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!