Learn the easy process of how to make caramel sauce with only four ingredients and less than 20 minutes! This sauce can be used as a dip, an ice cream topping, or a coating for caramel apples, and so much more!
Did you know that making caramel sauce is super simple? Like really, really simple. Like 4 ingredient simple? Seriously!
A basic caramel sauce can be made in under 20 minutes and only requires granulated sugar, water, heavy cream, and salt! This is the real deal caramel sauce and you are going to want to make it all the time! Let’s do this!
How to Make Caramel Sauce
On Tuesday, I went over all of the details about How to Caramelize Sugar. This is the first step in the caramel sauce making process. There are two methods for caramelizing sugar: The Dry Method where only sugar goes into a pan and is cooked, and The Wet Method where the sugar is cooked with water. For better control during this process, the caramel sauce starts with the wet method of caramelizing sugar.
Melting the Sugar with Water
Add sugar and water into a heavy gauge saucepan and turn on medium heat. At this point you can stir. In fact, you should stir to make sure all of the sugar is coated with the water and none of it is hanging out on the sides of the pan.
The sugar will dissolve into the water as it heats up and starts boiling. At this point you have what is called a simple syrup.
Caramelizing the Sugar
Once the mixture starts boiling, the water begins to evaporate off and the sugar begins caramelizing. This process happens extremely quickly so you definitely don’t want to wander off from the pot.
Do not stir during this part of the process as you risk re-crystallization of your sugar which would result in a gritty texture in your sauce. Let it bubble away on the stove and watch it start to turn brown. If you notice that some parts of the mixture are browning more quickly than others, you can gently swirl the pan to even out the process.
Use your eyes and nose to tell you when your sugar is at the proper caramelization state. It should smell nutty and be a deep golden brown. A lighter color is going to give you a more mild flavor while a darker color will taste more complex in flavor. Be careful though! If you move towards a black color your sugar is burnt and will be inedible! This can happen quickly!
Once your sugar is right at the perfect caramelization state, carefully pour all of your heavy cream into the pan and stir vigorously! The mixture is going to bubble up three times in volume and you want to be careful here! A spoon or a spatula with a long handle is perfect for this part so you don’t risk burning yourself. At this point you can also add your salt.
Note: Once the cream hits the pan it will completely halt the caramelization process. You want to make sure you do this before the sugar is burnt, but you also don’t want to do it too soon when your sugar is only a light brown color because your sauce will taste weak.
Heating to Desired Temperature
If you are going to be using this as a warm sauce, a thermometer isn’t absolutely necessary. Cook for about 3-5 minutes until the sauce thickens. However, a candy thermometer can give you a much more accurate final texture.
The temperature your caramel sauce reaches is directly related to the final texture of your caramel because it is also an indicator of how much liquid is left in the sauce. If you want a sauce that is at a dippable texture at room temperature, heat to 225F (107C). If you are going to use this for covering caramel apples, heat the mixture to 245F (118C). This will give you a soft chewy caramel texture at room temperature.
Tips for Caramel Sauce Making Success!
- Gather all of your ingredients and equipment before you start! You know me and how I believe in Mise en Place for baking, meaning you have everything ready before you start! This practice is extremely important in the process of making caramel sauce. Once you get going, the whole affair moves very quickly so you want absolutely everything you need nearby.
- Keep a bowl of ice water nearby. Working with boiling hot sugar should not scare you, but you definitely want to be cautious! In case molten sugar should splash up on your at any point in a time, a bowl of ice water is handy to dunk a hand into!
- Stay nearby and mentally present! As stated, this whole process moves very quickly, so definitely stay nearby your pan and watch it closely. The caramelized sugar can go from a beautiful dark golden brown to burnt in a flash! Thankfully, a cup of sugar is a fairly cheap thing to need to start over with, but nobody wants to clean that out of a pan!
