Soft Caramels

When I was a kid, one of the big treats that my brothers and I had on Sundays after church was a little bag of soft caramels. We usually bought these in Bourg-en-Bresse, at a patisserie de boutique, a store that specialized in making caramels. Some were hard, some were very soft. My preference was for the softer ones.

I have tried through the years to make caramels, with different rates of success. The caramel recipe that I have here is almost foolproof. All you need is a good candy thermometer. I mold my caramels in a nonstick loaf pan. I oil the pan very lightly and put a strip of lightly oiled parchment paper in the middle, with the ends extending over the edges of the pan. The paper should be oiled on both sides, underneath because it makes it adhere well to the pan, and on top to make the caramel mixture release. I like to package them individually in plastic wrap or little squares of waxed paper or parchment paper. Bring these as a treat when you are invited out to dinner; they always get raves. If you like your caramels very soft, take them out of the refrigerator a couple of hours before eating.

I also love chocolate caramels, usually made by adding cocoa powder to the mix, but dipping one end of each caramel from the recipe below into the best quality melted bittersweet chocolate is easier and yields great results.–Jacques Pépin

LC Not-So-Skinny-Dipped Note

We thought we’d include Jacque’s not-so-skinny, chocolate-dipping take on caramels. They’re just as easy as the rest of the recipe. Just let the cut caramels firm up overnight, uncovered, in the refrigerator. Drop a few squares of very best bittersweet chocolate chocolate into a glass measuring cup and microwave for 1 minute. Wait a few minutes, and then microwave the chocolate for another minute. It should be thoroughly melted at this point. Dip one end of each caramel into the melted chocolate, so that it covers about half the caramel, and place the caramels on a piece of parchment paper to harden. When cool and hard, wrap the caramels and stash them in the refrigerator, preferably behind the tub of cottage cheese so no one goes anywhere near them.

Soft Caramels Recipe

  • Quick Glance
  • 45 M
  • 1 H
  • Makes about 20 caramels

Ingredients

  • 8 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 1/4 cup light corn syrup
  • 1 cup sugar

Directions

  • 1. Combine the butter, cut into pieces, and cream in a small glass bowl, and microwave for about 1 1/2 minutes, until hot. Set aside.
  • 2. In a small stainless steel saucepan, combine the water, light corn syrup, and sugar. Stir just enough to moisten the sugar. The goal is to avoid having the mixture collect on the sides of the pan, which happens when you vigorously mix with a spoon or shake the pan; the sugar will tend to crystallize where it touches the sides. Pouring the water and syrup in first and then adding the sugar allows it to dissolve in the liquid without splattering the sides.
  • 3. Heat over medium-high heat until the mixture comes to a boil, and then cover with a lid for a minute or so to create moisture in the pan and melt any sugar that may be clinging to the pan sides
  • 4. Clip the candy thermometer to the pan and cook for about 6 minutes, until the sugar reaches a temperature of 320°F (160°C), at which point it will begin to take on a light golden color around the edge. At that point, pour the butter and cream mixture gradually into the pan, adding about a third of it at a time, and stir, using the base of your thermometer to incorporate it.
  • 5. Continue cooking for another 5 or 6 minutes, until the mixture reaches a temperature of 240°F (115°C) on the thermometer, the soft-ball stage. (This will create a relatively soft caramel; if you bring the temperature to about 245°F (118°C), the caramels will be hard; so make adjustments based on your own taste.)
  • 6. As soon as the caramel reaches the desired temperature, pour into an oiled loaf pan, with a base that measures about 7 1/2 inches long by about 3 1/2 inches wide, lined with a strip of oiled parchment paper that is long enough to extend up and slightly over either end of the pan.
  • 7. Cool, uncovered, at room temperature for about 4 hours. Invert and unmold onto a sheet of parchment paper or waxed paper (pulling gently on the paper strips, if necessary). If the caramel is still too soft to work with, refrigerate for an hour or so to firm it up. Cut into strips about 1 1/2 inches wide, and then cut the strips into 3/4-inch lengths to have about 20 caramels. Wrap in squares of plastic wrap or waxed paper and enjoy immediately, or refrigerate or freeze for eating later.
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Allison Parker

Oct 30, 2007

If I had known that making caramels could be this easy and yield such fabulous results, I would have made my own long ago. Of course, leave it to Jacques Pépin to guide one with ease and typical French savoir faire through the process. This recipe is, as he says, pretty much foolproof, so if you have never made caramels before, start here, now.

