When Mrs. Pastry got home from her late class last evening she went, in characteristic style, straight over to the caramel pan and stuck her nose in. “Wow, what’s in here?” she asked in reaction to the rich, floral odors the dark caramel gave off. “Nothing but sugar,” I said, “with cream added afterward to keep it flowing.”
“Amazing,” she said. And it is. Caramelization is a miracle. A process by which you take a bunch of very uniform molecules and, by the application of a little heat, turn them into literally hundreds of other types of molecules…most of which have radically different characteristics. Caramelization creates so many unusual molecules of so many different kinds, in fact, that no one has yet attempted to identify and name them all. Kinda neat, eh?
But what actually happens in that saucepan when the heat is turned on? Well, table sugar (sucrose) is a disaccharide, or double sugar. It’s made up of one molecule each of two single sugars: glucose and fructose. A room temperature, those molecules array themselves into neat stacks, otherwise known as crystals. Apply heat and the first thing that happens is those crystals break down and the molecules begin to flow (molten sugar). Even so, the sucrose molecules themselves have not (yet) changed.
As the temperature crests about 310 degrees, however, decorum begins to break down. The sucrose molecules start splitting in two, yielding glucose and fructose molecules with a free hand — one they can use to bond to other types of molecules. Of course for a few seconds there aren’t any other types of molecules to bond to. That is until the intense heat starts to breaking some of the glucose and fructose molecules down into some of their component parts. That’s when the real mayhem begins, as the glucose molecules start bonding with the whatsits, the fructose molecules with the thingamajiggers, and the whaddycallem’s and what’s-a-bobs bond with one another. It is, in other words, like the mosh pit of a Fugazi show.
The chaos continues as long as the heat is maintained, with more sugars being destroyed and replaced by heaven only knows what — alcohols, diacetyls lactones and others — and the flavor gets more complex and interesting. At some point, however, (around 385 degrees) the number of Hunchback of Notre Dame molecules starts to outnumber the intact sugars, and the caramel gets a bit too interesting. Bitter, really. But then as I’ve said, I like it at least a touch bitter. Depending on the application of the caramel, more than a touch.
How do you know when you’ve gone too far? It’s hard to know until you taste it. Of course you can use a candy thermometer if you wish, though given that there’s so little caramel in the pan it can be hard to get a reading, and as my post from yesterday should make plain, events move fast in the caramel pot. I say trust your senses. The color and the amount of smoke will tell you a lot. Failing that, at least once the caramel cools, your taste buds will let you know if you’ve created a masterpiece or a monster.