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wet vs dry caramel same temperature 180C

How to Caramelize Sugar: Dry vs Wet Method

If you’ve caramelized sugar, you might recall there are two ways to do so: the ‘dry’ and the ‘wet’ method. The only difference? The presence, or absence, of water. But which is ‘best’? Does it even matter? We’re going to find out!

You can easily turn sweet, white sugar, into a brown, almost bitter, product: caramel. All you need is heat. Once the sugar is hot enough, it will turn brown and change flavor. This is the result of a series of chemical reactions jointly called “caramelization”.

Caramelization needs heat

Just how hot the sugar needs to be to caramelize depends on the type of sugar you’re trying to caramelize. Regular cane or beet sugar, which consists of the sugar sucrose, starts to caramelize around 160°C (320°F). Fructose, common in fruits and honey, caramelizes from around 110°C (230°F). Maltose, which you can find in grains, needs significantly higher temperatures, 180°C (356°F).

SugarCaramelization temperature (approx.)
Fructose110°C (230°F)
Glucose and Sucrose160°C (320°F)
Maltose180°C (356°F)
Note: sucrose is the sugar that your bag of cane or beet sugar is made of.

Once caramelization has started, it can turn browner and more bitter by continuing to heat it even further.

Interested to learn more about the chemistry of caramelization? Want to learn all about the chemical reactions taking place? Read our deep-dive.

sugar cooked to several caramel stages
Sucrose caramelized to different temperatures using the ‘wet’ method.

An aside on sugar caramel vs. caramel candy

Note, when we talk about caramel in this article we refer to: “sugar that has been caramelized”.

There are a lot of other types of caramel, e.g. a caramel sauce, or a chewy caramel candy. Some contain caramelized sugars. Others don’t!

Instead, these other caramels turn brown because of the Maillard reaction. In this reaction, sugars react with proteins to also form brown colors and delicious flavors. The proteins come from other ingredients that have been added such as dairy (alternatives). The Maillard reaction starts at temperatures well below that of caramelization. As such, the caramel candy or caramel sauce might not need to be heated as much.

Want to learn more about the science behind caramels? We’re discussing them extensively in a separate article on caramels as well as one focused on caramel for popcorn.

How to caramelize sugar

In summary, to make caramel you need to heat just sugar. There are roughly two methods to do so:

  • the ‘wet’ method: uses water,
  • the ‘dry’ method: does not use water.

Let’s have a closer look at each.

Caramelizing using the ‘wet’ method

For the ‘wet’ method you mix sugar and water in a pot. You heat this until the sugar turns brown.

The heat first causes the sugar to dissolve in the water. All the individual sugar grains disappear, and you end up with a transparent liquid. This will occur around the boiling point of water.

boiling sugar solution
All the sugar has dissolved. This gives a transparent, bubbling sugar solution .

A liquid is better at transferring heat than solid particles. As such, it is easier to heat it evenly. You use the water as a ‘helper’. It ensures even heating and helps prevent burning.

However, all that water does prevent the sugar from getting hot enough to caramelize. The water serves as an ‘insulator’. In order for the sugar to become hot enough to caramelize, you will need to evaporate the water. You do this by simply continuing to heat the sugar solution! More and more water will evaporate and the sugar solution can turn hotter and hotter.

Once almost all the water has evaporated sugar starts to turn brown.

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Did you know that the less water a sugar solution contains, the higher its boiling point is? Want to learn more about this relationship between temperature and water content? We’ve written all about it! It is one of the core concepts of the science behind candy.

Caramelizing using the ‘dry’ method

You can also leave out the water from the get-go. The ‘dry’ method doesn’t use any water. Instead, you simply place sugar in a pan and heat it.

Since there is no water, the sugar won’t dissolve. Instead, the sugar will melt*. This happens at temperatures well above the boiling point of water. Once molten, the sugar can start to caramelize quite quickly since there is no water to evaporate.

How to melt sugar

It can be tricky to ensure the melting of sugar happens homogeneously. Solid sugar crystals aren’t great at transferring heat among themselves. If the pan or stovetop you’re using heats unevenly, some parts may have started to brown, well before other parts have even melted.

*Note, scientists have been discussing whether or not sugar actually melts during this process. Refer to the article by Roos (2012), quoted below, to learn more!

making a dry caramel
Caramelizing sugar using the dry method: add sugar to a pan and heat it. The sugar melts first, before turning brown. Notice how in the bottom right caramelization has already begun, before all sugar has melted.
Use a blow torch!

There is another way to caramelize sugar without using any water. However, it’s only suitable for small quantities, in special circumstances: use a blow torch!

The high intense, but very localized heat can easily heat sugar to high enough temperatures to caramelize. This is what’s used to make the crispy sugar layer on top of a creme brulee for instance.

taking a scoop out of a creme brulee
The crispy layer on top of this dessert, a creme brulee, is caramelized sugar.

