The salted caramel craze has hit doughnuts, ice cream, cake, cookies — has any category of sweets avoided a salty-sweet makeover of this kind, really?
My mom especially loves caramel and almost always asks me to make a batch of these caramel candies when there’s any heavy cream leftover from another recipe. I know caramel has a tendency of intimidating people, but it’s really a simply process. So simple, actually, that you don’t even have to stir anything for more than a matter of minutes — see, SO easy!
In its simplest form, caramel really only needs three key ingredients: sugar, cream, and butter. This recipe has a few extras added on to the ingredient list (for extra fun, of course) to ensure you wind up with soft, smooth, and flavorful caramels every single time, though.
The first are water and corn syrup; some recipes will have you caramelize the sugar completely on its own in a saucepan before adding the cream and butter, and I can’t even begin to tell you how much I really don’t like this method. In all but one of my experiences with this particular method, the sugar has clumped up while melting and caramelizing and the stirring to break down the lumps just seems to result in the creation of an army of sugar crystals. These sugar crystals ultimately lead to a hard, gritty caramel, which is the exact opposite of how anyone wants to describe their caramel. Adding a bit of water and corn syrup to the sugar ensures it all melts down lump-free and caramelizes without those pesky sugar crystals developing in the process.
You’ll also notice in the recipe instructions that you don’t actually stir the sugar mixture until after the cream and butter have been added. Stirring creates sugar crystals, so we don’t want to do that! Instead, just gently swirl the pan to mix it up and your caramel will be smooth and melt-in-your-mouth amazing, I promise 😉
The last two “extras” are purely for flavoring purposes: a vanilla bean and sea salt. I use vanilla beans every chance I get, I think the flavor you get from them is just impossible to beat. If you don’t happen to have vanilla beans, though, feel free to substitute with 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract. If you do choose to use the vanilla extract, though, just be sure to hold off on adding it until after the cream and butter mixture are whisked into the hot sugar mixture.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made these caramels, and with the same consistently great results. Not that I should be surprised, it is an Ina Garten recipe, after all. I know it may seem a bit involved — yes, you will need a candy thermometer, and you will dirty more than just one pot to make some candy magic happen. But it’s so, so worth it. Honestly, the sugar basically cooks itself into caramel… you just need to put ingredients in their designated pots and stir some hot cream into some hot sugar! Not so bad, right?!
So read over the recipe below and muster up some kitchen courage/confidence! A sea-salted, carmel-coated, and chocolate-dipped (because where there’s salted caramel, there better be some bittersweet chocolate) weekend awaits you…
Makes 50-70 caramels, depending on how small or big you cut them
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup corn syrup
1/4 cup water
1 cup heavy cream
1 vanilla bean, split with the pulp/seeds scraped out
5 Tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt, plus more for sprinkling
Bittersweet chocolate, melted (optional)
Lightly grease an 8- or 9-inch pan with vegetable oil or cooking spray and line with parchment paper; set aside.
In a deep saucepan (I use a stainless steel 2- or 3-quart saucepan), add the sugar, corn syrup, and water; bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Continue to boil until the mixture turns deep, golden amber in color. *DO NOT STIR — stirring will result in sugar crystals, so just swirl the pan gently to mix.
While the sugar mixture is boiling, add the cream, vanilla bean pod and seeds, butter, and salt to a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat.
When the sugar mixture reaches that golden amber hue, remove from the heat and slowly add the cream mixture — be careful during this step, as the caramel will bubble up a lot! Return to medium-low heat and whisk gently until the caramel reaches 248ºF, about 10 minutes; remove from the heat.
Pout the caramel into the prepared pan, and avoid scraping the bottom of the pan while doing so. Sprinkle coarse sea salt over the top of the caramel. Refrigerate for a few hours, until firm.
When the caramel is firm enough to handle, lift out of the pan using the parchment paper. Using a sharp knife, cut into 5 equal columns. Roll each column into a log (the caramel will soften as you work with it), then sprinkle again with coarse sea salt. Cut each log into whatever size caramels you want and wrap in candy wrappers or dip in chocolate. Store in an airtight container, either in the fridge or at room temperature.
Recipe adapted from Ina Garten’s Fleur de Sel Caramels