homemade caramel

Two years ago, I made my dad caramels for his birthday. They were hard and crunchy, like gold-wrapped Werther’s, the kind that would crack like glass when you bit them.

While I’d been after something a little more chewy that time, since that’s how Dad likes them most, it turned out candy-making could be something of an art, especially when you were new to it, so all I could muster were those smooth caramel stones, best for placing between your tongue and the roof of your mouth and slowly melting away. I gave them to him, presenting them proudly, and I put my candy thermometer away.

cooking caramel

But then this year, when Tim and I were up visiting a few months ago, talking to my dad in the kitchen about dinner plans or about something we’d baked, Dad, almost out of nowhere, asked if I’d thought about trying caramels again. Maybe soft and chewy this time? he’d asked, hopefully, like it would really mean something to him if I could.

caramels in pan

Now I know a lot of people would say their dad is great, the best, the guy they always looked up to, but my dad, who continually surprises me with his generosity and compassion and ability to think of other people more highly than himself, really is something special. And since he so rarely asks me to make him anything, I didn’t just want to make him these caramels—I had to.

Which meant it was time to revisit the art of candy-making.

caramels to cut

There’s a reason they call things an art, you know? The art of painting, the art of marriage, the art of caramels—you can’t just check some tasks off a list and expect genius. There’s some skill involved. Some creativity and some adjusting and some finding a rhythm. And usually, art isn’t easy.

For me, as if trying to make candy in the first place wasn’t challenge enough, I also wanted to do it with better ingredients: without corn syrup and without white sugar.

But while art isn’t easy, it is worth it.

caramels, wrapped

Because guess what? It worked.

It took three tries and two bonus trips to the grocery store, but last Wednesday night, while Tim and my brother-in-law and I drove up to Chicago for the holiday weekend, it was with more than thoughts of turkey and sweet potatoes and homemade cranberry sauce: It was with these soft and chewy salted caramels, created with sorghum syrup and sucanat, sitting in the back seat, individually wrapped and tucked inside a burlap-covered mason jar.

Happy birthday, Dad.

(He was worth it, too.)

Soft & Chewy Salted Caramel
Adapted from Judicial Peach
Makes about 20 caramels.

This recipe isn’t complicated—–basic ingredients, basic instructions. The only tricky part, and the reason I had to try it three times to get it right, is temperature. Candy-making is all about the temperature. The downside is you really have to watch it closely because once the temperature starts rising, it rises fast, and if you miss it, there’s no going back.

But the upside? I now know this same recipe for chewy salted caramels also makes a great caramel sauce (think: dipping for apples) if you pull it off the heat at the soft ball stage and leave out the extra salt. It’s like two recipes in one! Bonus.

Coconut oil or butter for greasing the candy pan
1 cup sucanat (or palm sugar or another sugar)
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup sorghum syrup (maple would also work)
1 cup heavy cream
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon sea salt, plus extra for sprinkling
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Line an 8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper. Lightly brush the paper with the melted coconut oil or butter.

2. In a small pot, bring the cream, butter and one teaspoon of sea salt to a simmer, over medium heat. Do not let it boil. Once it has reached a simmer, turn off the heat, and set it aside.

3. In a deep saucepan, combine the water, sorghum and sucanat. Over medium-high heat, stir only until the sugar has dissolved. Then allow the mixture to boil, without stirring, until the mixture is a warm, golden brown. Watch very carefully, as the caramel can burn quickly toward the end.

4. When the sugar mixture is done, remove it from the heat and slowly add the cream mixture to the sugar mixture. Be careful because it could bubble up violently. Stir in the vanilla.

5. Return the mixture to the heat and cook over medium heat until a candy thermometer reads firm ball—for my thermometer, that was 260 degrees F. Pour the caramel into the prepared pan, but don’t scrape the bottom. Refrigerate for an hour or so, until firm.

