This is white, granulated sugar melted until it browns, after which it sets clear and hard when it cools. A richly coloured caramel adds delicious, contrasting degrees of deeper flavour and of acidity to the simple sweetness of sugar and this wider spectrum is what makes the many guises of caramel more useful than sugar alone. If the cooking is taken too far and the sugar burns, it becomes bitter and unpleasant.
The degree to which the sugar is browned and then whether it is ground or broken into shards offers myriad flavours and textures to both amateur and professional cooks and chefs.
If chopped nuts are added, it becomes praline. If sweet or savoury liquids are added to the hot, melted sugar the caramel becomes and stays a sauce, providing a reliable platform for worlds of delicious possibilities.
Whenever you have sugar, a heat source and a few minutes in the kitchen.
Choose the best
The best is what you most prefer, light or dark. It’s better to be bold when browning the sugar because pallid caramel has little flavour and will taste no different from light brown sugars.
It will last a long time in cool places but slowly softens and clumps together whether in shards or has been crushed.
Take your time and use only medium heat. Leave the sugar alone, unless there are distinct points of darker brown, when you can swirl very gently. If you are brave, the maximum delicious browning happens just as you detect the very first note of bitterness in your nose. Then swiftly pour the caramel onto something rugged and heat proof – baking paper on a cutting board.
Otherwise, pour in cream to make a caramel sauce, used hot or cold. Add orange or other juices to make sauce for pancakes, waffles and hot puddings or to include in fruit pies. The addition of soy sauce makes an astonishingly useful savoury sauce, as does a chilli sauce. But beware, whatever you use, the caramel will spit and complain violently, so wear gloves and stand well back.