Want to learn how to troubleshoot three common candy making challenges?

And learn WHY they work? Sign up for our free mini-series!

caramel sauce made with sucrose + acid

3 Ways to Make a Caramel Sauce

There are literally countless recipes for caramel sauces. But, if you look more closely, you’ll find just 3 recurring patterns in these recipes. You can use brown sugar, caramelize sugar, or, make use of the Maillard reaction to make a tasty caramel sauce.

Method 1: Using brown sugar

This method is the easiest of the three methods. It consists of just one step: mix and cook brown sugar, cream, and butter until you’ve achieved the consistency you’re looking for. It’s that simple.

So how does it work?

Remember that a caramel sauce is brown, sweet, and liquid. It can be poured, unlike caramel candies. By adding enough cream, you can ensure the sauce flows. The water in the cream keeps it thin enough. The fat in both the cream and butter provides richness to the sauce. It prevents it from being watery and ensures it melts on your tongue.

butter and brown sugar
When making caramel popcorn we cooked butter and sugars to make the caramel sauce that would be poured over the popcorn.

Brown sugar adds color

Lastly, the brown sugar allows you to take several shortcuts. Keep in mind that a caramel sauce is brownish in color. As you’ll see with the other two methods, creating that brown color often takes a lot of time and effort. However, brown sugar is already brown. It immediately gives your caramel sauce that typical orange/brown color.

Brown sugar gets its color from some added molasses. Molasses is the part of sugar cane of beet sugar that’s bitter and dark brown in color. As such, the brown sugar also adds a little bit of extra flavor to your caramel, as opposed to just sweetness.

Preventing graininess

To make a smooth caramel sauce, it is crucial that all the sugar dissolves. Undissolved sugar makes the sauce grainy. Caramel sauces made using this method are quite susceptible to becoming grainy.

While cooking the brown sugar in the cream, you ensure that all the sugars crystals dissolve. This makes the caramel sauce smooth. However, this caramel sauce method doesn’t contain a lot of measures to prevent the sugar from crystallizing again. As such, during storage, some of that sugar might crystallize again. This happens even faster on the surface of the caramel sauce, where moisture can easily evaporate.

Crystallization of sugar is one of the topics we discuss more extensively in our Candy Science course.

Fixing a grainy caramel sauce

Luckily, it is easy to fix a grainy caramel sauce. All you need to do is redissolve the sugar crystals. You can do this by gently reheating the caramel sauce. The heat increases the solubility of the sugar. As a result, you can dissolve more sugar in the same amount of water.

grainy crystallized caramel sauce
This caramel sauce has crystallized on top. We simply reheated the sauce to redissolve all the sugar.

Method 2: Caramelize sugar first

You can also make a brown caramel sauce without adding any brown ingredients. The first way to do so is by caramelizing sugar.

During caramelization you heat sugar to very high temperatures. Once the sugar is hot enough it will start to change color and flavor. It turns brown, or even black if you caramelize it too much. Aside from color, a lot of new flavor molecules are formed. Caramelized sugar smells and tastes different than regular sugar. It is less sweet, maybe even a little bitter.

Want to know how to caramelize sugar? You have two options: the ‘wet’ or the ‘dry’ method. Both work equally well when making a caramel sauce.

Caramelized sugar is a great base for a caramel sauce. It adds both color and flavor to the sauce, making it a lot more interesting. However, caramelized sugar itself is not a sauce. On the contrary, caramelized sugar is hard and brittle. To make it into a sauce, you need to add other ingredients that make is liquid and pourable.

You’d often add butter and cream, just as we did for the first method. The fats in the butter and cream add a lot of richness and indulgence to the sauce. They give it body.

Complete control

A big advantage of this method over method 1, using brown sugar, is that you have more control over the sauce. You decide how dark you caramelize the sugar and thus what its final color and flavor will be.

Also, by caramelizing the sugar, the sauce as a whole becomes a lot less prone to crystallization. It won’t turn grainy as easily as a sauce which was made by just mixing and melting butter, cream and brown sugar.

Newsletter

Want to be updated on new food science articles? Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

That said, caramelizing sugar takes time and effort. This method is a bit more cumbersome. Also, you will need to use white sugar to make this sauce. You can’t caramelize brown sugar, nor sugar syrups, such as maple syrup.

The concentration of water in any sugar candy is key for achieving the correct consistency. Learn more in: The Science Behind Cooking Sugar Syrups For Candy Making. Want a caramel sauce that doesn’t flow? Then you’d probably want to make caramels, which work slightly differently.

Method 3: Browning using the Maillard reaction

This third method uses yet another principle to get a brown and tasty caramel sauce: the Maillard reaction. The Maillard reaction is a series of chemical reactions that result in the formation of brown molecules and lots of flavor molecules. The result is similar to that of caramelized sugar, but different on a chemical level.

For the Maillard reaction to happen, you need reducing sugars as well as proteins. Those proteins are often added in the form of cow’s milk. When these two are mixed together the Maillard reaction will start to happen at temperatures well below that of the caramelization temperature of sugar. It is why caramel sauces using this method can’t be cooked to as high a temperature. By the time they’ve reached the temperature of caramelized sugar, it will have burned long since.

Speedy & Stable

Just like caramelization, the Maillard reaction changes sugar molecules. As a result, the sugar is less prone to crystallization. As such, it is a little more stable than option 1. At the same time, the Maillard reaction happens at lower temperatures than caramelization so it tends to be a little faster than method 2. That said, you don’t have as much control over color and flavor as you do for method 2.

