Working with sugar is simply a matter of preparation, focus, and instinct. Each time I’ve attempted to rush my caramel-making, I’ve found myself frustrated by either a runny or burnt caramel, or a runny caramel and a burnt me. We want none of that here.
These caramels are my candy pride and joy. For me, the “perfect” caramel is one that is not runny, yet one that isn’t too hard. A buttery flavor is a must and it can’t be grainy in the slightest. This recipe covers all of those bases, so you can see why I share it with pleasure.
Because I’ve already beat myself over the head with candy-making frustration, I expect this recipe to be a walk in the Candyland park for you. I’m going to equip you with the correct techniques and cues to ensure your candy-making is pleasurable and fun. Key tools to have on hand, visual alerts to pay attention to, and things to avoid are all here.
How to Make Caramel Candy
Caramel is not a recipe one should approach without preparation. Everything, from the weather to the pot you use, plays a role in how successful you are at making caramel candy. Most importantly, you must relax. Rushing through making caramel candies is an exercise in frustration.
Back when I was just a wee culinary student, I had a classical pastries instructor, Chef Bandula, who was a Certified Master Pastry Chef. Basically, he was in the upper echelon of pastry chefs in the world and I was lucky enough to be his student.
The one piece of advice he gave me which I still carry to this day is: “If you don’t relax while you’re making caramel, you’re going to fail every time.” It’s advice that transcends the pastry shop.
- Don’t include the kids: While I’m generally a big believer of kids in the kitchen, that’s not the case when it comes to making the caramel. Sugar burns are terribly painful and not worth the risk. When it comes to wrapping the candy then it’s all hands on deck.
- Dry days are best. Avoid making caramel on extremely humid or rainy days because as sugar cools, it evaporates moisture, and once it’s finished doing so, it’ll turn right back around and start absorbing it again.
- Use a large pot: A larger pot is necessary for safety’s sake. Once the cream and butter mixture is added to the boiling sugar, the mixture will steam and bubble violently. A larger pot will decrease the risk of over-flowing the sugar in the pot and burning you.
- Use a wooden spoon: A wooden spoon is the best tool to use when stirring in the cream. It won’t conduct the heat of the sugar and burn your hand. Also, never put your face or arm directly over the pot.
- Use corn syrup. Making caramel is all about chemistry. Two molecules of simple sugar are formed from a molecule of sucrose and a molecule of water. Invert sugar, such as corn syrup (also known as glucose), facilitates the formation of simple sugar, which also prevents our finished candies from becoming grainy after they set.
- Don’t seed the sugar: One tiny grain of sugar reintroduced to the boiling sugar mixture can re-crystallize or “seed” the entire batch. There’s nothing more disappointing than watching your pot of liquid sugar frost over like a winter’s pond.
- To avoid seeding use one of these two methods:
- Press a wet pastry brush against the side of the pot and allow the water to wash away the crystals.
- Cover the pot with a lid. The steam created as the water in the pot evaporates is usually enough to dissolve any rogue crystals.
- To avoid seeding use one of these two methods:
- Stay put: Don’t walk away or busy yourself with anything else. Sugar cooks quickly at this point and can go from perfect to smoking in a matter of minutes.
Candy-Making: Soft-Ball Stage vs. Hard-Ball Stage
If you plan to do any amount of candy-making, investing in a reliable candy thermometer is advised. The candy thermometer you select should be marked at 2-degree intervals because that’s the degree of separation between “caramel” and “burnt.”
- Thread stage: Sugar begins to hold its shape at 215°F (102°C)
- Soft-Ball stage: 240°F (115°C)
- Firm-Ball stage: 241-249°F (115-118°C)
- Hard-Ball stage: 250-260°F (122-127°C)
- Caramel stage: at 320°F (160°C) (Any hotter, the sugar will eventually explode.)
For light-colored and delicate, mellow caramel flavor, cook the sugar to 300°F.
For darker more robust caramels, cook the sugar to 350°F.
Flavor Variations for Homemade Caramel Candy
Let your imagination be your guide when it comes to flavoring caramel candies. You can use extracts, flavor the cream, use liqueurs, or simply finish them with salt.
Extracts: Replace the vanilla in this recipe with any of the extracts below.
Steep: You can flavor the cream by steeping it with leaves or spices before straining it and adding it to the caramel.
- Rose petals
- Tea leaves
Boozy: Add liqueurs to the cream before heating it.
- Grand Marnier
Helpful Tidbits for Cutting Caramel Candy
Let your caramel cool for at least three hours on the countertop. Caramel that’s too soft won’t hold its shape and will only frustrate you in your attempts to wrap it.
- A marble pastry board isn’t essential, but if you have one, they work great. I find it keeps the caramels cool and they stick less to marble than they do to other surfaces.
- A long, sharp knife is essential to cutting caramels.
