Last updated on December 30th, 2020
Please don’t call me a stupid girl, but science was never my favorite subject in high school.
Despite childhood obsessions with dinosaurs, the NASA space program, and the process of mummification (yes, they did remove the brains through the nose with knitting-needle-style hooks), my interest in becoming an archaeologist faded once I had to memorize more than the behavior of protons, neutrons, and electrons.
So imagine my surprise when I discovered that making caramel, a highly scientific process, is one of my favorite kitchen party tricks.
Caramel is basically two ingredients: sugar mixed with cream. Sounds so simple, right?
But there’s a clever chemistry that makes the business a bit trickier than you’d think, and here’s why.
Though it looks dry to the naked eye, granulated table sugar is actually classified as a wet ingredient!
It’s a molecule called sucrose (formed of equal parts glucose and fructose, just like those tricky protons and neutrons) that dissolves fully in water.
Problem is, this particular molecule has a danger zone.
As the sucrose heats up and prepares to break down into glucose and fructose (aka become a sweet, glorious syrup), it has a tendency to re-crystallize into really hard chunks.
If this happens, game over: those glucose and fructose bits are bonded like superglue and you’ll never get them to unbind.
You’ll sometimes hear people talking about the caramel “seizing up”—this is what they’re talking about.
So while you could make caramel sauce by simply melting sugar on its own in a pan or throwing in a tablespoon or two of water to help the process of dissolution into syrup, I use an extra insurance policy.
My secret weapon is to add 1 tablespoon light corn syrup to help mitigate potential crystallization in my caramel sauce.
Note that light corn syrup is not the same thing as the dreaded high fructose corn syrup, which has been chemically converted to fructose (think about the bad process of hydrogenating oils).
Light corn syrup is pure glucose, which tips the balance of the solution and makes it pretty much impossible for the constituent parts to re-bind. You’ll have smooth and pourable sailing by adding it to the mix.
Watch the video to see the process of turning sugar into caramel and then try it yourself.
And FYI, because sugar is so water soluble, you don’t need to worry about scrubbing the pan when you’re done making caramel sauce.
Just soak it in water and the caramel will virtually disappear as it cools.
- 1 tablespoon (20 grams) light corn syrup
- 1 tablespoon water
- 1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cubed
- Add the corn syrup, water, and sugar to a heavy-bottomed saucepan and place over medium-low heat.
- Stir occasionally as the sugar dissolves. It will have the consistency of wet sand and may crystallize slightly in places as the sugar melts.
- Once the sugar is completely dissolved and the liquid in the pan is thick and smooth, stop stirring.
- Instead, swirl the pan occasionally to keep the liquid heating evenly as it cooks.
- As the sugar caramelizes, it will deepen in color, moving from golden to a deep amber and start to smell amazing. This will take some time, up to 15 minutes depending on your pan and your stove burner, but have patience.
- When the sugar darkens to a rich whiskey color, remove the pan from the heat.
- Immediately pour the cream into the sugar in a thin stream, whisking continuously.
- Be careful: the liquid will bubble up as the cold cream hits the molten sugar, so make sure your pot is large enough not to overflow.
- The caramel may seize and harden; if this happens, place the pan back over low heat and keep whisking until the caramel re-melts.
- As a final decadent touch, whisk in the butter to make the sauce even richer.
- Allow to cool for at least 15 minutes before serving.
Related: Make your own vanilla ice cream.
Nutrition Information:Yield: 16 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 84Total Fat: 3gSaturated Fat: 2gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 1gCholesterol: 10mgSodium: 3mgCarbohydrates: 14gFiber: 0gSugar: 14gProtein: 0g
The nutritional information above is computer-generated and only an estimate.