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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.

    http://www.chowhound.com/topics/397789

    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.