Caramel. Mmmm. Deliciously gooey … or it could be milky, toasty, nutty or brittle. So what is caramel, exactly? And what’s with the different types and forms?
All caramel is based on the combination of sugar and heat and, like most cooking, it’s a matter of chemical reactions. The different outcomes depend on the particular process and other ingredients used.
For example, what’s called the Maillard reaction will produce spreadable golden caramel such as the wonderful dulce de leche of Latin America, Spain, Portugal and France. Based on the browning of sugared milk or cream, and specifically the reaction between the proteins in the milk or cream and the added sugar when heated, this technique is what I use to make the caramel in my divine dulce de leche brownies and baked salted caramel banoffee tarts.
You get a different result with the caramelisation of pure sugar, however. This technique requires you to heat sugar on its own, but I like to add a little water at the start to prevent burning due to hot spots in your saucepan or from the heat source. Adding water also lengthens the time it will take for the caramel to form (caramelisation begins when the sugar reaches 165°C) and interestingly it gives a more complex and richer-tasting caramel.
With this method, as the mixture boils and the water gradually evaporates, its temperature will rise and this will eventually cause the sucrose to convert into glucose and fructose. These sugars then break down to form a whole raft of new smaller compounds, which give the caramel its distinctive colour, aroma and taste. The caramel can then be used as it is, as a liquid before it solidifies (such as in my melt-in-the-mouth coconut crème caramel) or left to set (as in a praline). Alternatively, other ingredients, such as butter, milk or cream, can be added to create a caramel with creamy, spooning or pouring consistency (such as my layered banana and hazelnut cake with caramel).
And then there are those recipes that rely on both these types of caramel-forming techniques to create their unique character. The classic tarte tatin (which is the basis of my shallot and thyme tarte tatin) falls into this category – along with the caramelisation of the pure sugar, the cooking of the proteins and sugars of the onion is the Maillard reaction in action, – creating a wonderful double caramel combination.
The truth is, it doesn’t matter how many times I take some sugar and apply heat, I still marvel at the versatility and irresistibility of caramel – a true wonder of the chemistry of cooking.
Cook Anneka's caramel recipes
Photography by Alan Benson. Styling by Anneka Manning. Food preparation by Tina McLeish.
Anneka's mission is to connect home cooks with the magic of baking, and through this, with those they love. For hands-on baking classes and baking tips, visit her at BakeClub. Don't miss what's coming out of her oven via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.
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