A few years ago, I was searching for the best, yet easiest, caramel recipe. I had inherited a recipe from my wife’s grandfather (which is mostly captured in the recipe below), but his recipe requires constant stirring. I had done a deep dive in internet searches looking for a good caramel recipe that would work that also did not require constant stirring
To my surprise, most caramel recipes that I had found don’t actually require stirring. I took the best parts of about a dozen different recipes and attempted them in my kitchen at home. My first few batches were utter failures. This was because I had the wrong ratio of cream to butter to sugar. Still, I persisted.
After about a dozen batches (luckily sugar is cheap), I found the right ratios of ingredients. This year, I attempted to mess with the temperatures while cooking. I knew that the hotter you cooked a candy, the harder the crack. I didn’t want a hard-crack Werther’s Original style candy, nor did I want a sauce. I eventually learned the magic of Caramel temperatures, which I provide below.
To cook the best caramels, you must cook it twice: once as sugar only, and again after adding the cream and butter. The first cooking must be to exactly 270 degrees Fahrenheit (or 132.2 degrees celsius). After it reaches this perfect temperature, you must add your cream and butter.
The second cooking is variable, depending on how hard you want your caramels. From about 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 celsius) for caramel sauce all the way up to 270 degrees Fahrenheit (132.2 celsius) for hard-crack. I prefer mine chewy but firm, a consistency reached at exactly 250 degrees Fahrenheit (121.1 celsius).
I’ve also included instructions to make the best popcorn balls this side of the Mississippi!
A word on alcohol: You can use any flavor of alcohol you would like in place of the vanilla extract. Vanilla extract is, after all, just vanilla beans that have been steeped in vodka for a year or two. I don’t mind the vanilla flavor, but I find that using rum or whiskey gives it a more rich flavor. Any high-proof alcohol should work just fine. Heck, if you want caramels that taste like mouthwash, go ahead and use a minty 151p. The alcohol is the key to achieving the final consistency. You can try to make it without high-proof alcohol, but the smoothness and shininess of the caramels will suffer.
The recipe has you add the alcohol at the very end. This is extremely important. The alcohol changes the chemical properties of the caramelized sugar and causes the candy to advance through the crack stages at a much lower temperature. For example, I added the alcohol a little bit early and continued to cook my caramels to 250 degrees Fahrenheit (132.2 celsius), and even though hard-crack is supposed to be between 300 and 310 degrees Fahrenheit (~148 to 154 celsius), the added alcohol resulted in a hard-crack candy at just 250 degrees Fahrenheit! So, make sure you do not continue to cook after adding your alcohol.
One final word on cream: you cannot substitute egg nog for heavy cream or whole milk. For some reason, the eggs in egg nog make the resulting caramels have a chalky, crumbly texture even when properly tempered. It doesn’t taste bad, but the texture is a little off-putting. You know those caramel-coconut candies you sometimes find at the bottom of a Halloween basket? Well, that’s the texture you get when you use egg nog. I tried Southern Comfort brand egg nog (the best on the market) and the caramels tasted fabulous, but the chalky-ness of the caramels wasn’t a terribly nice experience. I’ll look for some egg-nog flavored alcohol or flavoring in the future (schnapps?).
Topher’s Simple No-Stir Caramels
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 1 cup packed brown sugar
- 1 cup light corn syrup
- ¼ cup water
- 1 cup heavy whipping cream
- 1 cup whole milk
- 2 sticks butter salted or unsalted
- 4 tsp vanilla extract (or other spirit)
- Mix sugars and water in a 4-quart pot until they are fully incorporated. Stick in a candy thermometer and set over medium heat. Do not stir! Heat the sugars slowly until they reach 270ºF exactly. Be sure to watch it as temperatures can increase quickly. This step should take at least 15 minutes.
- While the sugars are heating, in a separate pot, heat milk, heavy cream, and butter over medium-low heat until butter is fully dissolved. Once butter is fully dissolved, turn off the heat, but leave the pot on the burner to keep the mixture warm.
- Once the sugars hit 270ºF, remove them from the heat and slowly whisk in the milk mixture. The sugar will boil up so mix it slow enough that it doesn’t boil over the pot rim.
- Once the mixture is smooth, return to the burner and cook slowly over low to medium heat until the mixture is ready. Heat slowly so as to not overshoot the temperature. Heat to 250ºF for chewy caramels; cut and wrap in wax paper. Heat to 234ºF for popcorn balls; see additional instructions below. Heat to 210ºF for caramel sauce; ideal for ice cream.
- Once the ideal temperature is achieved, remove the mixture from heat and whisk in the vanilla extract vigorously until the mixture stops being angry and bubbly.
- See below for finishing instructions.
- Before Starting, prepare an 8×8 baking dish by spraying with cooking spray.
- Pour cooked caramel into the baking dish and set to cool for 2 hours. If you’ve done it correctly, the mixture should simply pour out of the pot leaving no drippings behind. It’s a beautiful sight.
- You can tap the dish on the counter to bring all the bubbles to the top.
- Once cool, use a paper towel to sop up the extra oil on top before cutting into squares and wrap in wax paper. Add a bit of cooking spray to the knife before cutting the caramels as the knife will want to stick.
- Pop 3 bags of microwave popcorn.
- Pour mixture over popped popcorn and mix thoroughly with a wooden spoon. I use a turkey roasting pan for this as it can be easily thrown away after.
- Once the popcorn is fully coated. Let cool for about 10 minutes.
- Once the mixture is cool enough to handle, form into balls and set to cool on a non-stick surface.
- Yields about 15 baseball-sized popcorn balls.
- Before starting, prepare washed and sterilized mason jars: 1 quart or 2 pint jars
- Pour cooked caramel into jars and set to cool.