Who thinks chocolate is the best flavor in the dessert world?
Now, who thinks caramel is the best?
Not as many hands in the air, but mine is one of them. While chocolate is perfectly nice — and we'll be seeing plenty of it during this sentimental day — caramel is the truly sensual treat.
Tawny-gold and glossy, a good caramel sauce starts sweet and finishes just short of bitter. For me, bitterness is the key. That edge prevents caramel from being cloyingly sweet, which is a common hazard, as it's pretty much pure sugar, and it seduces you into taking just one more taste.
Beyond the luscious factor, another brilliant aspect of caramel is its simplicity. Anyone can make it anywhere, because for the most basic sauce, all you need is sugar, heat and a final liquid. And while I do add salt and vanilla extract — and, OK, a few chunks of butter — caramel's complexity comes from chemistry.
Let's look at the basic process: boiling, melting, burning (almost), enriching.
Boiling. This involves evaporating all the water in the sugar to yield pure sucrose that can get hot enough to melt. Paradoxically, though, when I make caramel, I begin by adding water to the sugar. This method, called a "wet" caramel, takes a few minutes longer but ensures a more even caramelization. For the "dry" caramel method, you simply heat the sugar in an empty pan until melted and caramelized. It's quick and direct, but the risk is that some parts of the sugar melt faster than others, and can burn before the rest had made it even to light amber. The way to make the dry method work is to swirl the melting sugar gently and strategically for a uniform result.
For either method, choose a pot with a heavy base to help prevent hot spots and one whose sides are high enough to contain the caramel sauce as it bubbles during cooking. Please be aware that caramel at all stages is sticky and beyond hot, so be super-careful as you go.
Melting. During this phase, you'll be jousting with the forces of crystallization. As the sugar liquefies, a crystal can reform at any moment and begin a domino effect which, before you know it, will produce a chunky mess.
You may discover many techniques for avoiding crystallization, including cooking with the lid on to create steam to dissolve sugar crystals; sluicing the inside walls of the pot with a water-soaked pastry brush to wash down any crystals; and never letting a spoon come close to the initial sugar syrup.
I've tried all the tricks, and while crystallization is rare with any sugar method, it occasionally happens no matter. Hence, I don't stress about it. If you see that your sugar syrup is starting to look like a pond covering over with ice, don't worry. Keep cooking it. Those new crystals will eventually melt again and start behaving.
Burning/not burning. Once the melting begins, good things occur. Your granulated sugar, or sucrose, breaks down into glucose and fructose, which then recombine to form hundreds of new compounds including three called caramelan, caramelen and caramelin, and I find that oddly charming. A sister act! All the newly developed molecules contribute specific flavor notes to the complex caramel profile, including nutty furans, buttery diacetyl and toasty maltol. Toffee, anyone?
Once it starts, the caramelization process moves very fast and is irreversible. If you cross the line into truly bitter, you can't go back. This just means you need to have your liquid enriching ingredient, which will cool down the sugar, measured and ready to deploy. And you must pay attention as you cook, using both sight and smell as your guides.
You may not achieve your personal caramel perfection the first time you make the sauce, because, unfortunately, you can't taste for doneness (do not be tempted to swipe your finger through the hot caramel for an exploratory lick). So perhaps err on the lighter side until you're comfortable with finding that edge. If you decide that your finished caramel sauce is too sweet, you can always cook another 1/4 cup of sugar to a darker stage and whisk your sauce into it, for a boost of bitter.
Visually, you should strive for a very deep amber color, like that of strong iced tea. The aroma will go from cotton-candy sugary to nutty with a tiny bit of burnt sugar; the latter is the moment to stop the temperature climb by adding liquid.
Enriching. Most caramel sauces and confections use cream for this, but there's no law saying dairy has to be involved. I make a citrus-juice caramel sauce, though the flavor's more Jolly Rancher than Sugar Daddy.
Once you've got your liquid caramel, it's time to enrich and customize the flavor. The classic additions are cream, vanilla and salt (yes, even before "salted caramel" became a thing, most of us were adding salt to our caramel). But crème fraîche instead of cream, a splash of dark rum and a drop of almond extract, are all delicious options.
I like to finish my caramel sauce with butter, to lock in the most unctuous, satiny texture. And if unctuous and satiny aren't good Valentine's Day words, I'm not sure which ones are.
Caramel sauce keeps quite well in the refrigerator, for up to a month, and it freezes just fine in a zip-top freezer bag for about three months. So go all-in on this easy and impressive sauce and the two others, with plenty to give to your loved one(s) for Valentine's Day and enough left over for yourself and a pint of ice cream on any day.