What is caramel?

9 Jun 2020

Food + Drink Gift Ideas

At Hotel Chocolat, we just can’t get enough of caramel, which is why we’ve dipped into the caramel world to find out more about this sweet treat.

What do you think of when you picture caramel? Is it the oozing, gooey kind which runs down your chin as you bite through a caramel chocolate? Maybe it’s the chewy sort, sticking your teeth together with each bite. Or is it the more delicate and refined type you see adorning lavish cakes in the window of a bakery?

One of the beauties of caramel is that it is incredibly versatile. Caramel can be anything from a crunchy butterscotch, to a solid toffee which can be sucked on for hours. We break down everything you need to know about caramel; from its early origins, to how you can make it, and more importantly, how you can eat it! Hopefully, the only sticky situations you run into when making caramel is the sort which coats your fingers after trying some of the cooled mixture!

Where does caramel come from?

Before we take a look at what caramel is, it’s important to dip into the rich history of this lavish indulgence. The history surrounding caramel is certainly not straight-forward: some believe that the Arabs were the first to discover caramel around 1000AD in the form of “kurat al milh” or “sweet ball of salt”, which was allegedly made by crystallising sugar in boiling water to achieve a hard and crunchy sort of sweet.

However, there still needs to be further research done into the origin of caramel – considering that refined sugar was incredibly expensive and rare in the Middle Ages, it is unlikely that caramel became popular in Europe until the 19th century, when widespread consumption of refined sugar was more accessible due to the cheaper prices it sold for. 

You might be surprised to know that one of the first large-scale manufacturers of caramel in the US was Hershey’s during the mid 1800s. Although this company is now better known for its chocolate, Milton Hershey’s first company was called Lancaster Caramel Company, and sold caramels throughout America.

Exactly how caramel evolved within the UK remains open to discussion. However, us Brits can’t get enough of the stuff, which is why so many home cooks have taken to trying to boil up their own homemade caramel.

What are the ingredients in caramel?

The most basic form of caramel calls for only caster sugar to be used, which is then heated until it melts. This results in a runny, amber-coloured liquid, which hardens quickly once cooled. Because it is so brittle, sugar caramel isn’t really the sort you’d find nestled in a box of caramels. Instead, many cake decorators use it to make spun sugar decorations, creating shapes and patterns out of the molten caramel sugar before it hardens. 

For the type of caramel which is velvety and creamy, additional ingredients need to be added. Cream and butter are often added to create a creamier consistency, preventing the caramel from turning into a frangible substance. Although it is optional, some recipes also call for the addition of salt to cut through the sweetness, but if you’re not a fan of salted caramel then feel free to leave this out, or only use a delicate sprinkling.

However, if you’re short on time or don’t quite have the confidence to make homemade caramel from scratch, the cheat’s option combines sweetened condensed milk with butter and water for an easy, fail-safe caramel which still tastes delicious: simply melt all ingredients down on a low heat until the sugar caramelises and it turns a rich golden colour.

How do you make caramel?

With so many different types of caramel, you’ll have to change your recipe to fit the type you’re after! Maybe you’ll add cream and butter for the smooth runny kind, perfect for filling chocolates or using as a dip, like with our Salted Caramel Little Dipper. Or if you’re looking for a crunchy crackle to decorate a cake then simple sugar is all you’ll need!

To make your homemade caramel from scratch, then you’ll need to grab a sugar thermometer to achieve the best results. Sugar starts to melt at around 135°C without colouring. At 170°C the sugar begins the caramelisation process, going from a light golden hue to a rich amber shade. As the sugar can catch very quickly, you’ll need to keep a close eye on it to ensure it doesn’t burn.

To make a simple sugar caramel for decorations, there are two different methods you can choose from:

  • The dry method – this requires that you simply heat sugar in a dry pan until it liquifies and turns brown. Never stir your mixture, as this could result in crystalisation, ruining your caramel. Instead, gently swirl your pan (a wide-set base works best) to achieve an even melt
  • The wet method – this requires the addition of water, following the ratio of two parts sugar, one part water. Whether you stir your mixture with a spoon or shake your pan is still up for debate, but if you do choose to stir then make sure you don’t stop until your caramel is ready

For a smoother caramel which can be used as a spread or sauce, cream and butter need to be added to achieve that glossy, velvety consistency. After your sugar has melted, mix in the butter and cook for a few minutes, before slowly pouring in your double cream and mixing again.

If you want to make salted caramel, add your salt at the same time – a pinch or two should do the trick. Depending on how thick you want your caramel to be, you can either remove it from the heat straight away for a runny consistency, perfect for drizzling over a decadent brownie, or keep it cooking for a little longer for a thicker, more spreadable consistency.

What is the difference between caramel, toffee and butterscotch?