The caramels are thick, chewy, and deep in their flavor without adding a thing, though chocolate never hurts. I made plain and chocolate-dipped caramels, and will continue in my experimentation with flavors: a teaspoon of orange-blossom essence added to the sugar water provides a subtle perfume, and topping dipped caramels with ground pistachio or other nuts is one more way to dress them up, though none of this is necessary.

One important bit of advice, if you are a rogue cook who likes to wing it without recommended equipment: Do not make these caramels without a candy thermometer. Once the cream and butter are added to the sugar, the process goes quickly—for me, several minutes faster than the recipe stated—and you can easily overcook the caramel for your taste if you rely solely on a time indication. A degree or two of temperature variation has a big impact on the texture of the caramels, so watch for that 240°F to 245°F (115°C to 118°C) range and pull the caramel from the heat without delay, according to your preference for soft or hard caramel.

For cutting and dipping: While my caramels were still too soft to cut fully after 4 hours (they needed that extra hour), I nevertheless scored them into 20 pieces to make cutting that much easier, once the caramels were hard. If you’re using chocolate, make sure it cools a bit to thicken before dipping the caramels, to minimize the spread of liquid chocolate once you put caramels back down on the baking sheet.

Wrapping the finished caramels individually in clear plastic shows off their gorgeous rich-brown color. I placed mine in tiny cellophane bags and tied them off with multicolored ribbons for favors for guests who came to visit, and they were a huge success.


Comments
Comments
  1. Glen says:

    Can anyone tell me if the initial 320 degree mark for the sugar/water mix is correct, or if this is a typo? I’m inclined to think it is correct, since this is about the temp at which sugar carmelizes, and there should be no color change otherwise, but I have some doubt that this would occur as quickly as ‘about six minutes.’ When I’ve made caramel(s) in the past, using other recipes in which everything is heated together and the browning is from Maillard reaction, and so probably not as good, it’s taken at least 30 minutes to reach even 240 F. However this was with a mix of fats, proteins and other carbohydrates in addition to sugar and water, so that might explain it. I’d appreciate any insight. Thanks.

  2. Glen,

    You are absolutely right in mentioning the Maillard reaction — it makes all the calculations much more complex. I’ll deal only with the sugar/caramelization issue here.

    Even that involves two different consideration: temperature and time.

    Temperature:

    “Caramelization of sugar begins around 310F. Color first starts to appear at 334F (for sucrose — temperatures vary for different sugars). When it reaches the light caramel stage (at 356F), many complex chemical reactions change simple sugars into a host of different flavoring compounds. One of the compounds created during caramelization is diacetyl (C4H6O2), which has a warm buttery scent, but there are also traces of as many as one hundred sweet, sour, and bitter compounds. The complexity of the resulting mixture makes the flavor of butterscotch more interesting than the mere sweetness of sugar. Of course, a number of yellow and brown water-soluble polymers are also produced, which accounts for caramel’s coloration.”

    Source: Allen, Gary. “Caramelization.” Encyclopedia of Food and Culture, New York: Scribner’s & Sons, 2002

    Time:

    It’s difficult to answer this because there are too many possible variables:

    How much mass is being raised to a specific temperature? (we know the answer to this from the recipe)

    How large is the cooking container holding the ingredient? What is it made of? How much mass does IT have? (these are unknowns)

    What was the starting temperature of ingredients and container? (these are unknowns)

    How much heat does the particular stove produce? (yet another unknown)

    If you’ve ever cooked in someone else’s kitchen — with unfamiliar stove, pots and pans — you already know how disconcerting those variables can be.

