Filed under: Buttermilk Basics / Candy
October 6, 2023

Salted Caramel Sauce

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.

5 from 3 votes
Yield: 4 oz
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caramel Sauce

 

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. 

What’s special about this recipe

  • We’re adding an acid. This is going to help prevent crystallization. 
  • We’re covering the pot. The steam trapped inside the pot acts as another defense to stop crystallization. 
  • We’re going to take it past the smoke point. Just a bit, but it’ll deepen the flavor. 
  • Add the butter cold. Sometimes when you add melty butter it struggles to incorporate into the caramel. I take mine out of the fridge when I start making the caramel so it’s not at all melted before I add it. 
  • We’re using pure vanilla, and a lot of it. We don’t do one note flavorings on this blog, so this sauce is going to taste like a well-salted, rich caramel with deep notes of a freshly scraped bean. 

Recipe Ingredients 

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). 

 

How to make a salted caramel sauce using the ‘dry method’ 

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. 

Some ratios to go by for your desired caramel consistency

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 

 

 

How dark should my caramel be before I take it off the heat? 

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 

 

Tips to make perfect caramel sauce 

  • Use a deep, heavy bottomed pot with a light finish like an enameled dutch oven: deep so you’re safe when the caramel bubbles up, heavy bottomed because it conducts heat more evenly, and light so you can see the exact shade of amber.
  • Keep the sugar in an even layer: to help it melt and caramelize evenly. Use the back of a spoon to smooth it over after every stir. 
  • Don’t walk away: it can take awhile for the sugar to start melting but you’ll still want to check it every 2 minutes. Once it starts melting you need to stay very close and keep a close eye. 
  • Bring the heavy cream to room temperature and add it slowly: the caramel will seize if the heavy cream is cold.
  • Whisk it if needed: if you add melted butter or overly soft butter all at once, it might look like it’s not incorporating into the caramel. Vigorously stir or whisk it and it will come together.

Staying Safe when making Caramel 

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: 

  • Use a medium sized or large, deep pot. The sugar is going to bubble up when you add the cream and you will need to account for it rising at least a few inches. A deeper pot keeps that contained. 
  • Use a long wooden spoon to stir the sugar. The further your hands are from the sugar in the pot the better. 
  • When you add the heavy cream, go slow. 
  • Take the caramel off the heat a minute or two before it’s done cooking. This is especially true if you’re using a dutch oven. It’s going to take awhile for the pan to cool down and you don’t want to risk burning the caramel (or making toffee…) but if you are transferring hot caramel to another dish you’re adding another step where the caramel can splash and injure you. 
  • Wear oven mitts. They’ll protect your hands =) 
  • Never, ever touch the hot sugar or caramel. You might want to taste it to see if you want more salt or vanilla – you’ll burn yourself badly if you do. Wait until it’s at room temperature. 

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). 

 

Tools needed to make salted caramel sauce 

  • A deep, heavy bottomed pot with a light colored interior. Heavy bottomed pots tend to cook more evenly. If you have a pot that’s cooking too quickly in one spot, there’s a higher chance the sugar will burn there. With a light interior, you’re more able to see the actual color of the caramel as it changes (and you’ll know when to take it off). 
  • A long wooden spoon. Long so that your hands are staying nice and safe away from the hot sugar, and wooden because it’s safe to put it into hot sugar and won’t melt (like plastic or silicone sometimes). 

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. 

 

Potential problems with caramel and how you might fix the sauce 

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. 



Salted Caramel Sauce

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.
caramel Sauce
Yields: 4 oz
5 from 3 votes

Ingredients

  • 200 g or 1 cup fine granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 80-120 g or ⅓ - ½ cup heavy cream use the lesser amount for a thick sauce, the greater amount for a thinner sauce
  • 85 g or 6 tablespoons salted or unsalted butter
  • ¾-1 tsp fine sea salt
  • 1 vanilla bean split or 1 tablespoons vanilla paste or extract

Method

  • Warm the heavy cream and set aside.
  • Pour the sugar into a heavy bottomed pot and set over low heat.
  • Squeeze the lemon over the sugar and use a wooden spoon to stir it until it’s like wet sand. Smooth the sugar into an even layer.
  • Turn the heat up to medium low and cover with a lid.
  • After 2-3 minutes, check on the sugar: once you see it starting to melt you can start stirring it and then smoothing it into an even layer. Cover the lid and leave it for another 2 minutes.
  • Depending on how quickly your pot and burner heat, the sugar might take another couple of minutes or more to start melting fully and darkening in color.
  • Once you start to see some of the sugar turning amber colored, leave the lid off and stir the sugar as needed so that it melts and caramelizes evenly.
  • It’s ok if some of the sugar hardens and becomes rock-like, that will melt too. You can press those bits with the back of the wooden spoon to encourage them on.
  • Once all of the sugar is melted and amber colored, you’ll start to notice swirls of a darker amber and the sugar will begin to smoke a bit.
  • Give it about 15-30 seconds to smoke (depending on how deep you want the flavor) then start pouring in the heavy cream, very slowly and stirring as you do. The caramel will bubble up (this is why you have a deep pot!) so be careful.
  • Once all the heavy cream is in, stir it and add the butter, vanilla bean and scrapings if using, and salt. Stir occasionally until the butter fully melts.
  • (If you start to see the butter sitting in an oily layer on top, get a whisk and whisk it vigorously).
  • Take the caramel off the heat and, if using the paste or extract, add the vanilla.
  • Let the caramel cool to room temperature then carefully lift out and discard the vanilla bean.
  • Pour the caramel into a heat-safe jar and seal. Store in the fridge for up to three weeks. When you'd like to use it to drizzle, warm it up in the microwave.

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