How to make great caramel (2024)

Making caramel can be tricky, but – as the recipe below more than demonstrates – it's worth it. From classic creme caramel to chilli dipping sauces, This bittersweet syrup gives a complex edge to cooking, and that delectable crunch that sweet-tooths adore. There's no need for a thermometer, just a watchful eye and a little know-how.

Types of caramel
There are two basicmethods of making caramel – dry and wet – each have pros and cons. Dry caramel is simply sugar, melted and cooked to a deep gold colour. It's quick to make, but easy to burn. A "wet" caramel uses water and sugar; it cooks more slowly, but is prone to crystallising.

How to make great caramel (1)

Sometimes, as syrup boils, sugar starts to form back into crystals, which turn hard and cloudy. Crystallisation can be caused by stirring, or a grain of something other than sugar getting into the pan, or often just bad luck. The good news is that adding a little acid, such as lemon juice or cream of tartar, helps it stay fluid. Swirling instead of stirring, and also washing the inside of the pan with water, can prevent crystals forming. More on this later.

Equipment and ingredients
Molten sugar is seriously hot, so have all your equipment to hand with no distractions. I like to use a large, deep nonstick frying pan for dry caramel, but a normal, deep, heavy-based pan is fine. The latter is best for wet carameltoo. Have a jug of cold water, a heatproof pastry brush and a metal spoon ready for wet caramel-making. Palette knives and spreading surfaces should be lightly oiled, or the caramel will stick. The ingredients are simple; white caster sugar melts more quickly and easily, and shows the caramelisation process clearly.

How to make great caramel (2)

Making wet caramel
Put the sugar into the pan with enough water to dampen it all over. Gently dissolve the sugar, without boiling, until every grain has disappeared. Stir any stubborn patches with the metal spoon without splashing. Once clear, add a drop of lemon juice or pinch of cream of tartar, then bring to a boil.

Dab the wet pastry brush around the pan so that the water runs into the syrup. Repeat a few times as it boils, until the syrup begins to thicken and change colour. Swirl until the caramel is even and golden. Try drizzling it over creme brulee instead of using a blowtorch.

How to make great caramel (3)

Making dry caramel
Put the sugar into a pan over a medium heat and leave it till the edges start to liquefy. Resist the almost unbearable urge to stir. It will melt unevenly at first, but have faith.Once there are larger patches of molten sugar, swirl the pan, dragging the dry sugar into the wet, until even. Add nuts straight into the pan for praline, then pour on to an oiled tray to set, or add butter and double cream for a silkysauce.

In both methods, the heat within the saucepan can continue cooking the caramel. To avoid scorching, take the pan from the hob just before the caramel has reached the desired colour, then let the residual heat finish the job. Now pour the caramel straight away, or cool the pan quickly. Either add liquid as your recipe dictates (take care as it will bubble up), or put the base of the pan into a bowl of cold water. Both are dramatic, but effective. When you've finished, fill the cooled pan with water and simmer away any stuck-on caramel to make washing up easy.

Burnt sugar bundt cake with caramel rum icing

How to make great caramel (4)

The burnt sugar in this cake adds a nice caramel flavour, and the coconut milk gives it a terrific moist crumb.

For the burnt sugar liquid
115g granulated sugar
125ml double cream
190ml coconut milk
1½ tbsp fresh lemon juice

For the bundt cake
350g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp salt
280g unsalted butter cut into 3cm cubes, at room temperature
100g granulated sugar
4 large eggs
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
Burnt sugar liquid (see above)

For the caramel rum icing
110g unsalted butter
2 tbsp dark rum
300g icing sugar
Burnt sugar liquid (see above)

1 To make the burnt sugar liquid, slowly melt the sugar in a medium saucepan over a medium heat. When the sugar turns a dark caramel colour, remove the pan from the heat and slowly and carefully stream in the cream while stirring (don't worry if the mixture starts to clump). Return the pan to the heat and stir until completely combined. Cook for 2 minutes longer, stirring.

2 Transfer the burnt caramel mixture to a heatproof measuring cup and add enough coconut milk to make 300ml liquid. Add the lemon juice. Whisk to combine, divide the mixture in half, and set both portions aside.

3 To make the bundt cake, preheat the oven to 160C/325F/gas mark 3. Butter and flour the inside of a 25cm bundt pan, knocking out the excess flour. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and salt. Set aside.

4 Beat the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating until each is incorporated. Add the vanilla and beat again.

5 Add the flour mixture to one of the portions of burnt sugar liquid in three parts, alternating with the burnt sugar, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl and beat again for 10 seconds. Pour the batter into the prepared tin and bake for 45-50 minutes, or until a small sharp knife inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean. Transfer the tin to a wire rack to cool completely. Gently loosen the sides of the cake from the tin and turn it out on to the rack.

6 To make the icing, put the butter, rum, icing sugar, and remaining portion of burnt sugar liquid in a food processor. Pulse in short bursts until the icing is shiny and smooth.

7 To assemble the cake, use a spatula to spread the icing over the crown of the bundt in a thick layer and serve. The cake will keep in an airtight container, at room temperature, for up to 3 days.

Jane Hornby is the author of What to Cook and How to Cook It (Phaidon). To order a copy for £18.49 (RRP £24.95), visit or call 0330 333 6846. RECIPE FROM Baked Explorations and Baked Elements by Matt Lewis & Renato Poliafito are both available from Stewart Tabori & Chang

How to make great caramel (2024)
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