Perfect salted caramel sauce made from scratch. This easy recipe uses the ‘dry’ caramel method and a few tricks to avoid typical caramel-making issues. It yields 4 oz of silky, buttery caramel sauce flavored with sea salt and pure vanilla.
You might already have a recipe you usually follow for salted caramel sauce and/or you might just prefer to buy it from the store. If you’ve never made it you’ve probably heard a lot of scary stories and don’t think it’s worth the trouble.
But… There is a WORLD of difference between homemade and store-bought caramel sauce; the latter tends to be overly sweet because it wasn’t caramelized enough and, because to extend its shelf life, has ingredients added that distract from the real caramel flavor.
One recipe that I’ve been making for some eight years or more, is Bobby Flay’s, which uses the ‘wet’ method: cooking the sugar in water and because of the extra water in the recipe, you’ll add less butter. The issue that I’ve run into over the years is that when you’re using the ‘wet’ method you’re adding liquid to the sauce that doesn’t have much flavor, so you end up with a runnier sauce (and little room to play with the flavoring).
In terms of the ‘dry method’ almost every caramel sauce recipe has the same ratios: 1 cup cream, half a cup of heavy cream and about 6 tablespoons of butter. In that regard, mine is quite similar. Those are the basic ratios that reliably give us a sauce-like consistency.
Sugar: Fine granulated. It’s best not to use organic sugar, because it is harder to work with.
Lemon: You can substitute with red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar.
Heavy cream: Or heavy whipping cream. No substitutes here. It must be brought to room temperature.
Butter: I like salted butter for caramel but you can use unsalted too.
Salt: Fine sea salt; it will dissolve quickly and give excellent flavor. Don’t use table salt!
Vanilla: Pure vanilla extract, vanilla bean paste or you can scrape a fresh vanilla pod and use the caviar (I’d add the bean into the caramel with the butter then fish it out after the caramel has cooled. This will give the bean more time to flavor the caramel).
Set a dutch oven or heavy bottomed pan over low heat. Bring the heavy cream to room temperature.
Pour in the sugar and add the lemon (or vinegar). If it’s lemon, I eyeball how much I need.
Mix the sugar with the lemon to get a ‘wet sand’ look. Spread it so it’s in an even layer.
Cover the pot, turn the heat to medium and let the sugar start to heat and melt. Dutch ovens take longer to heat so this can take 5-7 minutes.
Check on the sugar every few minutes, lifting the lid and stirring to see if it’s melting at the bottom of the pan.
Once about a third or half of it has melted, keep the lid off and keep an eye on it. As the rest of the sugar melts it will caramelize and darken in color.
Once all of the sugar has melted and turned a medium amber, the caramel will begin to smoke. Wait 30-60 seconds to let it deepen in color and flavor (longer amount for a deeper caramel).
Hold the wooden spoon in the pot with one hand and with the other, very slowly pour in the heavy cream, a little bit at a time, stirring as you do. The caramel will bubble up violently, be careful. Turn the heat down to low.
Once all of the heavy cream is in, stir to incorporate, then add the butter and the vanilla bean.
Stir the butter to help it melt and blend into the caramel. Once the caramel is smooth, remove it from the heat. Add in the salt and vanilla and stir.
Let the caramel come to room temperature in the pot, then remove the vanilla pod and pour it into a sealable heat-safe jar.
Store it in the fridge.
Earlier on this page I told you one reason I like to use the dry method for making caramel is because it gives us greater control on what other ingredients, liquids, are being added so that we can adjust the ratios according to the desired consistency. Here’s a little chart that you can follow depending on what you are making the caramel for:
|Sauce (thin)||Sauce (thick)|
|1 cup sugar (200g)||1 cup sugar (200g)|
|½ cup heavy cream (120g)||⅓ cup heavy cream (80g)|
|6 tablespoons butter (85g)||6 tablespoons butter (85g)|
|1 teaspoon fine sea salt||1 teaspoon fine sea salt|
|1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract||1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract|
We’re looking for an amber color but there are different shades of amber to look out for:
A light amber = the caramel is still quite sweet and not quite ‘caramel’ flavored yet.
Medium to slightly dark amber = here is the perfect spot and there’s a bit of room for you to decide how dark you want it.
Very dark amber = the caramel is probably burnt and can’t be saved
Hot sugar is probably one of the most dangerous things in a baker’s kitchen. My hands and arms have a scattering of burns from sugar at around 250 F and every single one was incredibly painful when it happened. I don’t want you to experience any of this so let’s list out a few things you can do to stay safe:
Also, if you have little ones – they should be out of the kitchen while you make caramel. I say this as a mother with two children and it’s partially for their safety (you never know when they’ll go running around you) and partially for yours. A distracted parent is more likely to burn themselves (yes many of those scars are from such incidents, lol).
A note: you don’t need a thermometer. I have been making caramel for almost a decade and while I’ve occasionally picked up a thermometer to check the temperature, it’s never been necessary and it’s also rather distracting to use. Caramel is best read, in my opinion, by noting the color of the sugar and smoke stages.
My caramel is dark and bitter.
It’s burnt. You can’t save this one.
The caramel is far too sweet and doesn’t taste like ‘caramel’.
It was under-caramelized (or not sufficiently caramelized). The caramel should start to smoke and turn a shade or two of dark amber before you add the heavy cream (the cream stops it from cooking).
Returning it to the heat to keep cooking it won’t save the flavor unfortunately but you can use it in dishes that aren’t very sweet for a better balance.
The sugar crystalized or became grainy.
This happens more often to me when I haven’t covered the pan in those initial stages. It’s okay if it does happen, most of those sugar clumps will melt (you can speed it along by pressing them with the back of the wooden spoon).
If there are bits of crystalized sugar after you’ve added the heavy cream and butter, pour the warm caramel through a fine mesh sieve to get rid of them.
The butter seems to be staying separate and won’t mix into the caramel.
If you add it all at once sometimes the ingredients don’t mix well. Usually you can fix this by vigorously whisking the caramel and it will come together nicely.
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