Why won't my carmel....carmel?
November 27, 2013 11:32 AM   Subscribe

Two attempts to make carmel sauce have gone wrong. Hivemind, tell me what I'm doing wrong and lead me to Thanksgiving Pie Glory.

So I'm making this Salted Carmel Apple Pie for Thanksgiving tomorrow. I did a test run this weekend and everything turned out yummy and great, and I even got over my fear of hot sugar after An Incident Which Shall Not Be Discussed. Today I tried to pre make the dough and carmel sauce and the carmel sauce.....won't become carmel. The first time I thought I hadn't let the sugar dissolve in the water enough,so I did it a second time and still no dice.
Here is what happens-

1. Water + sugar = dissolve
2. Add butter, turn up heat.
3. Mixture gets a million bubbles, turns white, never goes brown
4. If I continue cooking it almost becomes a solid. A solid normal butter colored solid, NO BROWN!

I tried ignoring it, I tried whisking, I tried higher temps, lower temps, nothing will convince it to become yummy yummy carmel sauce.

So hivemind, tell me what I'm doing wrong. Or, tell me that my first perfect execution was a fluke, and I really need to use some other recipe that will totally work. I have one more attempt in me...no pressure. Thanks!
posted by zara to Food & Drink (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Might be too much water.

I make a similar sauce for popcorn. You have to get it pretty hot before you start to get those wisps of caramelisation around the edges of the pan. But once it starts, the whole thing goes brown pretty quickly.
posted by pipeski at 11:37 AM on November 27, 2013

You have a sugar thermometer? If not, you need a sugar thermometer. This is cooking as chemistry, more or less.
posted by holgate at 11:49 AM on November 27, 2013 [5 favorites]

The key to caramel is getting the temperature right so if you're mucking about with that then you're onto a loser - it's why lots of recipes recommend a sugar thermometer.

It looks to me like you're cooking too hard, possibly for too long and you need to be stirring regularly. You don't increase the heat when you add the butter.
posted by MuffinMan at 11:50 AM on November 27, 2013

So, basically you want it to be almost burnt, but not quite. The amount of water shouldn't ultimately matter - you will just have to cook it longer if you start with too much water. If it's not turning brown it's not getting hot enough. Is it bubbly? Like, are there big, viscous bubbles as the mixture thickens? Like in these photos?

Can you use a thermometer? And instant-read thermometer that you use for meat would be fine. The recipe I linked to says 350-355F, which would appear to be about standard.
posted by mskyle at 11:50 AM on November 27, 2013

Just make yourself some dulce de leche with condensed milk. It's so much easier and at this point if I were you I'd be all NO I WILL NEVER EAT CARAMEL AGAIN THANK YOU DIE DIE DIE. So I'd choose the similar-enough dead simple thing that always works and just pretend like that's what I wanted to do all along.
posted by phunniemee at 11:50 AM on November 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

I tried this salted caramel sauce recipe recently and it turned out beautifully on the first try. It looks a lot like yours, except no water, and the butter is added at a different moment. Give it a try - the tips are very helpful, and it worked out fine without a thermometer.
posted by one little who at 11:55 AM on November 27, 2013

When I make Mark Bittman's Walnut Tart, which is caramel based, I don't need a thermometer BUT it adds the butter and heavy cream at the end of cooking the syrup after you reduce the heat. It does require steady stirring at that point until the mixture becomes uniform.
posted by uncaken at 12:01 PM on November 27, 2013

Oh god... no water please. Making caramel in a dry pan is so much easier and faster. I loathe any recipe writer that suggests adding water makes it easier for the novice.

Anyway, I think your problem is adding the butter at the beginning. Wait until the caramel is the color you want and then add the butter.
posted by nolnacs at 12:05 PM on November 27, 2013 [8 favorites]

I always thought that the reason sugar syrups would solidify and turn white midway through the cooking process was because crystals from the edges of the pan were getting stirred into the mixture and causing it to crystallize and harden. So I follow Jacques Pepin's advice to swirl the pan rather than stirring, to be sure I'm not scraping any crystals back in.
posted by bcwinters at 12:16 PM on November 27, 2013

Best answer: nthing that you should skip the water and add the butter after your sauce is already caramel.

Here's another, similar recipe that works beautifully.
posted by dizziest at 12:21 PM on November 27, 2013

Thirding that whether or not you skip the water, the butter should wait until the caramel reaches the desired color. I was also told by a cooking instructor not to go crazy with the stirring. Swirling works well. You can wipe down the sides with a wet brush to take care of any crystals that form.
posted by Bresciabouvier at 12:24 PM on November 27, 2013

Response by poster: Ok, so what I'm hearing is that water, temperature and butter incorporation time might be leading me astray. I'm going to try Dizziest's linked recipe, because I have all the ingredients (no corn syrup) and because Smitten Kitchen has never let me down. Will report back!
posted by zara at 12:46 PM on November 27, 2013

Add corn syrup. it prevents the re-crystalization
posted by Gungho at 1:13 PM on November 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you're get something solid after a while, it sounds like you're getting sugar crystallization. You want to be careful about stirring once all the water's cooked out, because you might have sugar crystals on your spoon that would crystallize the whole batch.

