What is Caramel Made of?

The science of the sugary treat

Have you ever covered your ice cream with salted caramel? Delicious! Caramel can satisfy a sweet tooth as it is basically cooked sugar. Depending on the type of caramel that is being made, other ingredients can include water, butter, vanilla, or heavy cream. The process of making caramel, while not difficult, does involve science.

Panna_Cotta_with_caramel_sauce
Panna Cotta with caramel sauce. Credit: Wikimedia/Toben

Wet vs. Dry Caramel

There are two types of caramel. One is called a dry caramel that you can make by heating sugar on a stove until it liquifies .


The other type of caramel is called a wet caramel because water is added to the sugar. To make a wet caramel, water and sugar are heated together on the stove until it caramelizes .

The science of caramel

Many mouthwatering treats are made through the process of caramelization. Examples of these foods include fudge, syrup, marshmallows, and caramel. Caramelization begins by heating sugar to 338° F (170°C). At this temperature, sugar will start to brown. A chemical change  occurs during caramelization as new substances are formed when the chemical bonds in sugar are broken.


As sugar is heated to a high temperature, it goes through the process of oxidation . The sugar turns into a sweet-tasting, amber-colored liquid. During the process of caramelization, disaccharide sucrose molecules are broken into fructose and glucose ( monosaccharides ).


When making wet caramel, sugar is heated in water, creating what is called invert sugar .

The warm water breaks down the chemical bonds of sucrose, turning it into fructose and glucose.

Boiling caramel. Credit: Wikimedia/Stephanie Clifford

How to make a dry caramel

You can make a dry caramel easily if you have a heat source and sugar. Remember that the caramel will be hotter than boiling water, so be aware of your exposed skin and other people that may be near you so no one is burned. Do not leave the stove unattended, as the sugar can burn.

Basic steps

  • Use a heavy saucepan
  • Add a layer of sugar to the saucepan
  • Heat on low to medium heat
  • Do not stir the sugar, but you can swirl the pan gently
  • Bring the sugar to a boil
  • Watch closely. Sugar burns quickly.
  • Cooked sugar is very hot! Caramelizationbegins at 338° F.
  • Add other ingredients after the sugar is caramelized, such as butter or heavy cream

How to make a wet caramel

A wet caramel uses many of the same steps as dry caramel, except water is added to dissolve the sugar.

Basic steps

  • Use a heavy saucepan
  • Add sugar and water to pan
  • Heat on high heat until sugar dissolves
  • Do not stir. Stirring can cause crystallization .
  • Bring the liquid to a boil until it starts to caramelize
  • As the water evaporates, the sugar will brown

If you find your caramel is crystalizing , it’s because there’s not enough water in your pan due to evaporation . Your concentration of sugar is too high. To prevent this, simply add some warm water to your pan.


No matter which caramel you make, remember that science is a key part of your scrumptious treat.

Glossary

Liquify: to become liquid


Caramelize
: to convert sugar into caramel, caused by heating
 

Chemical change: any change that causes a new substance to be formed


Oxidize
: a chemical reaction that takes place when a substance comes into contact with oxygen


Disaccharide
: any substance that is composed of two molecules of simple sugars linked together


Monosaccharide
: a carbohydrate consisting of one sugar unit


Glucose
: a type of monosaccharide sugar; the chief source of energy for living organisms


Fructose
: a type of monosaccharide sugar. Fructose is also known as “fruit sugar” because it primarily occurs naturally in many fruits.


Invert sugar
: a sugar substance created via hydrolysis, a process in which sucrose is mixed with water and heated until the bonds between glucose and fructose break.


Crystallization
: the process by which a solid forms, where the atoms or molecules become highly organized into a structure known as a crystal


Crystalizing
: in the process of forming crystals


Evaporation
: the process of turning water into vapor


Concentration
: the amount of a substance, such as a salt, that is in a certain amount of tissue or liquid, such as blood. A substance becomes more concentrated when less water is present.

Flesch Kincaid Reading Level: 8.7

Mattison, Lindsay. How to Make Caramel from Scratch. January 10, 2022. https://www.tasteofhome.com/article/how-to-make-caramel/

 

Caramelization and Caramels are not the Same. https://www.exploratorium.edu/cooking/candy/caramels-story.html

 

Hornby, Jane. How to Make Great Caramel. October 19, 2013. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/oct/19/kitchen-tips-how-to-make-caramel

 

Moncel, Bethany. What is Caramel? September 7, 2022.

 https://www.thespruceeats.com/what-is-caramel-1328641

 

How to Make a Dry Caramel. October 5, 2020. https://cinnamonshtick.com/how-to-make-dry-caramel/

 

Contributors

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