Sure, you can buy a decent jar of caramel at the store. But why? Because with this recipe, you can a.) make it for a fraction of the cost with ingredients you have on hand, and b.) rest assured your homemade version will taste better. Right? No contest.

What I love about this recipe is you’re in the driver’s seat when it comes to depth of flavor. When I’m making this for our grandnephew, Keith, I cook it as written. He loves all things sweet. But when I’m making it for The One and I, I cook the sugar syrup past the point of dark amber for a slightly burnt caramel–a less sweet, more complex flavor.

david caricature

Why Our Testers Loved This

Our testers were smitten with how quick and easy it was to whip up this simple homemade caramel sauce and loved its many uses. Michelle P. was delighted that it “required little thought, can be made quickly for a dinner party, and always impresses.”

What You’ll Need to Make This

Ingredients for homemade caramel sauce--butter, sugar, vanilla, heavy cream, and salt.
  • Granulated sugar–Plain old white sugar separates caramel sauce from butterscotch, giving it its classic taste.
  • Vanilla–As always, use the real stuff. Vanilla has a wonderful way of rounding out the flavor of sweets.
  • Unsalted butter–If you only have salted butter on hand, use it, but don’t add the pinch of salt to the caramel when mixing in the butter.

How to Make This Recipe

Sugar and water stirred together in a saucepan; the mixture in the saucepan at a boil.
  1. Heat the water and sugar in a saucepan, stirring gently, until the sugar dissolves.
  2. Let the sugar syrup boil without stirring.
Caramel sauce in a saucepan beginning to darken; a man adding cream to the sauce.
  1. Cook the sugar syrup until it turns a dark amber color, then swirl the pan once and let it cook until dark. A wee bit of burnt caramel is great, but push it too far, and it’ll taste bitter.
  2. Remove the pan from the heat and slowly whisk in the heavy cream.
A man whisking a saucepan of caramel sauce; butter and vanilla being added to the sauce.
  1. Whisk the caramel until smooth.
  2. Stir in the butter, vanilla, and salt. Cool before using.

Variation: Salted Caramel

To make salted caramel sauce, follow the recipe below, but stir in 3/4 teaspoon of salt instead of just a pinch. When the caramel is cool, take a taste. Add more salt if needed.

Common Questions

What’s the difference between caramel and butterscotch?

The difference between caramel and butterscotch is the type of sugar used to make the sauce. Caramel is made with granulated white sugar, while butterscotch is made with brown sugar. As a result, butterscotch has a richer flavor than caramel.

How Should I use this sauce?

There are many ways to use homemade caramel sauce, including dipping apple and pear slices, drizzling over waffles, French toast, ice cream, or our caramel apple pie.

My caramel crystallized. What should I do?

Caramel can be tricky to make and can crystallize without warning during cooking or as it cools. To avoid crystallization, don’t stir the sugar syrup while it is boiling.

If your caramel seizes while cooking, or you see crystals beginning to form, add a little extra water. The crystals should dissolve. If you frequently have issues with crystallization, consider adding a little corn syrup or honey to your caramel mixture while it cooks to help prevent crystals from forming.

If your caramel turns gritty as it cools, rewarm it gently on the stovetop to dissolve the sugar crystals.

What temperature is caramel done at?

You can usually determine when the caramel is ready simply by sight and smell. Still, if you want to be ultra-precise and prefer to use a candy thermometer, your caramel sauce is ready to pull off the heat when the sugar syrup reaches 340° to 350°F (170° to 177°C). Don’t let it go past 350°F as the sugar will burn and become bitter.

Why is the cream warmed?

The main reason the cream should be warm is cream from the fridge will drop the temperature of the caramel too quickly, which can cause it to seize. Also, adding cold cream to hot sugar can cause the mixture to bubble up violently, potentially causing burns or making a mess.

