sea salt.
With a tip from The Baking Gallery