- Be patient as the caramelization process starts. The first few times I ever made caramel sauce, I poured my cream in too soon because I was anxious about burning the sugar. I succeeded and not letting the sugar burn, but my sauce did not have the depth of flavor I was hoping for! Don’t get too anxious. Give it a little time to develop those nuanced bitter caramel flavors and let the color deepen before you throw your cream in! Once the cream is in the pan, the caramelization process will stop.
Caramel Sauce Variations
Salted Caramel Sauce
I think all caramel sauces need some amount of salt. Without it, they just taste completely flat. This recipe calls for a moderate amount of salt. However, more can be added to make it have a more distinctly salted caramel flavor.
Vanilla Cinnamon Caramel Sauce
Any number of extracts or spices can be added to your caramel sauce to make various flavors! One of my favorite combinations is to add a splash of vanilla and a hint of cinnamon! This makes an amazing addition to your coffee!
Vegan Caramel Sauce, aka Coconut Caramel Sauce
This sauce works really well with full fat coconut milk (the kind you find in a can). If you want to make this vegan, this is your best substitution because the fat content is necessary for the final texture. The coconut flavor is also delicious!
Bourbon Caramel Sauce
Once the sauce is finished cooking, a big splash of bourbon (or spiced rum or any liquore you might like) is a pretty excellent idea! Possibly my favorite ice cream topping ever!
- 1 cup (7 oz, 198 gr) granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup (4 fl oz, 118 ml) water
- 1 cup (8 fl oz, 237 ml) heavy cream (*see note for substitution)
- 1 tsp Morton kosher (use 2 tsp if using diamond kosher salt)
- Before starting this recipe measure out all of your ingredients and gather anything you need so that once the sugar starts caramelizing you are ready to go. It moves quickly. It would also be wise to have a bowl of ice water nearby just in case the sugar spatters.
- In a heavy gauge saucepan at least 3 quarts in size (you can use a bigger pan, but do not use a smaller pan) add the sugar and the water. Gently stir to completely saturate the sugar, being careful not to splash sugar granules up the side of the pan.
- Turn the heat on to medium. The sugar will start to dissolve in the water and will come to a boil. As the mixture boils, the water will begin to evaporate off and the liquid sugar will start caramelizing. Stay close by because when the caramelization process happens it moves very quickly. Do not stir during this process or you risk re-crystallizing the sugar resulting in a gritty texture. If the sugar is caramelizing unevenly, gently swirl the pan to even out the color.
- Once the sugar smells nutty and is a deep golden brown, carefully pour all of the heavy cream into the pan and stir vigorously. The mixture will bubble up quite a bit, so a long handled spoon or spatula is your best tool here.
- Add the salt and continue cooking and stirring the mixture until it thickens, about 3-5 minutes.
- If you are using this as a warm sauce, a thermometer is not needed. Cook until thickened. However, a candy thermometer can help you reach a more accurate final texture. As the caramel reaches higher heat, it will become more hard in texture once once cooled. At 210-215F the mixture will be liquid right out of the refrigerator and very thin when warm. At 225F, it will be runny when warm and thick when cooled. Cooking the mixture to 250F will give you a soft chewy caramel texture once cooled that is perfect for covering apples.
- Remove the sauce from the heat and pour into a heat resistant container. A mason jar is perfect. Store in the refrigerator for up to 1 month. If making caramel apples, pour into a bowl and allow the caramel to cool to about 215F (101C) before dipping your apples.
To Reheat: Put the sauce in a heat proof bowl and set over a pan of boiling water (this is called a double boiler). Make sure the water is not touching the bowl. Stir until the sauce is warmed through. Alternatively, heat in the microwave at 50% power in bursts of 15 seconds, stirring in between. Variations:
- Salted Caramel: Use up to 2 tsp of Morton Kosher Salt
- Vanilla Cinnamon Caramel Sauce: After the sauce has reached the desired texture, add 1/2 tsp of vanilla extract and 1/4 tsp of ground cinnamon.
- Vegan Caramel Sauce (aka Coconut Caramel Sauce): Replace the heavy cream with full fat coconut milk.
- Bourbon Caramel Sauce: After the sauce has reached the desired texture, stir in 1 TBSP bourbon off the heat.