Homemade caramel sauce is the perfect decadent topping for your favorite desserts. Sugar is caramelized until amber in color, then whisked with butter and cream for a smooth and velvety texture. Ready in just minutes!
Making a homemade caramel sauce may seem like a challenge, but the recipe is really just simple science. The key is to control the heat level when cooking the granulated sugar and water together, and knowing when to halt the reaction.
Adding cream cools the mixture down and provides richness so consistency is easy to drizzle on top of desserts and baked goods. It may take a few tries to get the technique down, but you’ll become a master in no time! Then trust me, you’ll want to add it to everything!
Caramel sauce is the combination of granulated sugar, a small amount of water, heavy cream, and butter. Heavy cream or heavy whipping cream can be used interchangeably because they both contain a minimum of 36% milkfat. This yields an ultra-rich sauce.
A blend of art and science
When sugar is heated up, caramelization occurs. The heat creates a chemical reaction that breaks down the compounds glucose and fructose in the sugar (sucrose) into smaller molecules. Over time the water in the syrup evaporates, concentrating the sugar solids and elevating the temperature of the mixture.
The result is a change of color starting from honey-like to amber, meanwhile, hundreds of new aroma and flavor compounds emerge. Using your senses is the best way to gauge when the sugar reaches just the right endpoint. Once you smell a nutty, sweet, almost baked notes, you’re there!
Using an instant-read thermometer or candy thermometer can help take some of the guesswork of successfully making a caramel sauce. Besides visual cues, simple sugars like glucose and fructose have temperature ranges for color and flavor transformation.
Fructose will carmelize first around 230ºF (110ºC), followed by glucose at 320ºF (160ºC). Sugar is a mixture of the two, so target 320 to 350ºF (160 to 177ºC) for the final caramelization temperature. Anything above that and the sugar will burn. I’ve learned that the hard way!
Interested in a salted caramel sauce?
Adding a little bit of salt takes the flavor of the caramel to the next level! Any type of salt can be used judiciously, but I often use kosher salt or sea salt. About ¼ to ¾ teaspoon of salt per recipe, depending on how dominating you want the savory flavor.
Reheating the sauce
Reheat the caramel sauce in a small bowl set over simmering water, stir until it’s heated through and warm. It can also be placed in a microwave-safe bowl, and heated in the microwave in 15-second intervals, stirring in between until warm. You don’t want to heat the sauce directly in a pan because it would continue to caramelize with burnt off notes.
Ways to enjoy
- Drizzle on top of ice cream
- Serve with apple pie or apple crisp
- Slice up fruit for caramel apple dip
- Add to cinnamon rolls
- Elevate baked french toast
Use temperature and color as a guide
The degree of caramelization is dependent on personal taste which you can control. For a sweet, slightly nutty flavor stop cooking when the caramel is a golden honey color and is between 320 to 335ºF (160 to 170ºC). For a deeper, more intense caramel notes, go for a deep amber color and when it reaches no more than 350ºF (177ºC).
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- 1 cup granulated sugar
- ¼ cup water
- ¾ cup heavy cream
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Add the sugar and water into a small saucepan. Heat over medium-low.
- Allow the sugar to dissolve without stirring. If needed, use a wet pastry brush to wash any undissolved sugar on the side of the pan.
- Increase the heat to high and bring sugar to a boil.
- Allow the sugar to caramelize by stirring until a deep amber color is formed, about 5 to 7 minutes to reach 320 to 350ºF (160 to 177ºC). Reduce the heat to medium-high if rapidly boiling.
- Remove the caramel from the heat.
- Slowly and carefully whisk in the heavy cream. The caramel will bubble as the cream is added, so allow it to subside before each addition.
- Whisk in the butter until incorporated into the caramel sauce.
- Cool the sauce to room temperature before using, it will thicken over time.
- Recipe yield: about 1 cup.
- Serving: 1 tablespoon.
- Store in an airtight container or jar for up to 1 week.
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