Helpful Tips

  • Store the caramel in a sealed jar in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks or freeze for up to 2 months.
  • I don’t recommend doubling or tripling the recipe. Make individual batches as needed.
  • Refrigerated caramel is very thick. To loosen the sauce, let it sit at room temperature for an hour, or microwave it in 15-second increments, giving it a good stir each time, until warmed through.
A spoonful of caramel sauce dripped onto a marble surface.

More Superb Caramel Recipes

Write a Review

If you make this recipe, or any dish on LC, consider leaving a review, a star rating, and your best photo in the comments below. I love hearing from you.–David

When this recipe was posted, I knew I had to find something wonderful to adorn this with, and this is what I came up with: zucchini bread pan-toasted in butter, a scoop of pumpkin ice cream, this fabulous sauce, and fresh whipped cream. My guests were speechless and legless.

Greg Martin
A jar of caramel sauce with some dripping down the side and a spoon in front of the jar.

Easy Caramel Sauce

5 / 6 votes
This homemade caramel sauce recipe more than delivers on its promise of ridiculously rich, thick, gooey caramel goodness.
David Leite
CourseDessert
CuisineAmerican
Servings12 (2-tbsp) servings
Calories116 kcal
Prep Time5 minutes
Cool15 minutes
Total Time20 minutes

Ingredients 

  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream, warmed
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoons (1 oz) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • A pinch of salt

Instructions 

  • In a high-sided medium saucepan, heat the sugar and water over medium heat to dissolve the sugar. Now, resist the urge to stir! It can cause the sugar to crystallize.
  • Continue cooking the mixture until it turns a deep amber color and registers 340° to 350°F on a candy thermometer, about 10 minutes. This can happen suddenly, so keep an eagle eye on the stove.
  • Immediately remove the saucepan from the heat and slowly whisk in the warmed heavy cream. The caramel will bubble and hiss, so be careful. Continue whisking until smooth and luscious.
  • Stir in the butter, vanilla extract, and a pinch of salt until combined.
  • Cool the sauce for a few minutes before pouring it into a glass jar. It will continue to thicken as it cools.

Notes

  1. Homemade salted caramel variation–Add 3/4 to 1 teaspoon of salt to the caramel sauce to suit your taste.
  2. Storage and freezing–Store the caramel in a sealed jar in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks or freeze for up to 2 months.
  3. Scaling–I don’t recommend doubling or tripling the recipe. Make individual batches, as needed.
  4. Reheating–Refrigerated caramel is very thick. To loosen the sauce, let it sit at room temperature for an hour, or microwave it in 10-second increments, stirring between each one, until warmed through.

Nutrition

Serving: 2 tablespoonsCalories: 116 kcalCarbohydrates: 17 gProtein: 0.3 gFat: 6 gSaturated Fat: 3 gMonounsaturated Fat: 1 gTrans Fat: 0.1 gCholesterol: 16 mgSodium: 7 mgSugar: 17 g

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

Tried this recipe?Mention @leitesculinaria or tag #leitesculinaria!
Recipe © 2021 David Leite. Photos © 2023 David Leite. All rights reserved.

Recipe Testers’ Reviews

I’m all about recipes that require little thought, can be made quickly for a dinner party, and always impress. And it doesn’t get any easier than this easy caramel sauce recipe. It’s nearly instant gratification: one pot, no prep, minimum watching, and barely any cook time!

This homemade caramel sauce is a very nice recipe to have on hand. It does whip up very quickly, and the results taste like you’ve been standing at the stove for over 5 minutes.

This homemade caramel sauce recipe is essentially foolproof. It was as quick and easy as the recipe made it sound. At 15 minutes of cooling, mine was still a little thin.

I used it over apples for dessert about 30 minutes into cooling. This would be delicious on pie or over ice cream. I did find myself wishing there was a little more complexity to the flavor, but that wasn’t what this recipe purported to be.




About David Leite

I count myself lucky to have received three James Beard Awards for my writing as well as for Leite’s Culinaria. My work has also appeared in The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Yankee, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and more.


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