Want to know more about how to steer the Maillard and caramelization reactions in sugar syrups? Learn more in: Controlling Color & Flavor of Sugar Syrups – Steering Browning Reactions

Milk thickens

Milk is often crucial for the color and flavor of caramel sauces made this way. But, milk, be it from a cow or plant based, can impact the consistency of a caramel sauce as well. Milk, from a cow that is, is especially noteworthy. The proteins in cow’s milk thicken a caramel (sauce). Leaving out milk, or replacing it with a different type of milk can have a very big impact on consistency!

two caramel sauces made with cow's and oat milk
Two caramel sauces made in an identical way. Left: using oat milk. Right: using cow’s milk. Notice the stark differences in both color and consistency!

Use the pressure cooker or oven

A very famous type of ‘caramel sauce’ is dulce de leche. Dulce de leche is made by cooking sugar and milk. The Maillard reaction causes the sauce to turn brown and adds a lot of flavor.

Generally, caramel sauces made this way are made on the stovetop or in a cooker. However, if you use a pre-sweetened and concentrated type of milk, such as sweetened condensed milk, you can also make it in the oven or even in a pressure cooker. Both methods take longer than on the stovetop, but have the advantage that you don’t need to stand next to them!

Troubleshooting Caramel sauces

All three methods can make a delicious caramel sauce that can be poured over brownies, ice cream and more. And even though one might be more stable than the other, things can still go wrong. The below suggestions can help you fix a caramel sauce regardless of the way it was made!

My caramel sauce is too thick


Add extra water to thin the sauce out. Do this while the sauce is warm to ensure it gets incorporated properly.
Keep in mind that butter sets when it cools down. It’s a reason why many sauces thicken when they cool. You could add a little less butter, but that will also give a less creamy sauce.
Next time you make it, cook the sauce for less long to evaporate less water.

My caramel sauce keeps on turning grainy


This is probably because of sugar that crystallizes. You can fix it by reheating the sauce and redissolving the sauce. However, you can also prevent it from happening by adding a little corn/glucose syrup. The syrup prevents the preliminary crystallization of sugar. keeping it smooth.

Another great way to prevent the sauce from turning grainy is by adding a little acid during cooking. The acid causes some of the sugar to break down – into invert sugar. This makes it less prone to crystallization. However, don’t add too much or it will taste very sour!
Image below: This caramel sauce was made with sucrose + acid. Because of the added acid, this caramel sauce did not crystallize, not even after several weeks of storage.caramel sauce made with sucrose + acid

My caramel sauce split!


Caramel sauces need some fat to become luscious and creamy. However, fat and water don’t mix well and have a tendency to split. Adding cow’s milk can help prevent this from happening. The milk acts as an emulsifier, keeping the two mixed.

If you’re using butter and cream, these fats will turn solid once they cool down to room temperature. Once they are set, they won’t separate from the water as easily anymore. By stirring regularly during cooling, you can keep them mixed until they can no longer separate.

Which method do you want to give a try for making your next caramel sauce? We’ve got three basic recipes for you to get started with your own experiments!

caramel sauce 4 ways

Caramel Sauce - 3 ways

Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 35 minutes

You can make caramel sauce in countless ways. However, most recipes will use a process similar to one of the three recipes we give here. These three are all great starting points to making your own caramel sauce.

Ingredients

Method 1: Mix & Cook

  • 100g brown sugar
  • 45g butter
  • 60g whole cream

Method 2: Caramelize

  • 100g white sugar (do NOT use brown sugar*)
  • 30ml water
  • juice of 0,5 lime (optional**)
  • 45g butter
  • 60g whole cream

Method 3: Maillard

  • 100g sugar
  • 100g oat milk***
  • 45g butter
  • 1 tbsp corn syrup

Instructions

Method 1: Mix

  1. Add all ingredients to a pot and gently bring to a boil.
  2. Continue cooking until the sauce is 105°C (221°F).
  3. Take from the heat and pour into a bowl to cool down. Stir regularly to prevent it from splitting. Best used within a couple of hours.
  4. This caramel is quite prone to crystallization, it can even crystallize within a few days. If that happens, gently reheat the caramel to re-dissolve the sugar.

Method 2: Caramelization

  1. Add sugar, water and lime juice (if using) to a pot and gently bring to a boil.
  2. Stir to help dissolve all the sugar.
  3. Once all the sugar is dissolved, turn up the heat and continue cooking. Try to refrain from stirring, but keep a close eye, things can move quickly!
  4. Continue to heat until the caramel has turned a nice brown color, turn the heat down to low, and immediately add the butter. Stir to melt the butter.
  5. Add the cream and continue to stir and heat until it has come back to a boil.
  6. Turn off the heat and pour into a bowl to cool down.

Method 3: Maillard reaction

  1. Add the sugar, milk, and corn syrup to a pot.
  2. Gently bring to a boil and cook until it has turned a nice dark brown color, we cooked it to 135°C (275°F).
  3. Turn down the heat and add the butter. Stir to melt all the butter.
  4. Continue cooking until the sauce has reached 105°C (221°F). If it didn't cool down enough with the butter, add some water to cool it down further.
  5. Turn off the heat and pour into a bowl to cool down.

Notes

All of these caramel sauces are very shelf stable. They contain a lot of sugar which prevents the growth of microorganisms. Ours could be stored in airtight containers, at room temperature for a couple of weeks. However, the exact shelf life of your caramel sauce will depend on your local circumstances and the exact recipe you followed.

*Brown sugar won't caramelize, instead, it will burn!

**The lime juice may make the caramel a little acidic. However, it does greatly help in making a caramel sauce that doesn't crystallize!

***Don't use cow's milk here, it will make a caramel sauce that is a lot thicker, probably too thick.

Newsletter Updates

Enter your email address below to subscribe to our weekly newsletter

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Skip to Recipe