Caramel is a candy created when sugar is heated to 170 degrees Celsius (340 degrees Fahrenheit). When sugar is heated slowly to this point, the molecules break down and form new compounds that have a deep, rich flavor and dark golden brown color. This process is known as "caramelization" and can be achieved with any variety of sugar.
Uses For Caramel
Caramel can be eaten alone as a candy or used to flavor other candies, desserts, or beverages. A layer of caramel is used to top the classic desserts, flan and creme brûlée. Caramel is the binding agent for several candies such as pralines, caramel corn, and peanut brittle. Caramel coated apples are a popular autumn treat and caramel flavored coffees and hot cocoas have become all the rage.
How Caramel is Made
There are two methods for making caramel, dry or wet. Dry caramel is made simply by heating sugar until it liquifies. Wet caramel is made by combining sugar with water before heating to the point of caramelization. Whichever method used, the sugar must be stirred constantly to prevent hot spots that can quickly pass the point of caramelization and end up burned. Making caramel at home can be tricky because of the narrow temperature range between which sugar becomes caramel before it burns.
Other ingredients, such as butter, milk, or vanilla, can be added to caramel for more flavor and texture. These ingredients are usually added after the sugar has caramelized. When milk or butter is added before heating the sugar, the milk sugars themselves can caramelize, producing a slightly different flavor and texture. Adding milk or butter helps achieve the chewy caramel texture, as opposed to a hard candy.
"Caramel color" is a compound used for coloring foods, most notably colas. This highly concentrated product is nearly 100% caramelized sugar and has a strong, bitter flavor. This product is used in small quantities and only for color, rather than flavor.