6. Remove the caramel from the refrigerator and allow it to come close to room temperature. Pry the caramel from the pan by tugging on the parchment ends and/or inverting the pan over another surface and peeling off the parchment. On a cutting board, cut the square in half. Using parchment paper, roll each piece of caramel into a tight 8- to 10-inch log (this is key). Sprinkle the logs with sea salt. Cut each log into 3/4-inch or 1-inch pieces. Individually wrap each caramel in parchment paper, twisting the ends. Store in the refrigerator or in an airtight container.

Shanna Mallon

Shanna Mallon started Food Loves Writing back in 2008, as a way to remember her grandma and write about her life through food. Since then it's become a place leading her to a lifestyle of eating whole foods, a new home in Nashville and the love of her life, Tim. Follow Shanna on Twitter @foodloves, keep up with Food Loves Writing on Facebook and stay inspired with the monthly newsletter.

This Post Has 18 Comments

  1. Jeannie

    “there’s a reason they call things an art, you know?” never thought of that.. but mm, so true. i love this. thanks, shannalee. happy birthday to your dad!

    1. Shannalee

      Thanks, Jeannie! : )

  2. Lan

    happy birthday to your dad!

    i remember your first set of caramels 2 years ago! and now, you’ve perfected it! good on you. i love the use of different ingredients, along with alternatives but do you suppose there’s an alternative for heavy cream at all?

    1. Shannalee

      I know! Lan, you’ve been here for a long time. : ) As far as heavy cream, I don’t know! That’s a good question–I’d imagine you could use some other liquid/fat, but I’ve been really happy with organic cream.

  3. la domestique

    I really enjoyed reading this story. We are all so busy that if we try something once and don’t have success, we leave it behind. Great to see you give caramels another chance!

    1. Shannalee

      I know, and I hate that. I don’t want to be the kind of busy that can’t keep learning something. Thanks for your comment! : )

  4. kickpleat

    Looks gorgeous! And I love how you’ve deviated from the corn syrup here. I’m sure your dad was happy!

    1. Shannalee

      Thanks, jeannette!

  5. Shannon

    These look gorgeous.

    1. Shannalee

      Thanks, Shannon!

  6. Lisa Fischoff

    I’m so glad you tried making caramels again! For the last two years I made sea salt caramels for gifts for friends around the holidays and I think they make such great presents! (even if it is sorta tedious to wrap about 1000 little caramel pieces. What did you put in the hard candy version? Mine are always chewy (made with heavy cream) but last year I made one batch with buttermilk instead, just to see what would happen, and they came out like hard candies at first but after you sucked on them for a bit they softened some. Kind of a good compromise between chewy and crunchy and definitely says to me that the fat content makes as much of a difference as the temperature the caramel is heated to. I’m glad you got the outcome you wanted this time and Happy Birthday to your dad!

    1. Shannalee

      So interesting! And PS 1000 CARAMELS!!?? Wow. You inspire me. Love homemade gift ideas like that!

  7. Elizabeth

    Oh yum!!

  8. belle (tinkeringinthekitchen)

    what a delicious sounding (and looking!) recipe! Im going to grab a coffee and read more, so glad i found your blog :) Belle

    1. Shannalee

      Thanks, Belle! Glad to have you reading! : )

  9. Bud

    Im new at this,but anxiously want to get it right. The sorghum is naturally dark (at least mine is) and makes the sugar mixture dark from the start and impossible to tell whn it’s ready. What temp should I cook the sugar mixture to,before taking it off the heat to add the cream mixture??

    1. Shannalee

      Hi Bud, You know, I honestly don’t know what temperature to look for because I did it by sight, even with using sorghum. If yours is so super dark that you cannot tell, I don’t know what to say except that you’re going to have to guess — it needs to be boiling but not burned. I’m sorry I can’t be of more help! Crossing my fingers for you!

  10. Pingback: Cheeseless Crustless Quiche (Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free) | Food Loves Writing / Real Food Recipes

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