10 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Making Caramel

Become a caramel making pro in no time! Just avoid these caramel mistakes to make the perfect caramel candy or caramel topping for desserts.

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Caramel Cooking Process. Melted Toffee In Sauce Pan
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Using a thin pot

You make caramel by melting sugar, and thin pots heat unevenly. This can cause portions of the sugar to burn before the rest of it has melted. Instead, choose a sturdy, heavy-bottomed metal pot (like stainless steel) with tall sides. You also want the bottom be light-colored so you’ll notice the caramel’s precise color changes.

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Pots and pans hanging on a kitchen wall
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Cooking with a dirty pot

Cleaning pots and pans is a dreaded chore, but it’s important to have a sparkling clean pot when making caramel. If there are any leftover crumbs or burnt bits, they’ll be pulled into the caramel mixture, ruining its texture and consistency.

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Sugar
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Choosing the wrong sugar

Don’t get fooled into making caramel with a fancy sugar. Granulated white refined sugar is definitely the way to go. It’s made with either sugarcane or sugar beet, so it melts easily and makes the caramel super smooth. It also won’t clump together like other sugars.

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Home made caramel sauce cooking and bubbling on a stove top. Wood spoon. Stainless steel pot in a home kitchen
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Stirring the sugar

If your caramel becomes gritty or grainy, the sugar probably crystallized. If the melting sugar splashes up onto the sides of the pan, it quickly loses its moisture content and forms back into crystals. That can set off a chain reaction that can cause caramel to seize up, ruining the entire batch.

Instead, gently swirl the pan as you go and use a wet pastry brush to wipe down any sugar that sticks to the sides of the pot. Read up on more tips for preventing crystallization, too.

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Factory of the production of delicious caramel candies. First step. Boiling syrup of sugar in copper pot with thermometer and big spoon. Brown colour for the syrup.; Shutterstock ID 674437753; Job (TFH, TOH, RD, BNB, CWM, CM): TOH
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Skipping the candy thermometer

Temperature is key when making candy. The difference between a soft caramel and one that’s hard and overcooked is all in the temperature. Candy thermometers—like this instant-read thermometerlet you know exactly what stage the caramel is in (thread, soft-ball, firm-ball, hard-ball, soft crack or hard crack). It’s an easy way to prevent soft caramel that won’t set, which happens if the caramel doesn’t reach a high enough temperature.

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Close-Up of Gas Stove Burner and pot, Brussels, Belgium
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Overheating the mixture

Be very careful as you heat your caramel. Follow the recipe carefully, and never melt your caramel on your stove’s highest setting—it will cause the caramel to scorch and taste burnt. Once it gets a burnt or bitter flavor, it can’t be saved. Luckily, sugar is inexpensive, so you can always start over!

(Here’s how to store leftover caramel!)

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sugar syrup being made in a pan on the stove
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Fearing a dark color

The darker the caramel, the richer the flavor. It’s tempting to get the caramel off the stovetop before it burns, but it will become more flavorful if you let it achieve a darker color. Just keep the flame low to keep it from going too far. If the temperature gets too hot and the caramel becomes too hard as it cools, you can put it back in the pan with a couple of tablespoons of cold water to try and save it.

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Stainless steel funnel with sieve insert. Blue kitchen background.
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Forgetting safety precautions

Many recipes finish by adding water, cream or butter to add rich flavor to the caramel, which can cause the melted sugar to spit and jump out of the pot. A splatter guard or mesh strainer is a necessary safety precaution. Melted sugar is extremely hot, and sugar burns are not sweet! Place the mesh strainer over the pot before pouring in any of these liquids. While you’re at it, make sure to wear long sleeves, shoes and heavy-duty oven mitts.

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Old aluminum pan of homemade caramel sauce, served with spoons and sugar cubes over white wooden table. Selective focus, square image
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Scraping the pan

It’s only natural to try to get every ounce of caramel goodness out of the pan, but resist the urge to scrape the bottom of the pan. There may be some lingering crystallized sugar down there, which can ruin the whole batch. Better to just pour the caramel out of the pan and get what you get.

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Homemade soft caramel candies wrapped in parchment paper with red ribbon and scissors on black background. Top view.
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Pouring caramel into an ungreased pan

Caramel is sticky business, and if you’re making candies, pouring it into an ungreased pan is a huge mistake. It will be difficult (or maybe impossible) to get out! Make life easier by lining your pan with parchment paper and coating it with a layer of baking spray to keep the candy from sticking. Ready to get cooking? Here are our top homemade caramel recipes.

Lindsay D. Mattison
Lindsay has been writing for digital publications for seven years and has 10 years of experience working as a professional chef. She became a full-time food writer at Taste of Home in 2023, although she’s been a regular contributor since 2017. Throughout her career, Lindsay has been a freelance writer and recipe developer for multiple publications, including Wide Open Media, Tasting Table, Mashed and SkinnyMs. Lindsay is an accomplished product tester and spent six years as a freelance product tester at Reviewed (part of the USA Today network). She has tested everything from cooking gadgets to knives, cookware sets, meat thermometers, pizza ovens and more than 60 grills (including charcoal, gas, kamado, smoker and pellet grills). Lindsay still cooks professionally for pop-up events, especially when she can highlight local, seasonal ingredients. As a writer, Lindsay loves sharing her skills and experience with home cooks. She aspires to motivate others to gain confidence in the kitchen. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her cooking with fresh produce from the farmers market or planning a trip to discover the best new restaurants.