Caramel: By Way of Introduction

Friday, September 14, 2007

Hello, and welcome to my new cooking blog.

For a long time I've run my other blog and merely sat back as a passive reader of other food blogs, posting the occasional comment. At some point I realized my catch-all blog was more and more just about food, but it wasn't really a cooking blog, so I hesitated to really go more in-depth than, "I made this, and it was good."

No longer.

I picked the name Caramel Cook because, as a child, the thing my taste buds remember most fondly were the Christmas caramels my Dad always made, with the peculiar recipe handed down in his family, using strange substances like Milnot. Every year at Christmas-time I ate as much of that stuff as I could get away with. It was smooth, rich, sweet, but not cloying. The caramel flavors were intense and complex. Some years it tasted almost like fruit, with notes of cantaloupe. Some years it was more like molasses. Every year, it was heavenly. And so my love of caramel was born. Some people identify as "chocoholics." I appreciate good chocolate, but I think it's at its best when it's a vehicle for caramel.

That said, I'm certainly not going to talk exclusively about caramels, or even confections. Of course, caramel's more complicated than that: It's not just a candy. It's also a basic ingredient and a technique, all rolled up into one. Caramel plays a role in everything from creme brulee to dal toppings. And as versatile as caramel is, so is this blog. It's just Caramel Cook because, well, that happens to be one of my favorite things to eat.

I figured my very first post ought to be pretty exclusively about caramel, though. Conveniently enough, I wanted to make the site header image out of actual caramel, and so needed to make a pan. Two birds, one stone: Here's how that went.

I started with a basic caramel. With caramel, the basic process is the same, no matter how interesting your caramel. You cook the dairy a bit, you mix in the sugar, you cook to a particular temperature, and then you're done.

In the case of this recipe, because it uses granular sugar, you cook it down with water separately. Here are the two saucepans: the one on the right with the dairy and salt, already brought to a boil and now staying warm, and the one on the left with the sugar mix not yet fully dissolved.

Caramel

As the sugar fully dissolves, crystallization starts to become a concern. We stop stirring the solution to stop smearing it up the sides of the pan, where it'll dry and crystallize, and instead gently swish it around. Furthermore, it's helpful to have a pastry brush and small dish of water; brushing water up the sides of the pans will dissolve the crystals and keep the caramel smooth. Furthermore, it does no damage to the caramel: if we poured in a lot of ice water, it would shock and disturb the fragile solution, but tiny amounts of room-temperature water are absorbed into the caramel with no ill effects.

The day I spent the $6 on a silicone pastry brush, my caramel-making became much more pleasant. No more goopy sugary bristle brushes to clean up afterwards!

Caramel

In this recipe it's really up to us how long we cook the sugar solution before adding the dairy. The key is this: caramel's flavor comes substantially from browning reactions, but which browning reactions? There's sugar and there's dairy. A quick glance at Nina's neat temperature chart over at SweetNapa shows us that sweetened condensed milk begins browning at 212F, whereas sucrose doesn't caramelize until 320F. If that's true, now's our only chance to get sugar-browning, because once we add the dairy, we can't cook it higher than around 250F if we want it to stay chewy when it cools.

Indeed, we can confirm this first-hand: our sugar solution doesn't begin to change color until it gets very hot, as you can see here with the aid of my handy IR thermometer (no doubt the subject of a future post, I love it so much):

Caramel

I like to let the sugar cook up that hot because I think it adds some extra complexity to the caramel to get some browning from the sugar and not solely the dairy. That said, it makes things a bit more, uh, exciting when we add the dairy, because the sugar solution is so hot that it very quickly boils the dairy mixture and froths and foams and expands dramatically. There's another important lesson: always use a large saucepan for caramel. Scorching-hot caramel boiling over and gushing all over your stovetop would be at best a giant nuisance, and at worst extremely dangerous.

