This Is What Every Stage of Making Caramel Looks Like

Let's make caramel—from scratch! Taste of Home Community Cook Nancy Mock explains all about the different caramel stages, and how to cook up a perfect batch.

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Not only can you make caramel from scratch, you can choose from four caramel stages to get the perfect color and flavor for your recipe.

What Is Caramel?

Caramel is created by cooking sugar to a high-enough temperature that it begins to brown—or caramelize. It also develops that incredible caramel flavor. The color can range from light to very dark depending on how long it cooks. Caramel is then used to create brittle, hard candy and decorative flourishes for desserts. Add cream, butter and vanilla and cook it a little longer to make rich caramel sauce and chewy caramel candy.

Here’s the difference between caramel, butterscotch and toffee.

stages of making carameltaste of home

What Are the Caramel Stages?

The term “caramel stages” refers to how much color and flavor has been developed in the caramelizing sugar.

Things move fast once sugar gets hot enough to begin caramelizing. The time it takes to get from no color to dark brown to burned is mere moments! This is not the time to walk away or check your phone—common caramel mistakes we’ve all made at least once.

How Do I Know What Stage the Caramel Is?

It’s helpful to have a candy thermometer to monitor the rising temperature, but it’s just as important to use your eyes and nose. The color and aroma of the sugar mixture will tell you what stage you’re at and when to stop cooking.

Here are the different caramel stages:

light carameltaste of home

Light Caramel: 340° to 350°F

In the first stage, the mixture shows shades of very light amber. The color may appear in one or two spots at first—a gentle swirl of the pan will even out the color throughout. Light caramel has a delicate flavor similar to that of maple candy, with a recognizable but light caramel flavor.

  • Time to reach this stage: about 20 minutes over medium heat
  • Uses: Because light caramel is so mild, it’s a good choice for savory recipes that have additional cooking time, where the caramel can deepen in flavor. Use it as a glaze over meats or before roasting vegetables like Brussels sprouts and carrots. Light caramel can also be used to create brittle and hard candies.

medium carameltaste of home

Medium Caramel: 355° to 360°F

At the medium stage, the sugar mixture has a nutty smell and develops an even, light brown color throughout. This is when it has that sweet, classic caramel flavor.

  • Time to reach this stage: about 21 minutes over medium heat
  • Uses: This is a perfect stage to add cream, butter and salt to create caramel sauce, caramel apples or chewy caramel candy.

dark carameltaste of home

Dark Caramel: 365° to 375°F

The sugar mixture quickly develops a deeper amber color as it enters the dark caramel stage. That nutty smell is a little stronger, as is the caramel flavor.

  • Time to reach this stage: about 21 to 22 minutes over medium heat
  • Uses: One way to use medium caramel is to create sauces and candy with a little more depth that pair well with flavorings like bourbon or cinnamon. Or use it to create the sweet top of a creamy caramel flan and creme caramel desserts.

very dark carameltaste of home

Very Dark Caramel: 380° to 390°F

Very dark caramel is a deep reddish-brown, with a strong aroma of caramel and hints of molasses. You might see a wisp or two of smoke begin to rise as the temperature edges closer to the burning point. Keep a very close eye on your caramel in this stage. Very dark caramel has a strong flavor with a hint of bitterness.

  • Time to reach this stage: about 21 to 22 minutes over medium heat
  • Uses: Since very dark caramel has a bitter edge, it balances really well in rich ice creams, sweet frostings or as a glaze on cakes, and when paired with bold ingredients like salty nuts or espresso. Very dark caramel is also used to add color and flavor to both sweet and savory dishes.

burnt carameltaste of home

Burnt Caramel: 392°F

There’s no mistaking when your caramel begins to burn. It looks blackish-brown, smells burnt and has swirls of rising smoke that sting your eyes. The caramel is a loss at this point—it will taste bitter and burned no matter what else you add.

  • Time to reach this stage: about 22 to 23 minutes over medium heat
  • Uses: None, toss it.

Tips for Making Caramel

What tools do you need to make caramel?

Use a heavy bottomed pot, which will ensure the sugar caramelizes evenly and slowly, giving you better caramel flavor and less of a chance it will burn. Have a pastry brush and a cup of water to brush down crystals that may appear on the sides of the pan. You’ll want a candy thermometer on hand as well.

How do you get your caramel to the right stage without burning?

First, cook over medium heat so your caramel has time to develop flavor without the temperature racing too high.

Because the caramel does cook so fast, you have to stop the cooking as soon as your caramel is at the desired stage. To do that, set a bowl of ice water near the cooking area. Once your caramel is at the perfect stage, immerse the bottom of the pan in the ice water to stop it from cooking further. Adding cream to the caramel will also stop the cooking.

How do you prevent caramel from spattering and overflowing the pan?

Spattering and foaming will happen when you add cream and butter to hot caramel—that’s unavoidable, but you can keep it under control. First, use a 3-quart or larger saucepan so the caramel has room to expand. Second, don’t add cold ingredients to the hot sugar; warm your cream to at least room temperature and melt your butter.

In the event you do get splashed with hot caramel, plunge your hand in ice water to stop the burning. (Another good reason to have ice water nearby.)

How long does it take for caramel to reach 245°F?

This is the temperature you want to get to after adding your cream and butter, to get the perfect chewy yet soft texture for caramel recipes like caramel apples and candy. After adding the ingredients, quickly whisk them in. Let the mixture simmer for about 10 minutes, until it’s darker and thicker. You can then pour it into a pan or mold, or begin dunking your apples.

How long does it take caramel to set?

Give your caramel at least two hours to set, or overnight if possible. You can also pop caramel into the fridge to help it set up faster. The caramel will sweat a little when brought out of the fridge, but will still taste fine. If you don’t eat it right away, here’s how to store caramel.

Nancy Mock
Discovering restaurants, tasting bakery treats, finding inspiration in new flavors and regional specialties—no wonder Nancy loves being a Taste of Home Community Cook and a food and travel writer. She and her family live in Vermont and enjoy all things food, as well as the beautiful outdoors, game nights, Avengers movies and plenty of maple syrup. Find Nancy’s writing and recipes at her website: Hungry Enough To Eat Six.