Caramel recipes may vary slightly from recipe to recipe, but all use refined granulated white sugar, and have the same stages — as well as the same temperatures needed to reach those stages — the three things that remain constant for all caramel recipes.
Some recipes require constant stirring. Others should not be stirred at all. Doing otherwise will result in unwanted sugar crystallization. It just depends upon the chemistry between the types and the quantities of ingredients. For Example: Is it is a dry sugar caramel or a wet sugar caramel? Does it contain cream, citrus juice, or other additional ingredients? Is it a sauce or a caramel candy? What type of candy (spun sugar decoration, soft caramel, brittle, etc.) is it?
Crystallization is when the sugar molecules combine and form a network of crunchy sugar crystals clumping together into a solid mass and ruining what is supposed to be a smooth and sometimes creamy caramel.
In addition to following the recipe, there are other steps which help avoid sugar crystallization.
Always be sure that the pan used is clean, smooth, and that the inside of the pan is free of water spots, dust, or any other contaminants that can cause the sugar to attach and begin to crystallize. It needs to be dent free and scratch free and the inside must be perfectly smooth without groves or indentations of any kind.
If consistently or frequently having issues with crystallization, in spite of following all of the recommendations, try using a different pan! It may have an imperfection or a mineral deposit that you just aren’t able to see.
If everything else fails, find a different recipe to use — or wait for a change in the weather. Avoid drafts (don’t turn on the vent-a-hood) or a dusty environment (don’t try to make caramel if somebody else is sweeping the floors or doing other cleaning nearby).
Keep a bowl of room temperature water and a pastry brush nearby to do a wash if or when needed. When sugar collects on the sides of the pan near the top of the caramel it can lead to unwanted crystallization. Dip the tip of the pastry slightly in the water without saturating it. You only want it damp enough to melt or wash away the collecting sugar without introducing any water or no more than a few unavoidable drops into your caramel. Too much water can be disastrous, but don’t panic if only a drop or two gets in there.
If it is a caramel that does not require or prohibits stirring, sometimes the use of a lid may be helpful so that the steam prevents sugar from collecting on the sides. Or, in some rare cases it may be recommended that the sides of the pan be oiled. Check your recipe carefully to see what is recommended — and if a recipe consistently or frequently fails find a new recipe.
For the perfect stage needed every time, invest in a candy thermometer.
They are cheap and plentiful and can be found at grocery stores, department stores, and even dollar stores. Prices range from a dollar to just under five dollars on average.
You don’t have to spend a small fortune on more expensive ones and it is pointless — unless you are going for a specialty one that supposedly serves for multiple purposes such as one for both candy and deep fat frying. Of course, you would also then need a meat thermometer.
However, I have found that having a candy thermometer for candy making — and using a quick read thermometer for everything else — works just fine without all that unnecessary added expense.
My candy thermometer is glass and fragile so I store it in a padded box and carefully hand wash it. I’ve had this one for about 36 years. I keep thinking I should get another just in case I should ever drop and break this one, but haven’t done so yet.
My quick read thermometers can be stored anywhere so I have a tendency to sometimes misplace them. For that reason, I have purchased somewhere around a dozen or more of them — for a dollar each — over a period of time. You only need one, however, to test everything from oil temperatures to meats. You could even use one for candy making although I prefer an actual candy thermometer.
The only reasons that I don’t use a quick read thermometer for candy making is because they do not clean up as easily and cannot be immersed in water to soak — except for the tip — so they can’t just go into the sink or dishwasher. Plus, a candy thermometer comes with a clip and is designed to remain in place for a constant reading (important in candy making) instead of just making riskier spot checks with a quick read thermometer. Quick read thermometers may or may not have clips but they are also much shorter usually and clipped on the pot — which needs to leave room for a huge amount of expansion — does not work well for candy making.
Even the most experienced candy maker and professional chefs will sometimes have disastrous results and have to start over when not following the above clean pan and pastry brush wash recommendations — or if not using a candy thermometer — or fail to accurately measure the ingredients — or any number of other issues. The first thing to do, if unsure of the exact cause, is to use a different pan.
