How to Caramelize Sugar

The process of how to caramelize sugar is quite a simple one and is the start of many dessert sauces and candies. The technique may seem daunting at first, but once you get the hang of it it will open the door to many new recipes to master! 

Pot of sugar caramelizing

The process of caramelizing sugar feels like pure magic. Snowy white sugar granules are heated either solo or mixed with water and those crystals quickly become a liquid that starts to completely change in color and flavor. Caramelized sugar resembles nothing of its original state and the final result opens the doors to endless uses.

Caramelized sugar is used in everything from caramel sauces, candies, topping flan, ice creams, frostings, and so many more things! It’s even used for savory preparations such as the sweet and sour gastrique sauce.

The process for how to caramelize sugar can seem daunting, but I promise you it really isn’t. There is all kind of chemistry and science happening during the process, but I’m going to break it down for you and keep it really simple so you can approach this process with confidence!

Bowl of granulated sugar

What is Sugar?

The white granulated sugar most common in baking is a molecule known as sucrose. Sucrose is contained in all plants and is found in very high quantities in sugar cane and sugar beets. Therefore, these are the plants where most of our granulated sugar is derived from.

Sucrose is actually made up of two different kinds of simple sugars, fructose and glucose, that are bonded together. This bond is very stable and is what forms the sugar crystals.

Pot of sugar syrup boiling on its way to caramelizing.

The Stages of Sugar Syrup

When sugar is combined with water and heat is applied a solution known as a simple syrup is formed. As the temperature of the sugar rises, more water evaporates off resulting in a higher concentration of sugar in the solution. The higher the concentration of sugar, the more brittle the cooled syrup is. This is important knowledge in candy making, as certain sugar concentrations are needed for various final products.

Below is a chart mapping out the various stages sugar syrup goes through before it reaches caramelization.

SUGAR SYRUP STAGESTEMPERATURE FAHRENHEITTEMPERATURE CELSIUSUSES
The Thread Stage215-230°F102-113°CSyrups, Preserves
The Soft Ball Stage240°F115°CFondant, Fudge
The Firm Ball Stage245°F118°CCaramel Candies
The Hard Ball Stage250-260°F122-127°CMarshmallows, Nougat
The Soft Crack Stage270-290°F132-143°CTaffy
The Hard Crack300-310°F149-154°CButterscotch, Brittle

Pot of caramelized sugar

Caramelizing Sugar

When high heat is applied to sugar it begins to discompose and become a liquid. When sugar is heated even further it begins to turn darker in color and tastes nuttier in flavor. This process is called caramelization and is the basic process used to start many candy recipes and dessert sauces.

There are two basic methods used for caramelizing sugar: The Dry Method and The Wet Method. If done properly, both methods achieve the same end result, but both have their advantages and disadvantages. It really is a matter of preference.

The Wet Method

The wet method is what I recommend for those who are brand new to the caramel making process. The benefit of the wet method is that it slows down the caramelization process and makes it more difficult to burn the sugar. The disadvantage of the wet method is that you are more at risk of re-crystallizing the sugar and you must be much more careful to not agitate the mixture too much.

The process of making wet caramelized sugar is very simple. Sugar is combined with water and heated. The mixture should be stirred together until the sugar is completely saturated and beginning to dissolve. Once the sugar/water mixture comes to a boil it is then left alone to cook, without stirring it. The mixture will go through all of the sugar syrup stages listed above and then will move further into caramelization. As the water continues to evaporate off and the heat of the sugar rises, the sugar begins to caramelize.

The Dry Method for Caramelizing Sugar

The dry method for making caramelized sugar is also very simple, but has its advantages and disadvantages. The major advantage to the dry method is that the caramelization process happens very quickly. The major disadvantage to the dry method is, well, the caramelization process happens very quickly, meaning it can also burn quickly. The other advantage of the dry method is that it is not quite as at risk for re-crystallizing as it is with the wet method.

The process of making dry caramelized sugar requires just one ingredient: sugar! In a heavy bottom sauce pan, sprinkle a thin layer of sugar over the bottom and turn on medium heat. You do not want to dump all of your sugar in at once, just start with a thin layer. As the sugar starts to melt, sprinkle more sugar over the layer that is melting. Using a spoon or a spatula, gently drag the un-melted sugar into the melted sugar. You are at less risk of re-crystallizing the sugar with this method but you still do not want to stir aggressively.