Comparing ‘wet’ caramel vs. ‘dry’ caramel

Both the ‘wet’ and the ‘dry’ method can be used to caramelize sugar. We now know they’re different in execution, but do they give different results? And when would you prefer using one over the other?

‘Dry’ makes a darker caramel, or not?

When comparing the ‘dry’ with the ‘wet’ method, we noticed that the ‘dry’ method consistently made for a darker caramel! This happened even when we tried to heat the caramels to the exact same temperature! What happened?

wet vs dry caramel same temperature 180C
Caramelize sucrose, made using the dry (top) or wet (bottom) method in two different tests. All were heated to the same temperature (180°C/355°F). In your kitchen it’s hard to replicate results exactly, hence the slightly different colors between the two tests.
Caramelization chemistry

To investigate, we need to have a closer look at the chemistry of caramelization. Remember that caramelization is a series of chemical reactions. At first, the small sugar molecules themselves undergo small changes. Later on, the resulting small molecules will all react together to form large brown molecules. It’s a very fast process, but also quite random. A lot of reactions happen simultaneously.

The reaction solely relies on the presence of sugar. Water does not play a significant role. We found no evidence that the water could change the course of chemical reactions that occurs.

Hot spots get a head start

Instead, we expect uneven heating to be the culprit.

When using the ‘dry’ method it can be hard to ensure all sugar is at the same temperature. Some parts of the pot may be hotter than others. This can cause some of the sugar to caramelize before other sugar crystals had a chance to melt. Once the pot as a whole has reached the target temperature, some of these hot spots may have already turned a dark brown color. As a whole, the final caramelized sugar will be darker in color.

Aim for a color, not a temperature.

To overcome to challenge: aim for a color, not a temperature. Caramelized sugar changes color very quickly. Getting a consistent, even temperature measurement can be very tricky, especially for small batches. Instead, judge a batch by its color. It will be more predictive of its final color and flavor.

You might find this confusing, seeing as how we do strongly recommend cooking sugar syrups with a thermometer at hand! However, keep in mind that all caramelized sugars are already very very hot and have an almost identical moisture content. A few degrees more or less won’t make as much of a difference anymore.

‘Wet’ takes longer, thus is browner? (No!)

You may often find statements online saying that using the ‘wet’ method will make a browner caramel since it takes longer to make. However, as you could just see, this is not true. On the contrary, chances are the opposite happens!

Keep in mind that the time that you spend boiling off water is NOT used to caramelize the sugar. Sugar only starts to caramelize way at the end. Not a lot happens before that time.

Except if you make A LOT of caramelized sugar

Of course, there is an exception. That is if you make a lot of caramelized sugar. So much so, that it’s on the stove for an hour before it even starts to caramelize. During this time, sugar may start to break down and influence the caramelization process.

‘Dry’ is faster

If you don’t have a lot of time to caramelize sugar, use the ‘dry’ method. Since you don’t have to boil off the water, it’s considerably faster.

Use a thermometer with alarm to speed up ‘wet’

Want to use the ‘wet’ method and not stare into a pot of boiling water for a long time? Place a reliable thermometer with an alarm in your sugar solution. Have the thermometer start beeping several degrees – give yourself enough time! – below the caramelization temperature of your sugar. (Best to run a few tests batches to define this temperature.)

Still, never walk away completely, stay close. Sugar caramelization goes incredibly fast at the end and before you know it, your well-kempt sugar has burnt and turned a solid black!

‘Wet’ is more foolproof

Never caramelized sugar before? Use the ‘wet’ method to get the hang of it. Having water there as a helper makes it easier to caramelize sugar evenly.

You can start over and over and over

When using the wet method, you run the risk of sugar crystallizing while you’re boiling it. When this happens, large sugar crystals form in the pot during boiling. To prevent this from happening, refrain from stirring and mixing. This can induce crystallization.

If it happens, don’t stress out! Just add a little extra water – be careful, it may splatter! – and start over. You can easily do this a few times if necessary.

Trying to make caramels and running into crystallization issues? We’ve got a separate post to help you out with common caramel making challenges.

‘Wet’ allows for steering the reaction

Caramelization reactions can proceed differently depending on the acidity of the environment. If the sugar is in a very acidic, or very alkaline (= opposite of acidic) environment, the reaction can proceed very differently.

Using the ‘wet’ method makes it easier to make these adjustments and thus control your final caramel color.

We’ve written a more in-depth analysis of this phenomenon.

cooking various sugar syrups
Browning reactions of sugar can de steered by adding acidic or alkaline ingredients to the sugars!

Troubleshooting sugar caramelization

Even though caramelizing sugar isn’t that complex, it’s still to mess it up. Since you’re working with very hot, sticky, troubleshooting may seem daunting. Luckily, there are a few things you can do, some of which we alluded to above.