- Butter the caramel-cutting surface before you get started and butter the knife blade between each cut.
- Use a ruler to guide your sizes when cutting so they fit into the wrappers.
- If, after three hours of cooling, your caramel is too soft to cut, it may be the result of too much humidity in the air or not having cooked it to the proper temperature. Just repurpose it and use it as a caramel sauce.
- If the caramel is too hard, it was cooked to too high a temperature during the final boil. You can melt it over a double-boiler or in hot milk to make a caramel drink or sauce.
How to Wrap Homemade Caramel Candy
Wrapping the candies is fairly simple once you’ve gotten the hang of the twist. Use pre-cut squares that are labeled “twisting wax paper.” These hold the twist in the paper without the need for twist ties or ribbon.
Place the caramel in the middle of the long side of the wrapper and roll it up. Hold the candy and use the fleshy part of your thumb to hold one end of the wrapper while you twist with the other hand. Repeat this process on the other loose end.
How to Store Homemade Caramel
I store my wrapped caramel candies in a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid (or a lid that clamps). If you have any of those silica packets (they usually come in packages of jerky or nori or in shoe boxes), throw one of those into the jar as well. The air-tight, moisture-free environment will prevent the candies from growing too soft or too hard.
Store the jar in a cool, dark pantry for three weeks at room temperature.
How to Freeze Soft Caramel Candy
To freeze the wrapped caramel candies, just transfer them to a freezer storage bag and keep them in the freezer for three months. Thaw at room temperature before enjoying.
More Candy Recipes
- Easy Peanut Butter Fudge
- Peanut Brittle
- Christmas Crack
- Homemade Chocolate Truffles
- Spicy Caramel Popcorn Clusters
- English Toffee
Soft Caramel Candy
- 3 cups (600 grams) granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup (170 grams) light corn syrup
- 1/4 cup (59 milliliters) water
- 1 1/2 cup (360 milliliters) heavy cream
- 3/4 cups (170 grams) unsalted butter, sliced and at room temperature (plus more for preparing the dish)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Prepare a baking dish
Butter an 8-x8-inch baking dish. Cut two strips of parchment paper, both 7 1/2 inches by 6 inches, and lay them across one another in the dish. This will make it easy to lift the set caramel out of the dish.
Cook the sugar
Set a 4 1/2- or 5-quart Dutch oven (or another heavy-bottom pot) over a large burner on your stove but don’t turn it on. Add sugar, corn syrup, and water to the pot. Use a wooden spoon to stir together until the mixture resembles slushy snow. Rinse off the wooden spoon to remove any sugar crystals and set it aside to use later.
Brush the sides of the pot
Use a pastry brush, dipped in water, to brush down any sugar crystals that may cling to the sides of the pot above the slushy sugar.
Place the candy thermometer in the pot, making sure the bottom of the thermometer is covered by the sugar.
Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat
Set the burner under the pot to medium and bring the sugar mixture to a boil without stirring it. The sugar will go from a rapid, clear boil to a sludgy, slowly-moving boil. The sugar will begin to turn a golden yellow color.
While the sugar cooks heat the cream
In a small saucepan set over medium heat add the cream. You don’t want the cream to simmer or boil. Once steam begins to rise from the surface of the cream, add the sliced butter, vanilla extract, and salt. It’s okay if the butter is not completely melted into the cream.
Watch the sugar and add the cream
The sugar will go from a quick, rustling boil to a slow, languid one as the water in the mixture is cooked off. Don’t walk away or turn your attention from the sugar.
As soon as the sugar takes on a deep amber color and reaches 320°F, carefully add the cream mixture in four parts, 1/4 cup at a time. Be careful not to put your arms or face over the pot as the mixture will boil and steam violently.
Once the cream is all added, use a wooden spoon to stir just until no large slices of butter remain. Stop stirring and cook the caramel until you bring it back to 240°F.
Pour the caramel into the dish
Once the caramel reaches 240°F, pour it into the center of the prepared dish. Tap the dish gently on the countertop to expel any large air bubbles and allow the caramel to cool on a baking rack until set, or three hours.
Slice the caramel
Melt 1 tablespoon of butter. Then use your pastry brush to butter both the blade of your knife and the cutting board or surface where you’ll cut the caramels. This will prevent the caramels from sticking.
Once the caramel is set. Use the sides of the parchment to lift the caramel from the dish and transfer it to your buttered cutting surface. Remove the parchment paper and cut the caramel into pieces that fit the size of your candy wrappers. You will press the knife down to cut them rather than drag it through.
Wrap and store the caramels
Once cut, place a caramel on the center edge of a wax paper square, roll, and twist each end to close the wrapper completely. Store the wrapped candies in an air-tight container or storage bag, at room temperature, for three weeks or transfer to a freezer bag to keep for three months.