caramel can be tricky

I have received lots of comments about the upside down caramel pear cake. Most were related to making the caramel. It made me realise that something I do quickly and easily, shouldn’t be taken for granted. If you are not used to making caramel, it can be tricky! Of course, I don’t have the space to go into detail about caramel making in the recipe for the newspaper, but that’s what this blog is for! If you’ve found this, then you’re probably interested in learning more about making caramel.

Firstly, you can make caramel simply by melting sugar in a heavy based frypan over low heat. You don’t even need water. This is known as a dry caramel. For example, use 1 cup of sugar and sprinkle it evenly over the base of the frypan. I think caster sugar is easier to use. You will notice edges of it start to colour first. Give the pan a gentle shake, but do not stir. You should never stir caramel whilst it is cooking.

For less experienced cooks, mix sugar with water in a small saucepan over low heat until the sugar dissolves. You can stir the mixture up to this point. It is important the sugar dissolves completely, otherwise you will see the resultant mixture crystallise. Small crystals will form throughout the sugar syrup and prevent it from caramelising.

If this happens, you will have to throw it away and start again.

Once the sugar has dissolved, do not stir any more. Bring the mixture to the boil. The heat of the syrup will increase and the colour will start to change.

Another problem that can occur is due to small sugar crystals forming around the sides of the pan. Try not to splash the syrup around the edges when stirring initially, as this may be the cause. If you notice some small crystals, do not despair. Use a very clean pastry brush dipped in cold water. Dab the brush gently just above the crystals and allow the trickle of water to run down over the crystals to dissolve them again. You may have seen this technique before. It works, as long as you have a clean brush. (a clean pan is also a must).

My personal experience is that better quality sugar  works the best. I like to use caster sugar as it dissolves quicker. But, all sugar will make caramel. I have even melted grated palm sugar in a dry pan -delicious, as part of a special salad dressing for a recipe I tested for a restaurant at Southbank. Interested? Have a look at their 2010 food calendar.

Back to the caramel. According to Larousse:

very pale caramel -take off the heat as soon as it starts to turn pale yellow. A teaspoon of vinegar will help it stay in liquid form for longer.

pale caramel -used to coat choux pastry (I love Masterchef !) Am currently watching it on EyeTV as I blog.

medium caramel -mahogony in colour, used to coat moulds, make nougat and flavour puddings and ice creams.

slaked caramel –a small quantity of cold water is added (carefully) when the caramel is mahogony colour, in order to stop the cooking process. Some of the syrup solidifies immediately. The pan is put back on low heat and melted while stirring.

brown caramel -amber red, used to colour consommes, sauces and stews.

Another tip -get a sugar thermometer. They’re not expensive and get everything to the perfect temperature required. The little clip on the side of the thermometer is used to attach it to the side of the pan, so it doesn’t touch the bottom.


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