So, we’ve talked a fair amount about sugar. Or rather, I have. Yes, a lot. I know. I do that, which is why I have a blog (it keeps my family and friends from killing me).
So we’ve talked a lot about sugar. At least in its natural state. But then what happens to sugar when you mess with it a little? What happens when you put fire under it? Quite a lot of things as it turns out, the culmination of which is caramel. This is not to discount all the other iterations that occur as sugar is cooked. It’s just that I’ve never been that big into candy making, and caramel is such wonderful stuff. What makes it so wonderful is its complexity. There are sweet notes in caramel, but also bitter ones, buttery ones, even sour ones. Quite amazing when you consider that all those flavors spring primarily from a single, fairly one-dimensional ingredient: table sugar.
How does this happen? It’s all through the magic of caramelization, a type of heat-induced reaction that’s the sole province of sugar (the term is erroneously applied to all types of browning reactions these days, for a rant on that topic search “Tyler Florence” over there on the right). It occurs when sugar syrup is heated to the point that some of the sugar molecules start to break down, and when they do, they explode into literally hundreds of mysterious compounds, some of which taste sour, some of which taste bitter, some of which taste burned, you get the idea. Others don’t taste like anything, but they do turn brown, or black, and they’re responsible for caramel’s amber-to-dark-brown color.
The temperature at which the breakdown begins to occur is around 340 degrees. Quite hot, in other words, and that can make caramel making a rather dicey affair. Consider that caramel is also very dense, and on top of that sticky, and you begin to see why it’s known in the trade as bakery napalm. Of course that’s no reason not to try making caramel at home, though it is reason to exercise great caution, especially if you have small children around.
Carmel comes in several varieties, depending on the temperature to which it’s cooked. Light caramel has a pretty transluscent amber color and a sweet, delicate flavor. Dark caramel is deep and opaque, with a fabulously complex, almost burned taste.
Any of them can be augmented with other ingredients, cream being the hands-down favorite. For not only does cream give caramel richness and a more supple final texture, its proteins break down in the heat in what’s known as the Maillard Reaction. This is a type of browning that happens with proteins, and produces an even more bewildering variety of molecular by-products. It also adds still more complexity to the final product.
I strongly encourage you to try your hand at it, since it’s quite an easy thing to do provided you have a good heavy sauce pan, a reliable candy thermometer, and a good recipe to follow. Here’s one that I really like. Most days you can find a sqeeze bottle of the stuff in my refrigerator, since it keeps for weeks and has a million applications. Squeezing a little onto my finger tip in the middle of the afternoon is but one of them.