Caramel

If you've made it this far, all that's left is to cook the caramel to the right temperature and then stop it there. Still, easier said than done, sometimes. If you're not totally comfortable with your thermometer, and especially if you're relying solely on the cold-water test (though, really, you'd have to be very brave, very talented, or very foolish to make candy without a thermometer), keep the heat on medium-low, enough that the temperature will continue rising, but not quickly. Being caught by surprise by a rapid rise in temperature is nearly a guarantee of ruined caramel.

Oh, yeah. A note on cookware: I recommend using thin-bottomed pans to cook caramel. Why?

I have pretty lousy pans. I'd love it if I had a beautiful copper saucepan for making caramel, but I don't. My saucepans are either thick-bottomed aluminum core steel pans from Target or thin, flimsy stainless steel things from God-knows-where. At first, I used the thick-bottomed pans when making caramel to distribute the heat better, but after taking the caramel off the heat, the thick bottom of the pan had so much heat stored up that it'd cook the caramel up another 5 degrees or more -- disaster! I worked around that by pouring the caramel out of the pan immediately when it was done, which is fine if it's just going into a parchment-lined baking pan to be cut into candies, but can be a hassle if it isn't. Actually, no, it's a hassle either way. When you're making caramel you don't need any extra reasons to feel hurried.

Lo and behold, I tried using my flimsy stainless steel pans instead, and found that the heat distribution wasn't really a problem and that they worked very well.

Caramel has a relatively high specific heat, and doesn't scorch on the pan bottom as easily as something like plain milk. As long as you keep stirring it, the heat distribution isn't as critical as it is for most other things. Fundamentally, you're not cooking it for terribly long, anyway. And it's a big help with caramel to use pans that respond quickly to changes in temperature.

Here's the caramel, approaching completion:

Caramel

As you can see, the dairy browns quite a bit at those low temperatures, so now we've got some sugar-browning flavors and some dairy-browning flavors in there. Delicious.

If you want the caramels to be solid, chewy candies, you probably want to cook them into the firm-ball stage, which is 245F-250F (again, see the cold water test chart.) If you live in a warmer climate, like them especially chewy, or need them to hold their shape impeccably, aim for the top of that range, or maybe even a degree or two above -- 252F or so.

In my case, I wanted a thick syrup that I could put in a squeeze bottle to draw letters, so I cooked it to 235F, right between thread-stage and soft-ball stage, so it would be about the consistency of very soft fudge, or very thick syrup.

And it worked out perfectly! I lettered the header with the caramel, and ornamented it with sugar, dyed blue, and sifted over a stencil:

Caramel

... and then I ate it.

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6 Comments:

At September 15, 2007 6:40 AM , Blogger steph said...

Sometimes the lengths you take to create something (like the caramel header) are scary. Scary, yet impressive. In any case, I like your new blog, and it will hopefully help me start cooking more complex meals. Nice job!

 
At September 15, 2007 9:10 PM , Blogger Lulu said...

Are you going to end all your posts that way?

 
At September 20, 2007 9:30 PM , Anonymous Nina said...

Huh, I tried posting a comment here a couple days ago, but I guess it didn't go through.

Oh well, it was basically -- great, detailed post about one of my favorite subjects, and welcome to the world of food blogging!

 
At October 1, 2007 7:22 AM , Anonymous clumsy said...

Hello! What a great new foodblog, I'm very excited to become a reader! Your pictures and posts are fantastic. :)

 
At March 17, 2009 1:25 PM , Blogger So Simple said...

Hi Just found you. I wanted some caramel tips I was making a gastrique which necessitated making caramel but I had the crystallizing problem. I did have a Teflon brush, so will have another go again today and try it. Thanks. The recipe I made was a mushroom Tatin. Even with the crystallizing it was pretty good. I will be posting it today if you would like to take a look.
Cheers

 
At October 27, 2009 11:20 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I cooked my caramel to long is there anything I can do with it now? Besides pull teeth out?

 

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