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Help...am a pathetic caramel maker

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I tried to make creme caramel today, because whenever I go anywhere it's my absolutly favourite thing and I'll even order it in the middle of the night sometimes if I'm hungry. So I found a recipe which didn't look too difficult; it said the hardest part was making the caramel and I thought that wouldn't be too difficult.

Huh! I've ruined two pans, and had to scrub one myself because I can't leave it for the cleaning people...it would be too mean. It was burnt on sugar and took me ages to get out with huge amounts of dishwasher powder, my hands look awfully wrinkled now too!

So getting to the point, what is the secret to making caramel for creme caramel?? The recipe I used called for 1/2 cup sugar 2 tbsp water and said to put on medium heat and keep stirring. I did exactly that, but the sugar did not turn golden brown or even remotely brown. It turned clear, then all bubbly and white, and I kept on stirring and it was slightly yellow in the white part which was not bubbles....then it got solid again!!! Like solid white lumps of sugar in the pan as I kept stirring. I knew i made some mistake so I threw it all out and started again. Same results!

Then I looked up 'creme caramel' in youtube so I could see how this was supposed to happen. I found one promising recipe where the caramel turned brown and liquid with no stirring at all so I replicated EXACTLY what the person did 2/3 cup sugar 3 tbsp water on med-high heat and no stirring at all (well actually I stirred a little bit sometimes). It turned sort of darker yellow but still more solid than liquid and sort of a thick paste. It's perfect crap I assure you.
So can someone please, please help me and tell me how to make creme caramel? I have an awful craving for it and I'm too sick to go somewhere nice to order it (I cook when I'm sick...so therapeutic). Thanks anyone who helps :)

PS. the sugar I used was 100% organic granulated cane sugar, I don't know if this was the problem?

PS2 I'm really not a hopeless cook, I can make pavlova, bouillabaise, and really nice souffle. This thing is just beyond me somehow.

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  1. Have no fear! Help from the Hounds is near. I too struggled with caramel but was rescued by the advice of those who have mastered it. Here's a link to one of the threads and if you search this board you'll find many more.


    1. First of all, don't use cane sugar - just use normal white sugar. Technically the molasses residue on the sugar won't hinder the reaction (I'm pretty sure anyway), but the slight brown color will skew your timing in terms of when to turn off the heat, plus you'll have that extra flavor profile of the molasses/cane, which you do NOT want, you just want the pure caramel taste. Not to mention that sugar is sugar; you're not getting any less calories, and YES you'll get tiny amounts of some nutrients, but who really cares, it's a negligible amount.

      When you're making caramel, what you're doing is decomposing the sugar in a controlled manner. As sugar (usually sugar and water) cooks, it first becomes a syrup, then as more water is cooked out, it becomes an amorphous solid, like glass. The higher the temperature it reaches, the harder the candy will be (at any one temperature, but usually room temperature since you keep candy in the pantry) when it cools down. These are the different "stages" of candying. There is soft ball, hard ball, soft crack, hard crack, etc. all determined by how hard the mass is after dropping some of the cooking sugar into an ice water bath. This is all the basics of candy making, and I recommend you look it up, baking911.com has some good articles, for example.

      2 Replies
      1. re: peanuttree

        To confuse the issue, I've used beet sugar and cane sugar and some times either will "seize up". No rhyme nor reason that I can figure out. The first time that happened, I also threw it out. The second time, I just kept it on the heat, stirred, and after a while it melted nicely and I had fine caramel. It's a mystery to me.

        1. re: Pat Hammond

          whether the sugar is from beets or cane makes no difference, it's all just pure sucrose. However, this "Rezia" said she was using 100% organic cane sugar or whatever which I'm assuming it was one of them brown, less refined sugars (the only real difference is that there's still some molasses left on those). If what she was talking about was just pure white, completely refined sugar then it was my mistake

      2. Sorry for that lesson about the candying if you knew it already. Anyway, when the sugar reaches 350 to 360 degrees farenheit, it starts to decompose. Given enough cooking, it will completely decompose into carbon (which is that black gunk that is so hard to clean). But before that there is a point you can stop at where you get all the delicious byproducts and you have caramel. So it's all about TIMING.

        First of all, you can use that exact recipe, but you don't really need it. Just remember it's a lot of sugar compared to water, in a POT not a pan, preferably stainless steel or copper, or aluminum, by I wouldn't use anything glazed, for fear that the caramel glass would REALLY stick to that surface if you mess up, or take some of the glazing with it when you pull off those hard black lumps, and of course not cast iron, not smooth enough (the bumps could cause sugar to crystallize). So it's a lot of sugar, with not enough water to dissolve even a fourth of the sugar, very little (note that no matter how much water you put in, you will eventually reach the caramelization point with enough cooking, as the water will boil off).