There are those who pride themselves on being able to make caramel without using a thermometer — and it may turn out well most of the time — but at some point they all end up having to start over — even professionals with decades of experience.
If you are well experienced or a professional and don’t mind wasting ingredients to start over when such disasters do happen, then that is up to personal preference. However, you should always have additional ingredients on hand for those occasions — even if rare — for starting over. Honestly, it is never a bad idea to have extra ingredients on hand at any time making caramel — professional or novice.
However, even a novice, if following a good recipe — as well as following these recommendations and using a candy thermometer — can turn out perfect caramel.
I have only had two mishaps in over 40 years and both times I was rushing and failed to follow these recommendations. Well, in one of those instances, I made the mistake of trying to make caramel while also dealing with my toddler son while my spouse was at work. Live and learn! Afterwards, I would only attempt it if there was someone else there to keep an eye on him.
Which brings me to my final recommendation — only make caramel when you can give it your full and undivided attention! Turn off the phones, get a babysitter, lock the doors, go to the bathroom before getting started, etc. — and plan to devote yourself entirely to making your caramel. This is a “no distractions allowed” type of cooking!
Often cooking at various altitudes effects things. However, the only way in which altitude may have an effect on caramel is the quantity of time it takes to reach the desired temperature.
If you stay within these ranges there will be no errors in obtaining the needed texture and consistency.
However, when more experienced, you will find subtle differences exist within any given range and may wish to hit a more specific temperature within that range to obtain that exact same result.
Thread Stage (230-235 F degrees)
This makes caramel syrup or may be used to make other flavored syrup or topping recipes.
Soft-Ball Stage (235 to 240 F degrees)
Dropped into cold water, this will have the consistency of a soft flexible ball.
This stage is perfect for soft, if slightly sticky caramels and for making caramel coated apples or even fudge.
Firm- Ball Stage (245 to 250 F degrees)
Dropped into cold water this will have the consistency of a firm but, still slightly flexible ball.
This is a good stage for firmer, chewier caramels and recommended if plan on coating with slightly warm chocolate, or other melted coatings, such as when making my Pecan Turtles.
Hard-Ball Stage (250 to 265 F degrees)
Dropped into cold water this will have the consistency of a hard non-flexible ball.
This is a good stage for making rock (hard) candy caramels.
Soft-Crack Stage (270 to 290 F degrees)
Drizzled into cold water, it will solidify into threads that will slightly bend and then break.
This is a good stage for my saltwater taffy recipe.
Hard-Crack Stage (300 to 310 F degrees)
Drizzled into cold water, this will form hard brittle threads that break when bent.
This is best for toffee such as needed for making my Almond Rocha and for making Brittle recipes.
CLEANING & OTHER TIPS:
The harder the caramel is the more difficult the clean up because it hardens onto the surface of the pan, thermometer, and utensils. Simply soak in hot water to dissolve the hard sugar coating, occasionally scrub, and change the water for fresh hot water until it has all come off — before giving it a normal sudsy hand washing or putting it into dishwasher.
The number one error made is not having a spotlessly clean and dry pan! I do mean spotless — not so much as a water mark or speck of dust! It also needs to be perfectly smooth — no rings, grooves, dents, scratches, or other imperfections in which the sugar can cling to and form crystals. If no other explanation and consistently having issues, use a different pan!
I have never looked up caramel making online before, I was taught at home and by friends who were professional chefs or confectioners, but I like to provide other helpful resources whenever possible so I will do some research and find some to recommend and will get back to you with those.
As I type up and blog about my various candies or other caramel recipes, I’ll try to remember to include links below:
For my Almond Rocha recipe:
For my Pecan Turtles recipe:
For my Saltwater Taffy recipe:
For my Brittle recipe:
For my caramels:
For my Flan recipe (a caramel sauce topped baked custard):