Usually when I make caramel, I bring the sugar and water to a boil. Then eventually, instead of little boiling water bubbles, you get big sticky looking bubbles---all the water's cooked out. Don't stir at this point, just let it cook. It will start turning pale yellow. Keep an eye on it. It will get darker. Take it off the heat once it's a nice dark color (but not too dark!) and then --- carefully --- add the butter.

I've never heard of adding the butter so early. Seems like that's probably where the issue is. Especially if you happened to have stray sugar crystals on the spoon you stirred the butter in with.

Once it's crystallized, it's pretty hard to uncrystallize it. You might be able to redissolve the sugar by adding more water and then essentially re-doing the process, but the already-added butter may get in the way of the re-dissolving.
posted by leahwrenn at 1:19 PM on November 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yup skip the water add the butter later and swirl don't stir.
posted by JPD at 2:39 PM on November 27, 2013

One thing that has helped me with tricky recipes where it didn't go the way I was expecting is to look for someone making the recipe (or a recipe like it) on Youtube. Being able to see exactly what they're doing and what the food looks like in various stages of completion is extremely helpful to me.
posted by Aleyn at 5:12 PM on November 27, 2013

I've also used a no water recipe similar to those above (sugar, butter, cream, salt). Success 1.5 of 3 attempts. First try I burned it, and as a bonus, overflowed the pan and had a stove brulee. (Cleanup easier than expected considering what a disaster it looked like.) Second attempt was perfect, and I seriously ate that stuff with a spoon. Third attempt was slightly underdone due to paranoia about burning -- still good, but not OMG amazing. I think I could probably nail it almost every time now. It's a tricky recipe the first couple times.

As everyone has already mentioned, the butter doesn't go in until the sugar is already its magic caramel color.
posted by ktkt at 11:59 PM on November 27, 2013

The easy way my grandmother taught to make caramel for pies is from sweetened condensed milk. It's delicious, I use it all the time. Never tried it salted but I bet it would be good with a little salt!
posted by gohabsgo at 6:18 AM on November 28, 2013

Sorry, realized that was mentioned upthread. Seconding sweetened condensed milk.
posted by gohabsgo at 6:40 AM on November 28, 2013

Best answer: The advice here is spot on, but I'm going to explain why it's right:

White table sugar is almost entirely made up of a sugar molecule, sucrose, and water absorbed from the air. When you caramelise sugar you're putting enough energy into the sugar molecules to break them up, after which the remaining bits go through all sorts of reactions with each other. To get them to that temperature, though, you need to boil off (almost) all the water, because water takes a bit of energy away from your mixture as it evaporates. So the first step in caramelisation is boiling off the residual water plus any water you added to the pan earlier. Then the sucrose molecules start breaking apart into two simpler sugars, glucose and fructose, which releases more water. As more and more water is driven off the temperature of your sugar keeps rising (because the evaporating molecules are stealing less and less of your heat) and the molecules you're producing get chopped into smaller pieces which combine in different ways. This is why caramel tastes less and less sweet the darker it gets - you're losing the sugars and ending up with different molecules.

The problem with adding butter to this caramel mixture is that butter is basically fat plus milk proteins and water. So if you add butter to the mixture, you need to add yet more heat to restart the caramelisation process. Worse, the milk proteins decompose at a relatively low temperature, so you tend to lose the buttery flavor. So the ideal time to add it is just before the caramelisation process has reached the point you want - because it can be pretty quick, and it will continue for a little bit even when you add the butter.

Anyway, that's my understanding of the chemistry behind it and it should help you understand why your sugar wasn't caramelising nicely. Your mixture probably would have caramelised eventually, but once it turned into a lump it wasn't mixing, and the heat would have had to travel through it by conduction rather than convection. It would have turned into caramel eventually, but the bottom layer would probably have burned long before then.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:03 PM on November 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thank you, Metafilter! Not the OP but we were also making this pie yesterday and made it work thanks to your advice.

For posterity: we started out with the sugar and water mixture, but on attempt #1 we had the heat so low that all the water boiled off before it started turning brown, and then it started caramelizing, but we added the butter too late; everything crystallized, and then everything became a hard lump of sugar glued to the pan.

For attempt #2 we started out again with the sugar and water mixture, but with the heat moderately higher, and added the butter at the point where the water had mostly boiled off and the sugar had turned a light tan color. We mixed partially on the heat and partially off it until the butter melted, then added the cream. That worked beautifully!
posted by Jeanne at 3:45 AM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

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