On the Thickness of Caramel

Reader Catherine writes:

Can you tell me how to influence the softness or firmness of homemade caramel? All the best googling I can come up with isn’t producing a satisfying answer.

Typically I make it with a bare minimum of ingredients — dissolving white sugar in water, then boiling until it turns deep amber and adding cream and perhaps a bit of butter, depending on the recipe.

Sometimes it turns out more “pourable” than other times. I need to know how to make sure it will hold its shape (but still be soft), so I get that soft firmness when I need it, and still know how to keep it “pourable” when I want it to be that way.

I never have used corn syrup, or brown sugar, or condensed milk or the other things I see flying around out there in caramel recipes… just water, sugar, cream and butter.

What insight can you offer me about the key controlling firmness? Is it the ingredients? Or perhaps the exact candy-thermometer reading to reach in the boiling? I quit relying on a thermometer when I read David Lebovitz & others advising people to judge by color.

Like that question, Catherine! A few things can influence caramel’s consistency. Temperature is obviously one of them, but also the proportion of free-flowing (non-sugar) molecules. Often those free-flowing bits are fats of the kind found in butter or cream.

But then the degree to which you cook your sugar has a big impact as well. If you’re only cooking to the “amber” stage you’re at the tail end of the hard crack candy phase, where the sugar is just starting to brown. That means you’re dealing with a pretty tough “candy” from the get-go. You’ll need to add quite a bit of extra stuff to it to get it pourable — and then the color of the finished caramel will be very pale.

Better I think to cook it to a dark brown and make that your starting point (as I suggest here). The flavor will be more pronounced for one thing. You’ll also have broken down a fair number of the sugars into flowing molecular junk. That right there will give you a softer base to start with.

From that point the pour-ability is just a factor of whatever else you might add. A cup of cream (added to a caramel based on a cup of sugar) yields a sauce that’s paste-like when chilled, semi-firm when at room temperature and flowing when hot. But you can calibrate yours however you want, adding cream or butter as you’d like. Butter will give you a firmer product, since the fats solidify at room temperature. Cream will give you a more pourable caramel because a.) the fats flow and, b.) it has water in it. Try a combination if you like.

You’ll need to unleash a bit of your inner mad scientist to get to what you regard as the perfect caramel. But it won’t take long. If you discover your caramel is too firm at room temperature and you want it softer, just melt it, vigorously whisk in a little more butter or cream, and let it cool off again. If it’s still too thick, repeat. But of course keep track of what you’re doing. Have fun!

15 thoughts on “On the Thickness of Caramel”

  1. So, as a just-barely related question: what about the texture of fondant? I made a bunch of fondant to use as fillings for chocolate last year, and the recipes I used were basically the same as yours for poured fondant icing. Some had more water, but if I understand the way cooked sugar works, that shouldn’t really make any difference. Soft-ball stage means that only a certain percentage of the mixture is water, right?

    Once in the food processor, though, could I stop the agitation at different stages to get different textures, or will the fondant get fairly firm no matter when I stop the processor? At some point it’s a mostly opaque, yet still slowly-flowing cream, a texture that I think would be lovely for a filled chocolate. I assumed that once started, the crystal formation would just continue on its own, maybe with larger crystals than I would want, but I didn’t test this theory (that’s for this weekend). Do you know?

    1. Hey Nicole!

      Yes, you’re right. As long as you eventually arrive at the correct candy temperature in the end, it doesn’t matter how much water you add to your sugar in the beginning. It will just cook out eventually. It’s interesting. Looked at another way, the temperature of a cooking candy is actually a measure of how much moisture the syrup still contains. That’s why when you add even few drops of water to a roiling pan of sugar syrup, the temperature drops. It’s a neat experiment.

      But to your point, varying the degree to which you agitate the fondant probably won’t deliver the results you want. The idea is, as you mentioned, to reduce the crystal size and also introduce some tiny air bubbles. Together two make the fondant pliable. Bigger crystals wouldn’t just make the fondant firmer, they’d make it hard. So I’d say proceed as you normally do, maybe just add less syrup when you go to dilute it. That’s the best idea I have!