Fixing sugar that has crystallized during caramelization

crystallized sugar during caramelizing
The sugar has turned crystalline. You can’t caramelize this sugar as is. It needs help.

It’s the fear of many candy makers: a pot full of sugar crystals. Whereas just a short while back your transparent sugar solution was boiling along well, it turned solid in seemingly just a few seconds. It doesn’t make sense to continue to hear this mess. You’ll burn the bottom, without ever properly caramelizing the top.

To fix this problem, you do not need to throw it out. There’s a fix. So let’s have a closer look at what happened in that pot.

Sugar loves to crystallize

That large mass in your pan is sugar that’s turned crystalline. Sugar, or sucrose more specifically, has a strong tendency to crystallize. When there’s not enough water available, the sugar molecules will form a crystal. This can happen as you’re caramelizing sugar, especially in the wet method.

Remember that you’re evaporating more and more water from the sugar solution you made at the start. The concentration of sugar becomes higher and higher. As look as you continue heating and leave it alone, that’s not a problem.

However, if you turn off the heat, or turn it too low, the sugar solution becomes unstable. That same can happen when you stick something into the solution or quickly stir the solution. The sugars start to crystallize and this can go very rapidly!

The fix: Dissolve the crystals again

Luckily, you can easily reverse this. Simply add extra warm water. Once enough water is present, the sugars will redissolve. It may take a little while to dissolve all the crystals, and you may need to heat it slightly. But, the sugars will redissolve and you can continue caramelization.

Can you caramelize brown sugar?

Slightly off-topic, but a commonly asked question. Can you caramelize brown sugar?

No, you cannot caramelize brown sugar. Keep in mind that when we talk about brown sugar, we’re referring to the slightly sticky, clumpy brown sugar. This is sugar that has some molasses added back into it. Slightly unrefined cane sugar may also have a light brown color. However, here you’ll clearly see that the crystals are still separate and free-flowing. This sugar will work perfectly fine when caramelizing!

caramelizing regular (left) vs brown (right) sugar
Left: caramelized regular, granulated sugar
Right: an attempt at caramelizing brown sugar, it tasted burnt and was very sticky

In the end, it’s mostly a personal preference

Both the ‘dry’ and the ‘wet’ methods can make caramelized sugar. One might be easier to troubleshoot than the other. But, both can give you the same product. In the end, whichever you prefer is mostly a personal preference!

caramelized sugar, two different colors

Caramelizing Sugar

To caramelize sugar you have to heat sugar to very high temperatures. You can use water to help you along the way, the 'wet' method, or simply place sugar in a dry pot, the 'dry' method.

Whenever working with hot sugars, be very careful. The final product is very very hot!

Ingredients

  • Sugar - the more sugar you use, the more you make, use at least 100g to make caramelization a little easier

Optional - only for wet method

  • Water - about 15% of the weight of the sugars, exact quantity is not important

Instructions

  1. Take a sturdy pot, preferably one with a slightly thicker bottom to ensure even heat distribution.
  2. Add the sugars to the pot and gently sway to spread them over the bottom.
  3. If using the wet method, add water and gently sway to spread out.
  4. Heat the pot on a moderate heat.

Wet method

  1. The water will come to a boil. Gently sway the pan to help all the sugar dissolve. This prevents uneven heating.
  2. Try not to touch the pot anymore from this point onwards. Just let the heat do its thing.
  3. Once you see a slight discolouration occuring, stay close to the pot. Things will move fast now! If you want, slightly turn down the heat to prevent overheating.
  4. Once the caramel has reached the color* you are looking for (or better, a little before it does). Remove the pan from the heat.
  5. If using as is, pour onto a heat resistant surface (it's very hot, not all parchment paper can handle this!) and leave to cool.

Dry method

  1. You will start to see the sugar melt. Once this starts, keep a close eye, browning may happen quickly!
  2. Try not to mix or stir during the process.
  3. You will see the molten sugar start to brown. If this happens in places well before all sugar has molten, turn down the heat and stir slightly to cool down hot areas.
  4. Once the caramel has reached the color* you are looking for (or better, a little before it does). Remove the pan from the heat.
  5. If using as is, pour onto a heat resistant surface (it's very hot, not all parchment paper can handle this!) and leave to cool.

Notes

*You can use a thermometer to decide when to remove the caramel from the heat. However, since things tend to move really quickly at this point, it's best to just judge by color.

References

Yrjö H. Roos, Felix Franks, Marcus Karel, Theodore P. Labuza, Harry Levine, Mohamed Mathlouthi, David Reid, Evgenyi Shalaev, and Louise Slade, Comment on the Melting and Decomposition of Sugars, Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 2012, 60 (41), 10359-10362 DOI: 10.1021/jf3002526, link

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