Now THAT’s what I call a caramel sauce. Deep dark and lip-smackingly bitter-sweet. Perfect for a home-made caramel ice cream or a batch of caramel-pumpkin bars. Of course not everybody likes their caramel this dark and smoky. To me, though, those people are nuts.
Of course nobody’s saying you have to cook yours this long. You can take the caramel off the heat any time you like before then, as we’ll see. Start by adding one cup of sugar to a sauce pan or skillet (a skillet will give you a little more control over your heat if you’re simply making caramel…stick to a saucepan if you’re making caramel sauce since there’ll be some splattering).
Add a couple of tablespoons of water, it doesn’t matter how much, just enough to moisten the sugar. It’s all going to cook out anyway.
Give it a stir and turn the heat up to high. Why high? Because not only is it the fastest way to get where you’re going, the intensity of the heat will allow you to leapfrog over some of the more, shall we say, “crystalline” phases of the sugar cooking process, giving you a smoother caramel. Don’t worry, just be careful.
Now then, begin to swirl the pan over the burner, keeping the syrup on the move. After about a minute it’ll start to bubble.
After about three minutes the first spot of color will appear.
Another twenty or thirty seconds and the mixture will turn light amber.
Another ten seconds or so and it’ll be dark amber.
Stop here if you’re making caramel for sticky buns, an upside down cake or tarte tatin, since the caramel will cook a little more as it bakes. Just remove the pan from the heat and add two tablespoons of butter (be careful, it’ll foam up some). Stir the mixture until smooth, and pour into the appropriate baking form while it’s still hot. Making caramel sauce? Then have an open, one-cup carton of heavy cream at the ready and proceed.
Ten more seconds and you’ll start seeing wisps of smoke (not steam) come up. This is the indicator that you’re right around the 350 mark. Press on another five seconds to about this stage of darkness for a spectacular sauce.
What, don’t feel like getting off the burnt sugar party train? Then you’re my kind of people! Let’s rock!
Press on another 5-7 seconds. You’ll get a little more smoke and a brown-black spot will appear in the center of the pan. Bingo: it’s time.
Kill the heat and quickly begin pouring in one cup of warm (or hot) cream, stirring or whisking all the while. See how the caramel is darker still after only about three seconds? Sugar cooks incredibly fast at this stage, the cooler cream will stop that.
Be aware, it’ll foam up some…
…however in a few moments it’ll calm down into a smooth sauce. Add a little vanilla extract if that’s your thing. If you’re not planning to use it right away, say you want to store it in the fridge for whenever, whisk in another 1/4 cup of cream and pour it into a squeeze bottle (you’ll need to warm the bottle a bit in the microwave or in a water bath before using it).
Oh yeah…that’s the stuff. I’m pouring this over vanilla ice cream tonight, late, while nobody’s looking.
UPDATE: Reader Jennifer adds:
Seems like we have the same taste when it comes to caramel sauce. I know the sugar is dark enough when my eyes sting. Try stopping the cooking w/balsamic sometime–fantastic! Just don’t breathe in until some of the steam clears away! Add some stock and salt, and you have a perfect sauce for venison. Or duck. Or whatever:)
Thanks Jennifer! Can’t wait to try that…