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May 5, 2009 11:45 PM

Why does my caramel burn?

Made a cheesecake flan from Sherry Yard's dessert book 3 times & despite following directions to a "T", each time the caramel's burnt/bitter. Why?

From memory:

Caramel: sugar, water, lemon juice
-High heat covered 4mins
-Remove cover & continue high heat until 300deg
-Then reduce to medium heat continue to 340deg
(states addt'l 10-12 mins, but always takes 1/2 that for me)
-Brushing down stray sugar crystals all along
-Remove from heat, let bubbles subside then pour into cake pan
(supposed to look amber, but looks very dark to me)
-Thereafter, much like for cheesecake, baked in water bath for 1.5 hrs then left in oven for 1 hour w/ heat off.

I used a Pyrex & Taylor candy thermometers, small-med All-Clad sauce pan on GE Monogram range. I try to adjust the heat down so it cooks slower, but didn't seem to make a difference.

What am I doing wrong? Heat too high? Why bitter/burnt even though the candy temp is dead on? Ugh! Help appreciated.

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  1. Are you mixing your sugar and liquid before you start or putting the sugar in the pan and then the liquid? What kind of sugar are you using? Are you cooling the caramel as soon as it finishes?
    Forget covering your pan, forget the times, temps and thermometers. Let the caramel talk to you. Watch it and when it changes a deeper golden/caramel color you should see very faint wisps of smoke from the bubbles. Watch closely it goes from perfect to dead in a flash.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Fritter

      "Are you mixing your sugar and liquid before you start or putting the sugar in the pan and then the liquid?" Mixing all ingredients together with fingers at start, per the book, & not touching thereafter.

      "What kind of sugar are you using?" C&H Bakers Sugar

      "Are you cooling the caramel as soon as it finishes?" Removing from heat until bubbles subside before pouring into pan (maybe 2-3 mins).

      Ok, gotta stop relying on the thermometer. Thank you.

      1. re: pharmnerd

        I suspect the bubbles subside step is your problem, as the caramel continues to cook in the hot pan. It's really a finicky thing. Try taking it off a few minutes early. And don't expect the color to be uniform.

        I gave a caramel tutorial (with a picture of what it looked like just before taking it off the heat) in this post:

    2. I agree with Fritter on using the colour to decide when it's done. It's seems like your thermometer might be off. And I would add if you are using a pot that retains heat, you should take it off a little before it is done, as it will continue to cook after you take it off the heat.

      4 Replies
      1. re: Sooeygun

        Was thinking that too, as All Clad seems to retain heat well. Temp probably cont'd to climb well above 340. Will check thermometer against boiling water to test accuracy & use it only as a guide & color as the main determinant.

        1. re: pharmnerd

          I really do not understand why you would not use a thermometer. This is one of those situations that is eprfect for a thermometer, as it can guarantee accurcay and consistency time and time again. What I would suggest you do, however, is to find the temperature that suits your taste, rather than blindly following a recipe. But, after you know what temp YOU are looking for, then use the thermometer!

          1. re: NeduolCaz

            How deep is this syrup in the pan? The thermometer only measures the temperature of the syrup that it is immersed in. If it is not fully immersed, or too close to the pan edge or bottom, it will not be accurate. Response time of the thermometer may also be a factor.

            It sounds as though your caramel is crossing over to the burnt stage, and the thermometer is not doing a good job of capturing that change.

            1. re: NeduolCaz

              Making caramel in small batches is not a perfect situation for a thermometer.
              Why? Residual heat.
              By the time the thermometer reads the proper temp and your done fiddelin around checking temps it's too late. There is only a split second between under done, perfect and burnt.
              If you are determined to use a thermometer you might have better luck pulling the caramel from the heat and tilting you pan so the sauce pools on one side and checking temps until you get with in 50 degrees. Then forget the thermometer and pay close attention to the color and the change in the bubbles.

        2. First thermometer I used was a cheap POS similar to the following:

          Thinking to "upgrade", bought the following Taylor one:

          With the glass one, had to fiddle around to get the bulb just off the bottom but still fully immersed in the liquid. The larger Taylor one's (the metal frame is a bout 2" wide 12" long) built so bulb cannot touch bottom about 1/4" up. It's possible, there's just not enough liquid to fully immerse the bulb.

          Thanks for all the feedback. I'm gonna nail this dang cheesecake flan next time!

          1 Reply
          1. re: pharmnerd

            Need any volunteers for sampeling?

          2. I used to try making caramel with a thermometer too. After too many failed attempts, I happened to watch an episode of Chef at Home where he shows you a simple way to to it by eyeing it carefully. It takes a lot of practice, but I agree with some of the other commenters here in that it's more about watching it closely and taking it off the heat when it's golden/amber, rather than when the thermometer tells you son Better luck next time!

            1. Caramel burns when on the heat too long. I never use a thermometer. With experience, I have been able to recognize the degree of carmelization that I want. Always remember, the sugar mixture will continue to cook as long as it stays in the pot. So pour it out when you have reached your desired doneness. I have never used lemon juice so don't know what effect that will have. What is your end use for this caramel?

              3 Replies
              1. re: sarah galvin

                Cheesecake flan. Probably doesn't help that it bakes in the oven for another couple hours too.

                1. re: pharmnerd

                  As soon as the sugar is carmelized to the point you like it, immediately pour into the bottom of your flan pan. The two hours in the oven don't matter because you are no longer at that high temp and the flan mixture is on top. It will harden as soon as you pour it into the pan but will melt while the flan bakes.

                  1. re: sarah galvin

                    OK thanks. Perfect info everyone. Thanks for helping this novice.