Caramel sauce is a delicious treat and can be served with ice cream, flan, or even french toast. Commercial caramel sauces often consist of high-fructose corn syrup and chemical flavorings, with little or no actual caramel – homemade caramel is a treat like no other.
First, lets talk about sugars. A dissacharide is a type of carbohydrate which contains two
monosaccharides, or “simple sugars” linked together. This isn’t the same thing as a mixture of the two sugars, just like water isn’t the same thing as a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen. They are chemically bonded. The most common dissacharide is probably table sugar, also called sucrose. Sucrose is composed of the monosaccharides glucose and fructose.
Unlike table sugar, corn syrup contains unlinked fructose and glucose. Ordinary corn syrup contains mostly glucose, but it can be chemically modified to produce high-fructose corn syrup. The most common type of high-fructose corn syrup contains 55% fructose and 42% glucose.
Caramelization is a complex series of reactions which browns sugar and releases volatile compounds which give caramel it’s unique flavor. During caramelization, the dissacharaide sucrose is broken into it’s component monosaccharides, glucose and fructose. Some sugar compounds may also isomerize, which means that the chemical bonds between atoms change. Water present in table sugar crystals will boil off before caramelization takes place.
1 cup sugar, 1/2 cup heavy cream
thick bottomed pan, stove top, large spoon,
glass jar for storage
Sucrose caramelizes at 160 C / 320 F, well above the temperature of boiling water. Be very careful, and use a deeper pot than you think you need to avoid splatter. At least 3 inches should be left between the top of the caramel and the top of the pot. If possible, use a thick bottomed pot to aid in heat distribution and avoid burning the caramel.
Set the burner to medium heat, place the thick bottomed pot on the burner and place a cup of sugar in the pan. Wait patiently for a few minutes while the sugar heats. The crystals will melt and the water will quickly boil away, then the solution will begin to brown. Don’t stir, it encourages re-crystallization. Turn down the heat to avoid burning the sugars. The finished caramel will be a bright, rich copper color like a penny, and it may smoke slightly. Remove from heat.
Quickly pour the heavy cream into the caramel, stirring as you go. If you are too slow some of the caramel may recrystallize. If this happens, remove lumps of solid caramel from solution and gently reheat them in a separate pan and recombine with the majority of the caramel solution. It is possible to add flavors such as vanilla extract to the hot caramel. It is important to add enough cream to dissolve the caramel, however, the exact amount of cream is a matter of preference.