Caramel, toffee and butterscotch are made up of pretty similar ingredients, which is why we think that toffee and butterscotch holds a rightful place under the caramel bracket. Although the ingredients may be similar, caramel, toffee and butterscotch each carry their own unique texture and taste.

Toffee

Toffee is a much thicker version of caramel, and has that chewy texture which sticks to your teeth.

To achieve this, toffee must be heated to the ‘hard crack’ stage at a temperature of roughly 160°C, and toffee can also include an additional ingredient called light corn syrup, which is cooked alongside the sugar. After you’ve added all ingredients, your toffee mixture must be cooked substantially longer than caramel to create a thick consistency once cooled.

Butterscotch

Butterscotch has a darker colour and also imparts a rich, subtly fruit flavour, similar to that of molasses.

To whip up a butterscotch sauce, the process is fairly similar to that of caramel, the only difference being the type of sugar you used. Butterscotch uses brown sugar, rather than the caster or granulated sugar used in caramel. 

Is caramel easy to make?

If you’re using the cheat’s method of heating condensed milk and butter to make caramel, then it should be relatively easy to make – just keep a close eye on the thickness and make sure nothing catches. However, if you’re making a butter caramel, toffee or butterscotch then it gets a bit more technical.

The best way to achieve successful results is to use a sugar thermometer, which can be bought for a relatively low cost in most shops. Whatever type of caramel you make, never take your eye off it: the high sugar content means it is more likely to burn, even after you’ve added your additional ingredients.

Arguably the hardest caramel to make is a seemingly simple sugar caramel. This is because crystalisation is most likely to occur in a pure solution, and because the mixture contains sugar only it can catch and burn within seconds. However, there are ways to make your life a little easier if you fancy trying your hand at the sugar caramel method:

  • If you’re opting for the wet caramel method (sugar and water) then you need to be wary that crystalisation is still very likely to occur. When the sugar and water boils, sugar can splash onto the wall of the pot, quickly evaporating and turning into a crystal. If one of these crystals falls back into the mixture, it can trigger a chain reaction, resulting in a grainy and crunchy mixture. To avoid this, halfway through the caramelisation process wash the sides of your pan with a damp pastry brush to dissolve any sugar crystals on the wall. You can also oil the sides of the pan before you start to prevent sugar from sticking at all.
  • Add another ingredient to the sugar and water: corn syrup, which is mainly glucose, reduces the chances of a chain crystallisation reaction. Acidic ingredients such as a few drops of lemon juice, vinegar and cream of tartar also work to prevent crystallisation by breaking some of the sucrose into its fructose and glucose components.
  • Have a bowl of ice cold water ready to ensure your caramel mixture doesn’t go from being an amber coloured liquid to a burnt bitter dark colour. When the desired colour is reached, submerge the bottom of the pan in the cold water to prevent any further cooking of the caramel.
  • Avoid dark coloured pots, such as cast iron or anodized aluminum – this can hide the colour of the caramel as it changes so that you won’t be able to see when it’s ready to take off the heat.

What can you do with caramel?

As you might have guessed, caramel is incredibly versatile in its uses. Caramel can take many different forms: thickly smothered on bread or crumpets, like our Pecan & Salted Caramel Chocolate Spread, nibbled on with crunchy nuts with our Dark Chocolate Salted Caramelised Almonds, or simply enjoyed straight out of a box of caramel chocolates.

If you fancy yourself a bit of a dab hand at baking, then incorporate some caramel into your next culinary creation for an extra decadent treat. Butterscotch sauce can be whipped with cream to create an indulgent icing, butter caramel can be spread onto shortbread and topped with chocolate to create a mouth-watering millionaire’s shortbread, and toffee pieces can be shopped up and used as a delicious decorative piece.

If you want to enjoy the lavish flavours of caramel, but don’t have time to whip up something of your own, our caramel chocolate selection lets you enjoy deep and mellow high-cocoa chocolate with the most sumptuous caramel tastes.

We tried to go one better than a millionaire’s shortbread by making it the trillionaire type: hazelnut praline, butter caramel and nibbly pieces makes this caramel chocolate a star. We’ve reminaged the classic banoffee pie into a chocolate slab form, so that you can break a few pieces off and enjoy the naturally sweet tastes of banana enriched with caramel and 40% milk chocolate.

hotel chocolat millionaire shortbread with caramel and milk chocolate
Our Trillionaire Shortbread Selector

Although caramel might seem like a tricky thing to get right, there’s no harm in attempting to make it yourself. Floor friends and family members with your own caramel creations – we’re sure you’ll be a master of caramel in no time! If you need some caramel inspiration, browse our caramel chocolate range to discover what flavours work well with caramel – you might be surprised at what you find!