How Sweet It Is

The only good experience I have with sugar and water was the Christmas I made the homemade equivalent of Fiddle Faddle – it’s a cross between Cracker Jacks and Chex Mix – and I spent the majority of the time stirring the brownish-looking sludge at the bottom of a tall pot for what seemed like hours.

Our first out of class experiment – making homemade caramel – should, theoretically, be a little easier to grasp.

But what is caramel? Or rather, what’s the process of it?

There are two types of browning reactions commonly found in the kitchen: those of the Maillard reaction – the interactions between amino acids and carbohydrates, found in the browning of meats – and that of caramelization. Caramelization happens only with sugars.

Caramel begins with a solution of sugar and water.

As someone with a fair amount of baking experience, the idea of homemade caramel had me a little leery. It’s one of those things – much like other candies – that can either go right or horribly, horribly wrong.

In this case, varying the time of heavy cream addition in Ina Garten’s homemade caramel recipe turned into a six-trial success in making three very different caramels in both color and taste.

Making caramel, whether you’re going for a burnt or a complex (like what you’d find in a jar) or a light, all begins the same way – sugar in water over low heat until it dissolves. From there it becomes a timing game. When, exactly, do you add the heavy cream and vanilla? What color – deep, chestnut brown, ideally – do you shoot for before you add the last two crucial ingredients?

Burnt caramel – a deep brown color – after the cream has been added.

For the burnt caramel, wait long enough to where you think you might accidentally set off the smoke alarm from burning sugar. A deep, dark brown that has an overall charcoal-like smell overpowering the sweet, caramel-like aroma normally coming from the stove. That’s the point at which the heavy cream and vanilla should be added, and the caramel that comes from that process looks and behaves more like modeling clay than anything edible. However, it provides a great color and flavor contrast with the light and complex caramels.

A light caramel, shortly after cream has been added.

One thing not to do when making caramel, surprisingly, is stirring it before the heavy cream is added. When this happens, it’s like crystallization has been induced again by a seed crystal, and all of the sugar dumps back of out the water to clump around the bottom of the pot. As it starts to melt, it will start to brown, indicating the stage at which the heavy cream should be added. As it’s solid again, that stage poses a bit of a problem. The result for this batch was a one-way ticket to the trash can.

Stirring caramel causes the sugar to recrystallize out from the water.

The key to making caramel in your kitchen ultimately resides with that just-right color – that chestnut brown – to give that complex caramel which tastes absolutely fantastic over a bowl of vanilla ice cream. All due, of course, to a browning reaction.

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