        1. I forgot to mention that you should get a candy/frying thermometer that marks off all the stages of candying, quite useful.

          Also, reading your post more thoroughly now, using that cane sugar may have messed you up, though it also could have been the stirring. You DO NOT STIR when candying, it is unnecessary and promotes re-crystallization of the sugar, which of course you do not want. Also speaking of re-crystallization, it is often advisable to include a small amount of corn syrup when candying - the mix of different kinds of sugars prevents crystallization (since the shapes of the molecules don't fit together). I'm 90% sure the caramelization reaction will still work normally, but note that they add other stuff to corn syrup, which is annoying - really it's just the vanilla they add might throw off the flavor a little. There's also salt and maybe benzoate, but these shouldn't interfere. Though of course for this application the corn syrup is unnecessary since the caramel is going to be cooked again in the dish under the custard.

          So, back to candying. Remember, stirring is counter-productive. You really do just watch and wait. The more you candy, the more you'll know what to expect. That turning white thing and weird bubbling is normal, and you'll eventually be able to identify that candying smell. The color should be clear (though of course the bubbles get in the way), and as you cook more there is a very faint off-yellow color. Again, experience will get you used to this.

          1. After enough cooking, you will start to reach caramelization. Now the timing with caramelization is key, for just a little too much cooking will go from yummy caramel to bitter carbon. You also have to remember that THE SUGAR WILL STILL BE COOKING WHEN YOU TURN OFF THE HEAT. Just like with cooking meat, there is carry-over heat. There is still heat in the pot and the cast iron thingies on the burners (or in the coils if you're using electric). It is also hard to tell when you're approaching the caramelization temperature range, which is why I recommend a thermometer so you know when to REALLY pay attention. But one thing you'll notice at those higher temperature is that the bubbling will slow. Now when the candy starts to turn brown, that's right when you're in the thick of it. No matter what happens, you pay attention to that pot. Now like I said, there is carry over heat, so you want to cut the heat BEFORE you reach caramel-brown. I even recommend immediately lifting the pot and putting it on one of the off, cold burners so you don't get that extra burner heat.

            A lot of people say that you need to take it off the heat when you see whisps of smoke, though this may be too late in my opinion, plus they're talking about making caramel where you add cream to cool it all down instantly which you might try doing for better heat control.

            What I mean by the cream thing is that caramel CANDIES (i.e. not the liquid in creme caramel) has cream in it for flavor. Like I said, they add the cream right at the last minute, and it immediately lowers the temperature, so you won't get into the burning stage. Note that if you do it like this, it will be surprisingly violent bubbling. Also, you would have to re-cook the new caramel-and cream mixture to the hard crack stage again, so that it loses sufficient moisture and sticks to the custard dish for the creme caramel.

            1. As to what was happening when you were doing it and it messed up, it is likely that your stirring was causing rec-crystallization, which is why you sugar lumps and that change in color. Remember, NO STIRRING.

              And that's all I have to say about that (Forrest Gump), except don't forget the water bath when baking it in the oven, it is a custard after all.

              2 Replies
              1. re: peanuttree

                I second the no stirring, but if you are compulsive like me, you can stir until the sugar disolves, and the whole thing is clear, but after that, nothing. You are allowed to tilt the pan a little as it is getting close to the end, just to keep it from burning in any particular spot. Remember after you pour it into your pan for the creme caramel, to wear gloves, as the pan will absorb heat very quickly.
                I think the best idea when making creme caramel is to just stick to sugar and water (or when you get the mojo going, just melting the sugar solo) without adding cream to the mix. My favorite cream mix (for the bottom) is 1 cup whole milk, 1 cup 1/2 and 1/2 (organic on both), 1/3 cup of sugar, 1/2 vanilla bean, 5 egg yolks and 2 whole eggs. Bring the milk and bean to a simmer. Slowly, but slowly whisk the sugar into the eggs. Temper the eggs by adding a few drops of hot milk, then a few spoonfuls, and then tip the whole thing into the egg mixture, whisking gently. Add a pinch of salt. Taste. Pour the caramel (as soon as it is done into your pan), then when the caramel has cooled slightly, strain your cream mixture, and get that in on top of the caramel. Set this pan into a larger pan, carry the whole thing to a 350 degree oven (or 325 even) and once you have it set in there, pour hot water from the kettle into the larger pan, just so that the water comes up the sides about an inch or so. It should not look tight when done, just set, and a knife will come out clean. Good luck. fayefood.com

                1. re: fayehess

                  Hi fayehess,
                  This sounds like an excellent recipe for the custard, I'll try it next time I think. I just wish making the custard isn't as hard as the caramel. You can't imagine what a tough stumbling block this is for me. :(

              2. Oh and I forgot to say that the best way to clean off burnt-on carbon if you burn the caramel is to keep it hot and dissolve it in boilng water. Heck, you could add a lot of water and re-cook the pot. Also, if you try to crack it into pieces when it's hard, watch out, like glass the pieces can be RAZOR SHARP

