Why It Works
- Stirring helps the sugar dissolve as the water comes to a boil.
- Sugar syrups caramelize lightning-fast once they start to brown, so judging by eye is faster and more reliable than any thermometer.
- Cooking to 225°F (107°C) ensures that the caramel will be thick and saucy, but if you don’t have a thermometer, the final weight and/or volume of the finished sauce is just as good of an indicator.
Real caramel sauce is a three-ingredient affair—nothing more than sugar, water, and cream. Okay, okay, salt and vanilla, too, but it hardly seems fair to count the seasonings. For a sweet and simple flavor, cook the sugar syrup until it's a pale, honey-colored hue. If you'd prefer a darker caramel with a slightly bitter edge, aim for a foxy amber hue. In either case, you're just 20 minutes away from the thick and gooey caramel sauce of your dreams.
4 ounces water (1/2 cup; 115g)
8 1/2 ounces sugar (1 1/4 cups; 240g)
1/2 teaspoon (2g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use half as much by volume or use the same weight
1 vanilla pod, reserved from another project (optional)
8 ounces heavy cream (1 cup; 225g)
1 teaspoon (5g) vanilla extract (optional)
In a 3-quart stainless steel saucier, combine water, sugar, and salt over medium heat. If you like, add an empty vanilla pod, too. Stir with a fork until syrup comes to a boil, about 4 minutes, then simmer without stirring until syrup is honey-colored, roughly 6 minutes, shaking and swirling as needed to ensure even caramelization. Continue cooking until syrup is light to medium amber, a minute more. Immediately add cream and reduce heat to medium-low.
Stirring constantly with a heat-resistant spatula to knock back the foam, simmer until caramel registers 225°F (107°C) on a digital thermometer, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a heat-resistant container, stir in vanilla extract (if using), and cool to room temperature. (No need to discard the vanilla bean; it will continue to infuse the caramel over time.) Caramel will be runny while warm, but thicken as it cools, turning just a little chewy when cold. Refrigerate up to 1 month in an airtight container.
When it comes time to add the cream, you won’t have a second to spare, so be sure to have it scaled out and ready to go!