Showing the color contrast between the stages of caramel

The Stages of Caramelized Sugar

Once most all of the water is evaporated off (even if you use the dry method sugar does contain some water that will evaporate off), the sugar moves into the caramelization stages. A candy thermometer can be used to measure the exact temperature of the caramelized sugar, but your eyes and nose are your best tools to judge when it is ready. Stay close by and watch the process of your sugar caramelizing very closely. Once it starts to brown it can move from nutty and rich to black and bitter very quickly.

Baking Science Fact: Granulated sugar is a very simple bond of glucose and fructose. As heat is applied to the sugar this bond breaks and the two molecules separate out. As even more heat is applied, these molecules begin forming bonds with countless other molecules and the ending result is the complex flavored brown liquid known as caramelized sugar.

CARAMEL STAGESTEMPERATURE FAHRENHEITTEMPERATURE CELSIUSUSES
Light Caramel340°F170°CFor Syrups, Light Caramel Color, Adds Flavor
Medium Caramel355-360°F180-182°CSpun Sugar, Sugar Cages, Medium Caramel Syrup
Dark Caramel375-380°F188-190°CIce Creams, Caramel Sauce
Black Caramel392°F200°CCaramel coloring
Burnt CaramelAnything over 392°FAnything over 200°CCompletely burnt and unusable for anything
Caramel Sauce made with caramelized sugar

Caramel Sauce made with medium/dark caramelized sugar

Safety Tips

When cooking sugar you are working with very high temperatures and a substance that is very sticky and can easily cling to skin. Please use caution. I’m not here to scare you into not trying to work with sugar, because honestly it is not a scary process! But I do want to urge you to use caution. As someone who tends to lick the spoon when cooking, I urge you to use restraint during the cooked sugar process!

Here are a few easy safety tips to put your mind at ease when working with cooked sugar:

  1. Keep a large bowl of ice water nearby. If by some chance you happen to get sugar splattered on your hand, you can quickly dunk it in the ice water.
  2. Use a larger pan than you think you need. When I am making a small batch of caramel sauce (about 1 cup), I use a sauce pan that is 3 quarts. You definitely do not want to use small pans when working with bubbling sugar.
  3. Use a spoon or spatula with a long handle. You do not want to use anything with a short handle here, especially if you are going to be adding cream or another liquid to your caramelized sugar. The addition of a cooler liquid to your boiling sugar will cause an increased amount of bubbling and steam once it is added to the pan.
  4. Stay close-by and mentally present. When working with molten hot sugar it is best not to wander away or be distracted by your phone. The process can happen quickly so continue to be mentally present so you can be aware of what is happening and do not feel frantic when the sugar begins caramelizing.

Required Equipment

The process of cooking sugar is quite simple and depending on what you are making exactly, you may or may not need certain equipment. Below is a list of equipment you definitely need when cooking sugar for any use as well as additional equipment you may need depending on what the sugar will be used for.

Heavy Gauge Metal Pot, Required: Required for any of the cooked sugar uses. The heavier the pot, the more evenly the sugar will cook. If you are making something that requires adding liquid into caramelized sugar, such as caramel sauce, than you need it to be much larger than the amount you are making because it will bubble quite a bit once the liquid is added. Non-stick or coated pans are not recommended for cooking sugar as the sugar can pull the coating off the pan.

Candy Thermometer, Highly Recommended: If you are cooking sugar syrup for candies, a candy thermometer is extremely useful for accurate temperature. Various kinds of candies call for the syrup to be at different stages and the thermometer is setting you up for success. If you are simply making caramel sauce, you can get away without using a thermometer. You can rely on your eyes and nose as well as approximate timing to get it right. However, certain caramel creations such as soft caramel candy as well as caramel to coat apples require more accuracy with the final temperature.

