Caramel Sauce by Daremeth
Confectionery 101 - Caramel Sauce by Daremyth
In my opinion, one of the coolest types of cooking is confectionery, that is, candy-making. The huge variety of stuff you can make by simply cooking sugar to varying temperatures is really cool. As a sugar syrup cooks and the water evaporates, eventually you're left with a mixture of molten sugar; by halting the cooking process at certain temperatures, you can control the type of crystal formation and the concentration of water in the final candy. Further refinements can be made by additives in the sugar or by how the sugar is handled while it's cooling (think taffy pulling). There are basically 7 stages of temperatures where the texture of the finished sugar is different. These are:
Thread - 223-236 F Soft Ball - 234-240 F (Fondant, fudge) Firm Ball - 244-250 F (Soft toffees) Hard Ball - 250-266 F (Marshmallows, hard toffees) Soft Crack - 270-290 F (Butterscotch, nougat) Hard Crack - 300-310 F (Barley sugar, lollipops) Caramel - 320-350 F (Brittle, pralines) Carbon - 350+ F
The names are derived from old confectionery practices in which a bit of syrup was dropped into ice water to immediately halt the cooking and cool the syrup. The behavior of the syrup globule determined the stage the candy was at.
Of all of the stages, I like cooking caramel the best. You take sugar right to the point of being no more than a lump of carbon, right when it starts to break down in an amazingly complex process and produce hundreds and hundreds of chemicals which give really good caramel its distinctive bittersweet flavor, and then pull it back by adding cold cream. It's basically like playing chicken with the sugar.
Before the late 19th century, it was thought that sugar boiled past the hard-crack stage was burned and spoiled. Schmucks.
So, I'll stop rambling about the backstory of caramel and get right down to it.
You will need:
- A small-medium saucepan
- A pastry brush (technically optional)
- A candy/fry thermometer capable of 350+ temperatures.
- 1 c of sugar (Just use the normal extra-fine grain sugar you find at the grocery store. Do NOT use powdered or confectioner's sugar as it usually has starch added and this will mess up your candy.)
- around 1 c of heavy cream (aka whipping cream, ~35% fat content)
- 1 T light corn syrup OR 1 T distilled vinegar OR 1 t Cream of Tartar
- Variable amounts of water
Start off by putting the sugar into your saucepan. Ideally, the sugar should come 1/4 - 1/3 up the edge of the pan. There's quite a bit of expansion and boiling when we put the cream in at the end, so there needs to be ample room so your mixture doesn't boil over.
Measure out your cream. Here's why I said around 1 cup of cream. If you have slightly more than a cup of cream, your caramel sauce will be relatively thin. I wouldn't suggest using much more than say 1 1/8 cups of cream and no less than 3/4 cups of cream. At the lower end, your sauce will be thicker, browner, and obviously, less creamy. I'm using maybe 3 T more than a cup because I have plans for this caramel sauce that require it to be somewhat thin. Stick your measured cream in the 'fridge until your sugar has cooked for a while or it'll get warm.
Mix enough water in with your sugar to bring it to the consistency of mortar. When in doubt, wetter is better than drier since the water will all be boiling off anyways.
Technically, you don't even need water, but the added heat convection water provides will boil the sugar more evenly in the crucial beginning stages, where recrystallization is most dangerous.
At this point, you should also add your choice of inhibiting agents (either the corn syrup, vinegar or cream of tartar). These help to prevent recrystallization and will give you a better chance at a smooth candy or sauce.
During the caramelization of sugar, a process known as inversion breaks down the sucrose (a disaccharide) into the simpler sugars dextrose and fructose (monosaccharides). Once this inversion takes place, it is much more difficult for the sucrose to recrystallize. Adding corn syrup helps give inversion a kick-start by providing a ready source of dextrose. Adding cream of tartar or distilled vinegar add a tiny bit of acidity to the mix, which also aids the inversion process.
Time to start cooking the sugar! Put the pan over high heat and start it boiling, stirring occasionally until all the sugar is dissolved in the water. Once you see steam rising and the liquid is clear, STOP STIRRING. The syrup is now super saturated with sugar. Any agitation will disrupt it and cause sugar crystals to form, which will result in cloudy candy. It's also at this point you should either brush the sides of the pan down with a pastry brush dipped in clean water or clamp a lid on the pan for a few seconds. Both will wash excess sugar off the sides of the pan. (I actually didn't do either cause I'm lazy)
As your sugar solution passes 300, you'll start to see changes in the color. This is the critical point in the cooking; don't walk away or go watch TV or take a nap at this point. Also, obviously, be careful. This stuff is really, really hot and it sticks to you like napalm. Also, at this point, the inversion reaction is pretty nearly complete so it's ok to start agitating the mixture a little bit. Swirl the pan gently so you get even heat distribution. Also, go get your cream.
The stage where the most danger of recrystallization lies is in the soft ball stage, and may be the origin of the 17th-century expression 'sugar boiled to sugar again'
Getting closer... (This is probably around 320F) If you were to toss in some nuts at this point, and let it cool, you'd have brittle! Fun!
Now, you'll be really surprised how fast this changes color. You can really see the change take place right before your eyes.
I wish I had more science stuff to say about the caramelization process, but even chemists aren't 100% sure what's going on in there as the sugar darkens and browns. I guess that's part of the mystique.
The INSTANT you see wisps of smoke or smell a little bit of burning (if you're using a thermometer, this will occur at about 335-340F), take it off the heat and CAREFULLY dump your cream into it all in one motion. The mixture will boil furiously because there's a ton of heat in that pot. At this point, turn your heat down to medium and move the mixture back over the heat, stirring all the while.
Don't be worried when your golden mass of goodness turns into a jelly-like lump at the bottom of the pot. The cold cream stopped the cooking dead, but putting it over gentle heat will dissolve the caramelized sugar into the cream and all will be smooth. This is also the point where boil over can be a problem. If the mixture starts to boil over, just remove it from the heat for a moment, stir a little bit, then put it back on.
Also, don't be worried if it doesn't look brown enough yet. The Maillard reaction is responsible for the next bit of browning that will occur, and that takes place over the next few minutes.
The Maillard reaction causes proteins (cream) to brown when they come in contact with carbohydrates (sugar) and heat. The same reaction also causes the inverted sugars to react with the protein and create even more new flavors and textures.
Once your sauce has taken on a smooth texture and a nice brown color, it's been stabilized enough to put in a container and cool in the fridge. It won't be very thick at this point, probably about the consistency of a cream soup, but don't worry, as the sugar cools further, it will thicken nicely.
Let it cool, and serve it up. I personally like to dip apples in it....mmmmm. 1 cup of sugar and 1 cup of cream should yield almost exactly 1.5 cups of finished caramel sauce.
Although the explanation may seem complicated, it's really quite easy when you get the hang of it. I also think it's a great starting point to candy-making in general since both sugar and cream are relatively cheap and you can practice on this before moving onto more complicated confectionery capers. Also, tell me if when I post another thread you'd rather me just shut up about all the science and related materials and just post the recipe, or if you like knowing a little more about the stuff you're making.