I Love Stirring Caramel {blush}

I was a little hesitant to release the Scotch Bar with a layer of chewy caramel because oozy caramel is already a major part of my Caramel Nut Bar, but I did because people tend to love caramel and I really enjoy making it. Give me a pot, a bowl of sugar, and a stovetop, and I could caramelize sugar all day. So, I thought I’d share a bit about my observations and theories on the dry method of caramelizing as well as a fun caramel fact: Milton Hershey had a very successful caramel company before he ever dealt with chocolate.

I think that successful caramelization depends on the finesse of a technique that not a lot of people talk about: stirring. “Folding” is usually the way to combine ingredients that is the subject of stern lectures, earnest demos, and general hysteria, but I think that the more common way to combine ingredients –stirring — is also a skill. Watch how a person stirs, and you can tell a lot about who they are as a cook. Anyone can make irregular motions with a utensil to eventually pull together some ingredients in a bowl, but the agile, confident stirrer is something to behold, so smooth that you barely noticed that they’ve done anything at all. The ingredients swirl together practically on their own.

Stirring is mostly about circles. Large, languorous circles; small, quicker circles; and authoritative yet moderate figure-eights. Some long, straight painterly strokes can come in handy, too. It’s also about controlling contact. If you’re incorporating dry ingredients into wet, make contact with the wet ingredients first and let them pull the dries in as you stir. You’ll spend less time scraping gunk off your spoon or spatula. You also want to make contact with the bottom of the vessel as you stir. You’ll spend less time cleaning off your shirt, or dodging molten sugar grenades. Stirring is also about intent. You are generally trying to combine ingredients and/or allow them to heat evenly. I suppose whisking is a sub-category of stirring, in which you are more trying to combine quickly and aerate.

For stirring caramel, you can use a silicone spatula or a wooden spoon. I use a non-coated wooden spoon. I like the way it feels in my hand, how it keeps cool, and how it smoothly glides along the bottom of the pan, and it can scrape the sides of the bowl just fine.

So, when I start caramelizing sugar, I get all my ingredients ready, turn on the stove flame to med-high, and pour about 1/4″ of my sugar on the bottom of the pot and shake it so it’s flat. After a little time has gone by, the bottom and edges of the sugar will liquify and turn golden, and if I tilt the pan and shimmy it gently, I’ll see the hot-spot where the sugar is the darkest. That’s where I put the tip of my spoon down — where there are barely any sugar crystals on top b/c of the shimmying — and start stirring in small circles. When I’ve created a liquidy pool, I make my circles larger and swirl in the surrounding sugar crystals gradually until they are all incorporated into the wetness.

That little technique is really pretty nifty. If you plunk your spoon into a snowdrift of sugar crystals over caramelized sugar and stir any which way at that point, you’re going to wind up with lots of clumps of sugar surrounded by some liquid, and you’ll have to chisel away at them with a similarly clump-covered spoon until they break up and start caramelizing. If you don’t succeed, the clumps will stay crystallized and hard, and will make for a caramel that is either grainy or, yes, full of sugar clumps. This may seem like an esoteric point, but I applied it from reading Elisabeth Prueitt talk about incorporating flour into the egg foam to make genoise cake batter in the Tartine Cookbook. If you scrape in the flour that inevitably sticks to the side of the bowl, you’ll wind up with lumps that are impossible to smooth out, so she advises you to push some batter up the side of the bowl to where the flour is stuck and let the batter pull the flour away. And so it can be applied to caramelizing sugar.

So… now the sugar is all wet and on its way to fully caramelizing. The goal of stirring at this point is to let all the sugar heat evenly, not to combine or aerate. So, you can let it sit alone for a little while, as the sugar on the bottom cooks, then stir it gently to let new sugar find its way to the hot bottom. Although the sugar has all been wet for a while, it isn’t all caramelized. It will start out kind of thick, but as the lingering crystals break down mixed amongst the caramelized sugar, the caramel will become more thin and liquidy, and a richer brown.

In the dry method, the sugar is often added in stages. The bigger your pot, the more sugar you can add at a time; if you have a big pot or only a little sugar to caramelize, you can caramelize all in one go. When I add more sugar, I try to add it as a crescent or in the middle so that I can have open access to some caramelized sugar to put my spoon into before pulling in the surrounding sugar. There’s a bit of latitude about when to add additional sugar and how much. If you add a lot of sugar, you’ll wind up with a kind of a paste until it melts down; that’s ok. If your sugar isn’t thoroughly caramelized when you add more, that’s ok, too, because you’re continuing to cook it anyway.

So, I continue to stir and add sugar until all my sugar is in the pot. This is when doneness counts. At this point, there is already so much heat under the pot and in the pot — sugar caramelizes at about 310F (as a comparison, bread is done at an internal temp of only 195F) — that I turn the heat down to medium so that the remaining crystals melt and caramelize without burning the sugar that has already caramelized. The sugar is already quite brown and caramel-y at this point, so I only vaguely go by a nice rich caramel color. I think that the most important thing is that all the sugar crystals are melted. It’s slightly tricky because the caramel naturally has air bubbles in it, which also look like crystals, so I look closely at it. I then stir gently, b/c stirring vigorously wouldn’t accomplish anything except letting heat escape. When there are no more visible crystals and it’s a lovely deep caramel color, I stop cooking it by adding fats on low heat. If there are still sugar crystals, they can lead to graininess or clump into hard bits. I’ve found that my laser thermometer can pick up the temp of caramel just fine; mine usually gets to around 340F. If you think it’s close to being done but are scared of burning it, you can take it off the heat and it will finish due to the residual heat. Unless you go all Michael Recchuiti, burnt sugar isn’t good for much. I think it’s better to go slower at the end than to risk wasting the whole batch.

Candy thermometers are not so useful here because you’ve lost so much moisture while caramelizing that the caramel usually isn’t deep enough to get a good reading. And if you were to add fats to it, there’s a chance that the sugar on the thermometer wouldn’t dissolve completely when added. Also, if you have a lot of caramelized sugar, chances are you’re adding a lot of fat that will bubble up, so you want the caramel to be as shallow as possible so that it won’t bubble out of the pot. A candy thermometer should be added only after you’ve added any additional wet ingredients and have stirred to incorporate.

I was going to go into rest of the process and the differences between the chewy caramel in the Scotch Bar and the oozy caramel in the Caramel Nut Bar, but I’ll stop now — at this rate, this is the beginning of a novel called Caramel… I hope to have pictures for the next chapter!

4 Responses to “I Love Stirring Caramel {blush}”

  1. Sara Says:

    You know, you sound borderline nuts.

    You must be exhausted. Take a vacation and do nothing but have other people cook for you.

  2. Nina Says:

    I really do like making caramel and appreciate its nuances…. but yeah, a vacation does sound nice…

  3. Bon Vivant Says:

    I made my first caramel sauce yesterday. I was a bit terrified at first but it was easy and the results were fantastic. Why have a waited so long to make it? Would I be able to make caramels? A long time ago someone told me that I was a natural candy maker – I don’t know if it’s true or I’ve just been lucky and get good results.

  4. Nina Says:

    Great! Yeah, it’s not hard, and I think it has just enough drama — what with the sputtering and coloring — to be satisfying.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.