      Cheers and thanks for the question!

      – Joe

      1. Hey, Joe. I have another caramel question for you. I made a batch a couple of days ago that seemed perfect. But when it had set the next morning and I sampled it, I was distressed to find that it’s not completely smooth: it has that granulated-sugar texture inside it. I heated it in a pan on the stove, brought it to a simmer for a few minutes. When I drizzled a little bit into a clean bowl, I could see a nice smooth texture & shape. Also I could taste that there were no sugar granules. But this morning, the granules are back! Is this a lost batch? What can be done? What went wrong?

        1. Hey Catherine!

          Sorry for the wait. This is very interesting. Somehow you’re getting sugar crystallization…and quickly. This can happen if there are unmelted sugar crystals around the rim of the pan…or somewhere else, maybe in a container. The fact that it’s happened twice in tow days is fascinating, because it usually doesn’t happen that fast. My suggestion is to heat it back up and stir in some corn syrup (about a tablespoon per cup). That should put a stop to it.

          Let me know how it goes!

          – Joe

  2. This is SO helpful. I’ve always been afraid of making caramel, since that one time I cooked it way too long and ended up having to scrape a ton of hardened candy from the bottom of the pot. You make it sound so easy!

    1. Honestly it is very easy, Ann. I burned my first (and second) batch as well. A couple more tries and you’ll be an expert. Trust me.

      – Joe

  3. Another caramel/toffee question: When I make toffee (with butter, corn syrup, sugar and nuts), sometimes it comes out perfectly, but sometimes using the same recipe and (I as far as I can tell) the same technique, it separates, with some of the butter collecting on top of the toffee. In fact, sometimes when the separation happens, I can see it happening in the pot as it boils. Any idea what might account for the divergent results? I’d appreciate any insights!

    1. Hey Ron! As they say, that happens to everyone, so don’t worry. I’m not sure what causes it to be honest with you, however all is not lost when butter separation occurs. You just need to get the whisk out and re-establish the emulsion. Whisk, whisk, whisk and everything will come back together. It can take a few minutes, so be patient with it.

      – Joe

  4. Catching up on my feeds, and I sure wish I’d seen this before making my annual Christmas caramels. I fight the battle of “how stiff or soft” with those every year. Too soft is OK, even if the caramels may tend to escape around the edges of the waxed paper I wrap them in. This year they were too hard, though, requiring significant jaw action to chew, so I had an opportunity to try re-melting them to add butter or cream if only I’d known.

    I keep thinking that if I find the perfect candy thermometer, I’ll be able to hit exactly the right temperature and get consistent caramels. Hasn’t happened yet–the Thermapen bought last year turns out to be too hard to hold over the boiling mixture when the temp is getting close, and is not very friendly to left-handed cooks.

  5. I make the Best homemade ice cream with my Mom’s original recipe, from the 1940’s. Using Mom’s original recipe, and putting my spine on it, I have now made so many different wonderful flavors. I make a Dutch cocoa ice cream, with a thick vain of my homemade marshmallow sauce running through, and coarsely chopped roasted pecans. My family Loves caramel and wants me to make my German chocolate ice cream with a thick vain of caramel.
    So, here is my question… I am looking for a very thick caramel recipe. that will stay in tacked when added to ice cream, and not just blend in. I am looking forward to your reply’s.

    1. Your ice creams should wonderful, Jerriann. I’d say that the caramel sauce I have on the blog will give you a ribbon-line effect if it’s added late and not mixed too thoroughly. It tends to be rather firm when it’s cold, but not so firm that it’s chewy. Give it a try and let me know how it goes!

      – Joe

  6. I have tried making caramel about 7 times now and I can’t quite get the consistency and flavor I want. I’m so frustrated because it seems like it should be so easy, but something has been off — color, flavor, and/or consistency — on all attempts. I want it to be something I can put on a cupcake. The firm (but not chewy) amber-colored kind. That classic caramel flavor. Do you have any recommendations?

    Also, I really love and appreciate your site. Thank you!

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