                8 Replies
                1. re: peanuttree

                  Wow, thanks for all this help peanuttree. I actually used granulated cane sugar which was perfectly white not the unrefined brown stuff. I haven't got a candy thermometer, I hope I can manage without it. I thouhgt I could just sort of eyeball it; I'm a science person (3rd year pre-med) but I'm not terribly precise when it comes to cooking. :P

                  I think my mistake was the stirring; would you believe I have decimated nearly 2kg of sugar today? I feel like a beastly, wasteful, first-world arrogant type person. But really cooking is like art and sacrifices are necessary.
                  I'm planning to try again tomorrow with a fresh supply of sugar, this time I think as soon as I see it yellowing, I'm going to take it off the heat and let it brown and only swirl the pan and not stir it at all. Do you suppose that would be alright? I do hope so.
                  I got a lot of experience today with black burnt carbon about a centimeter thick at the bottom of a pan. I was about to boil it off with a handful of Tide (someone said this works miracles) but instead I used elbow grease and dishwashing powder it was clean in about 20 minutes of sporadic scrubbing.
                  Also, I have an electric flat stove top cokking range, could that possibly be the problem? Is it better to make caramel on a gas stove?
                  Thanks again for the help

                  1. re: Rezia

                    Actually, with something like this, electric isn't as big a disadvantage as usual, since the entire process is just cooking until you reach one certain point. And like I said, remove the pot from the heat to stop the cooking (as much as you can) - since you have electric it stays hotter longer than a burner after shut off.

                    And don't feel too bad about the sugar waste - sugar is dirt cheap and would be even cheaper (like a third the price) if it weren't for the sugar protectionism. Actually it's funny (this is going to be a nerdy non-sequitur), sugarcane is one of the most efficient plants in terms of fixing the sun's energy, and may be the most efficient plant in terms of yield in calories. And on top of that, after juicing the cane, the left over fibers from the plant dry out and are burned to run the factory, and there is MORE than enough energy to run the plant - sugar factories were some of the first power plants! (they sold the extra energy). This is why the sugarcane ethanol works so well (remember with the ethanol production they don't need to refine anything, they just ferment the juice, though it needs to be distilled). And on top of THAT, the refining process is very simple and hasn't really changed since ancient times!

                    1. re: peanuttree

                      Hi peanutttree - I greatly appreciate your writings above, but I'm not sure you have addressed the problem that I have w/ caramel. Mine sounds exactly like the OP, except I DO NOT stir. Nonetheless, my caramel NEVER browns. It will become a big sticky mass of hard, clear sugar eventually. If I take pains to keep crystalization from happening, it will take a long time, (like 30 mintues or more) but it will NEVER get dark. I have tried turning up the heat, turning down the heat, NEVER gets dark. The only way I can make caramel is to use the dry method, but I can only do a very small quantity at a time.

                      Any ideas?

                      1. re: danna

                        Eep. I was hoping no stirring would do the trick for me. What is the dry method? Sounds like it may be worth trying for me. I've never used corn syrup in anything. Will maple syrup work just as well?

                        1. re: Rezia

                          Dry method means no water. I sprinkle sugar on the bottom of my copper pot. no more than 1/16th of an inch. Watch closely, swirl a little when you see signs of melting. It will actually start to "caramelize" pretty quickly. I just can't make very much that way.

                          Good luck.

                          1. re: danna

                            don't make caramel like that, it's so weird - really what you're doing is just browning some sugar, and you get so little.

                            The only thing I could guess is that you are either adding way too much water and/or your heat isn't strong enough to get the sugar to 350 F - - Because really there is NO WAY that the sugar won't caramelize, if you blast it with enough heat to get it hot enough, eventually it WILL caramelize

                            1. re: peanuttree

                              I agree. my guess is two things are happening. One, it's just not going long enough (if you are doing a lot of caramel and have cream as part of the equation at the beginning (rather than adding at the end) it will take a little while). It bubbles for a good 20 minutes or so seemingly not doing much. Then, quickly, it goes from pale yellow bubbly to caramelized quite quickly.

                              Second, is that it's recrystallizing quickly, and so then the person stops cooking. My solution for this last part is to add just a little corn syrup at the beginning. That inhibits crystallization and prevents a stray sugar crystal from throwing off the batch.

                              Anyhow, making caramel really isn't too hard... and unlike most cooking, it's very scientifically predictable. Hope things turn out well for the OP.

                              - Adam

                              1. re: peanuttree

                                Well, I'm pretty sure there's not too much water unless every recipe I've ever used calls for too much water. Possibly it is the heat issue. Maybe I'll try cranking it up...

                  2. a tablespoon of corn syrup will prevent caramel from seizing and recrystallizing.