Caramel is my favorite dessert component, for both its versatility and flavor. I love how it can take so many forms: hard, brittle, chewy, creamy, clear, opaque, liquid, powdered... it boggles my mind to think about all the ways it can be used. And yet, with all these applications, it's quite simplistic. Strip away the addition of other ingredients and caramel is simply burnt sugar and nothing more.
In its most basic form, caramel has but two ingredients: sugar and heat. While that may sound simple, when making caramel it's important to understand and respect the fact that sugar is a volatile and sensitive ingredient that burns very quickly if it's not cooked as a solution with water. Sugar solutions are also prone to seizing up from a liquid to a solid in seconds, if crystallization occurs due to the presence of impurities or cooled sugar clinging to the side of the pot.
There are steps you can take to avoid these pitfalls. Creating a solution of water, granulated sugar, and invert sugar (these include corn syrup, glucose syrup, and trimoline) helps stabilize the solution and avoid crystallization. It's also important to ensure that you are using a very clean pot that is residue-free. While cooking, care must be taken to keep the sides of the pot clean, by washing them down periodically with a pastry brush and plenty of fresh, clean water. The last thing to remember to avoid crystalization is that the pot should not be removed from the heat, nor its contents swirled or stirred, until you begin to see signs of caramelization.
Once the solution begins to turn amber, you can decide how dark you want to take the caramel and how you want to manipulate it. Generally, once it begins to smoke it's about to pass the point of no return. At this point you will want to pour it out to stop the cooking (it will harden when cooled) or add liquid and fat to stop the cooking and change the texture. Whisk in these ingredients along with some flavoring and salt, and you have caramel sauce. Cook the caramel further—to a range of 250-266 °F, or hard crack stage—and you'll have chewy caramels. Take it further, you'll have a jaw-breaking toffee.
Click through the slideshow to learn more about the process and see how to make soft, chewy caramels step-by-step. Then try it out on your own, remembering all the while that you're working with extremely hot stuff. Keep an ice bath ready for accidental burns.
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About the author: Lauren Weisenthal has logged many hours working in restaurant kitchens and bakeries of Brooklyn and Manhattan. She is a graduate of the Artisan Bread Baking and Pastry Arts programs at the French Culinary Institute. You can follow her on Twitter at @evilliagekitchen.