Corn chips and salted caramel have something in common.
Kylie Walker

11 Mar 2021 - 11:27 AM  UPDATED 11 Mar 2021 - 11:27 AM

Why is the sweet-salty combo of salted caramel so compelling?

Why do we reach for just one more chewy caramel, or feel tempted to eat our way to the bottom of that tub of salted caramel ice-cream?

Obviously, it tastes good! But researchers have suggested another reason why we feel satisfied after a certain amount of some foods, but keep on eating things like salted caramel, or flavoured corn chips.

It’s called hedonic escalation – a fancy way of saying that food tastes better and better as we keep eating. Instead of eventually getting bored with what we’re eating, we like some foods more with each additional bite.

Dr Cammy Crolic, an associate professor of marketing at Britain’s Oxford University, and Chris Janiszewski, from the University of Florida, put their theories about why this happens to the test in a series of studies. The subjects chowed down on a variety of foods and drinks – including salted caramel pretzel pieces, taco-flavoured corn chips and a multi-fruit juice.

The results, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, suggested several reasons why some foods taste even better as we keep eating. One of them might explain why salted caramel, with that give-me-more combination of sweet and salty, is so compelling. “The amount of hedonic escalation positively correlated with the number of flavours a person could identify,” the authors say in their discussion of the results.

In a presentation about her research (you can watch it on YouTube here), Dr Crolic explains that not every participant enjoyed food more as they keep eating, but when it happened, it was often with food with complex flavours.

So if you've ever wondered, that might be why flavoured corn chips, which layer multiple flavours on alongside salt, or the sugar, salt and fat in salted caramel, can be so very compelling.

If you feel you need to put all of this to the test – in the interests of science, of course! – here are seven recipes to satisfy your salted caramel cravings.

1. Chocolate cupcakes with salted caramel frosting

SBS Food's Bakeproof columnist Anneka Manning created this divine combination. Her salted caramel frosting is a cheat's version, which is simple to whip up as you don't need to make a proper caramel sauce. 

Can diet have an effect on Alzheimer's?

2. Salted caramel chocolate bars

Sally O'Neill from The Fit Foodie shared this recipe with us. It's a dairy-free, gluten-free chocolate bar made with natural sweeteners, including medjool dates in the salted caramel layer. 

3. The wicked salted caramel shake

A spectacular example of how, when salty and sweet combine their considerable forces, something magical happens. 

Wicked salted caramel

4. Salted peanut millionaire’s shortbread

The addition of salted peanuts to the caramel layer takes this classic caramel slice next-level. 

5. Caramel sauce

This is made with a dry caramel technique - which means the sugar is cooked to a caramel by itself, without the addition of water. It makes for an intensely flavoured sauce.  

6. Pecan and dark chocolate brownie with salted butterscotch

Sara Todd, star of My Restaurant in India, shared this decadent dessert from her restaurant menu. 

7. Salted caramel ganache tart

 A touch of salt is the perfect balance to the sweet-bitter caramel in this pretty tart. 

Want more caramel inspiration? Visit SBS Food's caramel recipe collection.

caramel for days
Dulce de leche cheesecake

My son Juju rates this an 11 out of 10. 

Shallot and thyme tarte tatin

Caramel in moderation works wonders for some savoury dishes, this being one of them. Serve wedges of this rich tarte tatin with dressed salad leaves and a dollop of crème fraîche for a deliciously simple starter or light meal.

Caramel almond cake (toscakake)

One of Scandinavia’s most loved cakes, both Sweden and Denmark have their own version of this wonderful cake (and, like all great cakes, the origins are unclear). A rich, buttery, moist cake toped with a crisp caramel-almond Florentine-like topping it is simply too good to care too much about its origins!

Caramelised pork belly

“This is a very traditional Vietnamese dish called ‘Thit Kho’, juicy pork belly slow-braised in young coconut juice. If you can’t get fresh coconuts, you can buy the coconut water in a tin from your local Asian market. Make sure to read the back and purchase ones with no added sugar.” Luke Nguyen, Luke Nguyen's United Kingdom