Long Handled Spoon or Spatula, Highly Recommended: A spoon or spatula with a long handle is highly recommended, especially if you are going to be stirring liquid into your caramelized sugar to make caramel sauce. If you do not have a utensil with a long handle, consider wearing long sleeves and an oven mitt or gloves while working with the sugar to be extra safe.

Pastry Brush, Optional: Many cooked sugar recipes swear by the fact that you MUST brush down the side of the pan with a pastry brush. I would argue that I have never once done this with any of the caramelization endeavors and have not had any problems. Instead, simply take care to keep the sugar in the bottom of the pan. If you are using the wet method of caramelizing your sugar than know that you CAN stir it before the sugar is dissolved. Do not be scared to do that. Many recipes harp that you can not ever stir it and this is simply not true. Make sure all of the crystals are off of the side of the pan and dissolving in the water. This eliminates the need for the pastry brush.


Now that you understand all the basics of caramelizing sugar, come back Thursday for my tutorial on making Caramel Sauce for dipping  and coating apples! Caramelizing sugar leads to really wonderful things!

How to Caramelize Sugar

Caramelized sugar can be achieved through two different methods: The Dry Method & The Wet Method. This “recipe” details each method for How to Make Caramelized Sugar to use in any recipe calling for it.

Ingredients:

For the Wet Caramelized Sugar Method

  • 1 cup (7 oz, 196 gr) granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup (4 fl oz,  118 ml) water

For the Dry Caramelized Sugar Method

  • 1 cup (7 oz, 198 gr) granulated sugar

Directions:

For the Wet Caramelized Sugar Method

  1. In a heavy gauge metal pot, at least 3 quarts in size, combine the sugar and the water and stir. Make sure there are no sugar granules on the side of the pot. If desired, you can use a damp pastry brush to brush down the sides of the pot to get all of the sugar crystals into the mixture.
  2. Turn the burner on to medium heat. Stir some at the beginning to make sure that all of the sugar is dissolving. Once the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is beginning to bubble, stop stirring.
  3. Let the sugar and water cook together. The syrup will move through the various sugar stages as the water evaporates and will eventually begin to caramelize. You can gently swirl the pan to achieve even caramelization.
  4. Watch the pan closely as the process moves quickly. Remove the pan from the heat as soon as your caramelized sugar has reached its desired color.

For the Dry Method

  1. In a heavy gauge metal pot, at least 3 quarts in size, sprinkle a thin layer of sugar over the bottom of the pan.
  2. Turn the burner on to medium heat. Watching very closely, allow the sugar begin to melt. As it becomes liquid, sprinkle more granulated sugar over the melting sugar until it has all been added.
  3. Use a rubber spatula to gently drag the granules of sugar into the liquid sugar. Do not aggressively stir but gently move the sugar around to achieve even cooking.
  4. The sugar will begin to caramelize very quickly once it melts. You can turn the heat down to slow the process down.
  5. Remove the pan from the heat as soon as your caramelized sugar has reached its desired color.

Use your caramelized sugar in your desired recipe. Pure caramelized sugar, like this, will harden very quickly so work quickly to use it in your recipe.

Recipe Notes:

Your eyes and your nose are your best tools for measuring when your caramelized sugar has reached its desired color. However, you can use a candy thermometer for more accuracy.

  • Light Caramel (For Syrups, Light Caramel Color): 340°F/170°C
  • Medium Caramel (For Spun Sugar, Sugar Cages, Medium Caramel Syrup): 355-360°F/180-182°C
  • Dark Caramel (For Ice Creams, Caramel Sauce, Caramel Candies): 375-380°F/188-190°C
  • Black Caramel (Used as Caramel Coloring)392°F/200°C
  • Burnt Caramel (Not usable, throw out and start over): Anything over 392°F/200°C

Advantages of The Wet Method: Easier to control the caramelization process, less chance of burning.

Disadvantages of The Wet Method: Takes longer to caramelize, more risk of re-crystallization

Advantages of The Dry Method: Very quick process, less risk of re-crystallization

Disadvantages of The Dry Method: More difficult to control, more risk of burning

All images and text ©.
The process of how to caramelize sugar is quite a simple one and is the start of many dessert sauces and candies. The technique may seem daunting at first, but once you get the hang of it it will open the door to many new recipes to master! 

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