"A person cooking is a person giving: Even the simplest food is a gift."

Laurie Colwin

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Golden brown: how to make caramel and line moulds with it

When I studied food science, it quickly became clear to me that no aspect of it was as exact and complicated as sugar cookery.  It’s a branch all on its own, and if you became a food scientist specialising in sugar, you could pretty much be guaranteed a highly paid job just about anywhere.  If you were a straight man, it would also just about guarantee that despite the inherent geekiness, you would get lucky with any straight woman on the planet.  But I digress.

That said, instructions for making caramel (ie. caramelised sugar, not caramel sauce, not candy-type caramel) at home are complicated by SO MUCH BANGING AROUND that I want to address this dreadful misrepresentation.

Yeah, I said it:  banging around.  Like what?  Brushing sugar crystals down the side of the pan (YAWN), adding glucose syrup or indeed any ingredient to the sugar and water (YAWN x 2), arresting cooking with water (YAWN x 3), using a thermometer (YAWN x 4) and repeated cautions about how “tricky” it is to cook caramel without crystallising the sugar (YAWN x 5) and how you must wash the pan straight away or it will be impossible to clean (YAWN x 6).

Bullpats, all of it.  You don’t need to brush the sugar crystals down, you don’t need anything other than sugar and water, you don’t need to arrest cooking in any way other than moving the darned pan off the heat, you don’t need a thermometer (matter of fact the high temperatures reached by caramelised sugar may make even a sugar thermometer shatter), and it isn’t tricky at all – it’s easy, easy, easy.

The beauty of making caramel is that you have your eyes (and to a lesser extent, your nose) to guide you to make sure you succeed.  The dramatic shifts that take place in the subtle changes in temperature during the stages of sugar cookery don’t apply when you’re caramelising sugar.  If it looks done, it’s done.  End of.

The only two rules – and they are easy ones – to remember when making caramel are:

1.  Dissolve every single sugar crystal before mixture comes to the boil, and
2.  Do not stir mixture again once it’s come to the boil.  Not at all.

Failing to obey either of those rules will leave you with a crystallised mixture that nothing can salvage.

Ready to get your caramel on?  Let’s go!


2 parts sugar (see notes below)
1 part water

What you do:
1.  Place sugar and water in a saucepan and place over medium-low heat.  Stir occasionally until every single sugar crystal is dissolved.  (In stirring, by the way, don’t go mad: just run a spoon across the bottom of the pan as many times as it takes.)  There is no need to brush down the sugar crystals on the side of the pan, just make sure the sugar suspended in the water is dissolved.  Do not allow to come to the boil.
2.  When sugar is completely dissolved, increase heat to high and boil steadily until sugar begins to change colour.  At this point, you may want to swirl the pan to encourage even cooking.  Caramel will be ready when it’s coloured amber to golden brown, according to preference.  It will also smell caramelly (trust me on this).  From golden brown it’s only a few seconds to burnt, however, so get the pan off the heat immediately and work quickly to use the caramel.  Forget about cleaning the saucepan for now!
3.  To line a pan or moulds with caramel, quickly pour caramel into pan or individual moulds (eg. ramekins or crème caramel moulds).  With protected hands, swirl caramel around the base and sides of the mould.  Allow to set for a few minutes before proceeding with recipe.

Assorted notes:

*  A 3/4 cup sugar quantity of caramel generously lines one cake or flan pan, or 6 ramekins/crème caramel moulds.

*  My one caution during this whole affair is to PLEASE protect your hands when lining the moulds.  It’s not necessary when cooking the sugar, but definitely necessary when lining, for two reasons.  The first reason is that the moulds get BLOODY HOT.  The second is the tyranny of burning yourself with caramel:  not only is caramel much, much hotter than boiling water, but burns need cold water, and if you put cold water on caramel on your skin, the caramel will solidify.  Try to pull it off, and it will take skin off with it.  So be careful, but don’t panic:  in making caramel at least once a month all my adult life, I have never once suffered a caramel burn.

*  What do you do with that pan?  Fill it up with water (it will spit if it’s still hot, so stand back just a tad), and set it on the stove.    Bring it to the boil, and the caramel will dissolve away.  Any stubborn burnt bits will just scrub off with a wire scrubby thing.

*  Caramel isn't just for lining moulds.  Its uses are myriad:  arrest cooking with cream or fresh juice (blood orange is awesome) to make a divine sauce, add to stews and braises for richness and je ne sais quoi like the Vietnamese do, add butter and vanilla to make gorgeous chewy caramels, or mix in roasted nuts to make croccante or no-fuss praline.


  1. I've always been terrified of making caramel - sugar burns - waste of sugar - ruin the pot. You have taken some mystery out of it. My father was a chemist and often commented on the chemistry of cooking and not go all gaga.

  2. Ach - try it, you'll be fine! Each and every one of those fears can be addressed, and the best way to do it is to just square your chin and give it a go. You'll surprise yourself.


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