    • Glen says:

      Thank you Gary. That is very helpful. I’d love to know more of the chemistry details, and may have to invest in the book you cited. And I did have success in crating caramel yesterday by a method simiar to that described above (adding the butter and cream after bringing the sugar/water to 340 – at which point it had a beautiful rich orange-red color). I ultimately used the caramel in a cookie dough, so don’t know how it would have turned out as stand-alone caramels, but it looked about right.

      Thanks again.

  3. Glen,

    Another thought:

    The six minutes does seem short… but not short enough to lead to the 30 minutes you encountered. However, you should remember that Pepin is used to using a commercial stove that produces FAR more BTUs than any home stove.

  4. Glen,

    Glad to hear that you’re interested in such arcana! If you want to learn more about this, and other food science topics, get the reference I use the most: Harold McGee’s “On Food & Cooking.”

    The article I mentioned was for an encyclopedia that wasn’t just about food science… there’s a lot of food & culture, which may or may not be what you seek.

  5. Glen says:

    Thanks again Gary. I’ll look for McGee’s book. As for my initial question about the time, I think yesterday with only sugar and water it took between 15 and 20 minutes to get to 340. I’m sure part of it is the power of the stove—mine is an old electric. I was also on medium heat from about 220 up, following instructions from Alton Brown’s recipe.

  6. Victoria says:

    I made these yesterday, and am so pleased with the results. I use a gas stove, so judging the heat was a little easier (6 on my dial produced similar times/results. After adding the cream/butter mixture, it rose back up rather quickly, and I pulled it at 250°F. I cooled on the counter for 2 hours, then in the refrigerator for 1 hour. I oiled the glass pan, and placed the parchment paper on the bottom and poured directly on it… did not oil the paper at all…and it came right out. The caramel was soft, but firm enough to handle without smooshing. I cut it into 3/4″ squares, and wrapped with wax paper… the only hard part about this is not eating them all directly from the pan!

  7. chris says:

    Great recipe! Creating a new yummy dessert for a client and was looking for carmel hard enough to hold shape without being too chewy to fill a tartlet. added 8 ounces more of butter, teaspoon vanilla and teaspoon of kosher salt before filling shortbread shells. Perfect texture, meaning fork friendly- and oh so delish! Topped with crispy rice cereal let cool to solidify and piped alternating rosettes of milk chocolate and dark chocolate ganache. Gorgeous. My client loves it. Thanks for the great web site. I am a self taught pastry chef never hearing of the “mallard” reaction before, caramelizing yes but fun to learn the proper term and history of it.

  8. Emily says:

    This recipe is going to be my go-to caramel recipe from now on. I followed the recipe until the end, then added some salt and vanilla immediately after removing from heat, poured it over some chocolate in the bottom of my pan, and it was like a homemade candy bar. Perfect.

  9. zarrin tasnim says:

    Hey, I don’t have a candy thermometer and not able to find one in my area as well. So how can I make them?

    • Beth Price says:

      Hi Zarrin, you can tell when the caramel reaches the soft ball stage by dropping a bit in cold water. It should form, well, a soft ball. As far as the first measurement of 320 degrees, you are approaching the hard crack stage. When dropped in cold water, it should form brittle threads. At 320, all the water should have dissipated and the remaining sugar will be a light amber. It would be much more accurate to use a candy thermometer if you can find one.

  10. laura says:

    If u don’t have heavy cream can you use sweetened condensed milk. If so how much

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      laura, I hesitate to suggest substituting sweetened condensed milk in this recipe simply because we haven’t tested it and so we can’t vouch for it. I’m especially worried because you’d need to decrease the sugar to account for the sweetness in the condensed milk, and then of course the consistency would be different, too…so sorry, but I’d hold out until you have cream. But do try the recipe—it’s so simple, so ridiculously good.

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