The Essential Trick to Making Caramel from Scratch

Homemade caramel can transform your favorite desserts into sumptuous treats, but there's a definitely a knack to making it! Don't fall prey to this common mistake.

Whether you’re making caramel candies or drizzling the sweet sauce over a particularly decadent batch of brownies, nothing beats homemade caramel. Making perfect caramel takes a bit of an artistic touch with a dash of science. We’re breaking down the steps for how to make caramel so you can finally get it right.

Wet vs. Dry Caramel

There are two methods for making caramel. Dry caramel is made by heating sugar in a pan while wet caramel adds water to the equation. Wet caramel is indisputably the safer of the two. It has a deeper flavor and is less likely to burn, but the downside is that if you’re not careful, it can crystallize. Thankfully, this is fairly easy to avoid.

How to Avoid Grainy Caramel

Before you pull out your saucepan, we need to address the first rule of making caramel from scratch. Do not stir your caramel. We know. It’s tempting to grab a spoon to give the mix a whirl, but doing so can cause a gooey, sticky disaster, possibly ruining your pan in the process.

If you stir your caramel once it’s simmering, you could wind up with crystallized chunks that resemble rock candy rather than the gorgeous, smooth caramel you’re after. While the sugar molecules won’t crystallize in water, if you splash a little of your sugar-water solution on the sides of your saucepan, the water will evaporate and form sugar crystals. Because sugar is prone to bonding, this will trigger a reaction and that lovely caramel sauce you’ve been working on will become grainy.

Worried about uneven heating? Use a heavy-bottomed pot to evenly heat your caramel. You won’t get hot spots which can cause the sugar to burn. Be sure to check out these other common mistakes people make with caramel, too.

Tips for Preventing Crystallization in Your Caramel

There are a few other things besides not stirring (seriously, put the spoon down) that can help ensure glossy caramel:

  • Add a squeeze of lemon juice to the mix. A little lemon juice will help prevent crystallization.
  • Swap out some of the sugar in your recipe for corn syrup. Glucose, the main sugar molecule in corn syrup, doesn’t crystallize the same way as sucrose, the main molecule in regular sugar. Adding corn syrup dilutes the concentration and helps keep your caramel, well, caramel-y—just what you want when you’re making caramel apples this autumn. For every cup of sugar in your recipe, sub in one tablespoon corn syrup.
  • Once your caramel starts to change color, give the saucepan a gentle swirl to make sure it’s cooking evenly. Keep swirling occasionally until the caramel reaches the color you want. Remember, the darker the color, the more intense the flavor.

Now you know the essentials for making perfect caramel, you’ll want to check out these indulgent chocolate caramel recipes.

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Camille Berry
Part of the third generation in a family of restaurateurs, Camille was born with a passion for cooking and food. She embarked on a career in hospitality where she excelled as a sommelier and wine director. This hospitality experience has given her a wealth of first-hand knowledge about how to pair all manner of drinks with food—plus some serious kitchen skills. These days, she's hung up her wine key in favor of a pen and covers all aspects of food and drink.