When corn and all of its derivatives became persona non grata (food allergy) in my family, we had to go searching for the old homemade recipes from before WW1, when corn syrup made its debut into home pantries as an inexpensive alternative to sugar.
And – gratefully – I found among our family recipes “Bon’s Burnt Sugar Sauce.” Aunt Bon was my grandfather Joe Jones’s oldest sister Yvonne, whom the family nicknamed Bon. And she was my mom’s favorite candy-making expert. We also use her divinity and whipped fudge recipes at the holidays.
The good news: homemade caramel, whether you are making sauce or candy chews, is a really quick recipe – about 3 minutes to measure out the three ingredients to be ready, about 10 minutes from dry sugar to completed sauce, and another minute to pour it into a jar. And done.
The bad news: there’s about a 3 second line between caramelized and burnt so badly you can’t eat it. Melting and caramelizing the sugar is “the hard part” and a candy thermometer won’t help you.
So let’s get ready. This is a recipe where you can’t be measuring ingredients as you go. It literally happens too fast for that.
- enamelled cast iron 6-8 quart pot
- non-reactive stirring spoon – like firm silicone – or a metal/silicone whisk
- glass or ceramic container with a lid – if I don’t have any fancy mason or ball jars, I like to re-use spaghetti sauce jars as they are just the right size
Ingredients needed for rouhgly 24 oz (4 cups) of caramel sauce
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 12 T salted butter, cut into 1 T slices
- 1 cup heavy cream
Alright, you’re ready to get started.
Step 1: pour the 2 cups of sugar into the bone dry enamelled cooking pot. Enamel is a non-reactive surface known to distribute heat most evenly across the large bottom of the pot so that no section of the sugar burns before the others; it’s also a non-reactive surface, so it won’t introduce metal elements or flavoring into your caramel like stainless steel, copper, and direct cast iron will. And you need it to be a pot rather than simply a large skillet because the later steps will result in the mixture bubbling and foaming up, and this will overspill a skillet.
Step 2: place the pot with sugar on medium heat. WARNING: do not use higher than medium or your sugar will burn before it’s all melted, and you’ll have to dump the whole pot and start over. Now, every stove is different AND your local environment (heat and humidity) will affect the stove setting that achieves your desired level of burnt. On my electric, glass-topped stove in Winter Park, FL, exactly medium achieves my preferred dark caramel and one notch from medium towards low achieves my family’s preferred standard medum caramel.
Step 3: to stir or not to stir while the sugar metls. This is a bit controversial because you’ll see the majority of online recipes insist that you not stir. In my experience, not stirring leads to a darker brown, slightly bitter caramel sauce; so if you like that, don’t stir. Most of my friends prefer the lighter to medium, milky sweet caramel sauce, and I find that minimal stirring makes this easier to achieve. And when I say minimal, I mean that once every 90-120 seconds, I use my spoon to “turn over” the sugar so that the melted layer is on top and the dry sugar that hasn’t gotten heat is on the bottom. That’s what I mean by stirring.
And as you can see, I prefer a spoon to a whisk. Like the pot, the spoon is an heirloom and is part of the history of making this sauce and others like it. Also, my experiences with whisks and a pot full of sugar have been meh, so I stick with the spoon that works.
Step 4: use your nose. Your nose is your best guage to the level of burnt you desire. If this is your first time trying homemade caramel, I encourage you to let it go to the too burnt to use state so that you can teach your nose “when it’s time” to stop burning the sugar.
Step 5: add the knobs of butter.Turn off the heat, but leave the pot on the burner. Drop in the knobs of butter and let them start bubbling and foaming up the sauce. Once it starts dropping back down, stir like crazy to really get the butter incorporated into the sugar sauce. This entire steps takes maybe 25-30 seconds.
Step 6: add the cream. Move the pot off of the burner and pour in the cold cream. Once again, the sauce will bubble and foam up. And once again, as it starts to drop back, stir until all of the cream is incorporated and the sauce turns a uniform color and is mostl shiny on top.
Step 7: let the sauce sit for a few minutes just to cool off a bit. Since you’ll be using a glass jar or glass or ceramic bowl to store the sauce, you can pour it in hot, but it’s still a good idea to cool a bit, just in case there are any flaws in the container that might make it break. There’s nothing sadder than 4 cups of freshly made caramel sauce dripping down the front of your cabinets and pooling on the floor.
Step 8: run scalding hot water in your cooking pot immediately. This will melt any remaining sticky sugar and make cleaning your pot for the next batch of caramel sauce quick and easy. Do the same for your stirring spoon or whisk as well.
Ways to Use 4 Cups of Caramel Sauce:
- Popcorn topping
- Coffee add-in
- Dessert topping
- Oatmeal topping (in place of things like brown sugar, maple syrup)
- Ham glaze
- Pancake/Waffle topping
- Fruit dip
- Fondue – in place of chocolate