It now flavours everything from chocolate to beer and sausages. Are we heading for a gastronomic disaster?
It was the salted caramel shampoo that finally did it. I was showering in a hip hotel, lathering my scalp – in, hang on, salted caramel? – when suddenly, my blood ran cold. Here I was, four floors above shops and bars selling everything from salted caramel martinis to salted caramel tea, in a bedroom so on-trend it came not with free biscuits, but a packet of gourmet salted caramel popcorn – and now I was washing in the stuff.
As in a disaster movie, this minor tremor in my world view immediately conjured a terrifying vision of the future – a future that featured a Biblical salted caramel flood that, rather than simply perking up porridge pots or boosting brownies, would soon engulf us all, shrouding buildings in sticky darkness, swamping traffic, and drowning delirious pedestrians in a terrible wave of delicious, irresistible glop.
Basically, in that moment I realised that all food and drink, from gin to granola, vodka to Greek yogurt (not to mention the inedible products, like scented candles, body lotions and perfumes) is now merely a vehicle to deliver salted caramel into our salivating maws.
Like you, I am conflicted about this. Obviously, in its natural dessert setting, I am a sucker for the saline depth of this supra-caramel. I am only human, after all. I am even open to cerebral chefs using salted caramel – or, increasingly, its brooding, more handsome cousin, miso caramel – to coat chicken wings or sauce salmon.
But to paraphrase the philosophical touchstone that is Ghostbusters, crossing sweet and savoury streams is dangerous, and as salted caramel breaks out from its ice cream and cake confines to make appearances in crisps, chewing gum, beer and even sausages, you have to wonder if this love of ours has curdled into a worrying obsession.
Yet the cult of salted caramel is still growing, seemingly immune to the traditional cool cycle. ‘It’s almost a cliché,’ decreed London’s Evening Standard restaurant critic Fay Maschler in 2011, almost a decade after Artisan du Chocolat made its first salted caramel chocolates for Gordon Ramsay. But, market analysts Innova report that salted caramel flavoured food and drink product launches grew by 41% globally each year from 2014 to 2018, with caramel manufacturers predicting growth into 2021.
Some trend-watchers see the rise of salted caramel as symptomatic of an overall sweetening of food. Others contend it illustrates our growing appetite for combining sweet and savoury flavours. Crucially, it has multigenerational appeal, and can be produced industrially in endless stable varieties (think sauces, gels, crisps, syrups, powders and so on).
Generally, these products bear little relation to Henri Le Roux’s CBS (the epic caramel au beurre salé which, in the late 1970s, put Brittany’s habit of using salted butter to make caramel on the French culinary map), nor Parisian pastry chef Pierre Hermé’s influential salted caramel macarons, which wowed chefs in the late 1990s. But, like pesto or cheddar cheese, salted caramel is one of those foods that, even at its most mass-produced, will always tickle our pleasure centres.
We are neurologically hardwired that way, apparently. The combination of salty and sweet flavours, plus fat, found in salted caramel releases an unusually intense rush of morphine-like endogenous opioids – or endorphins – in the brain. It does so, moreover, in a way that never gets boring, say scientists at the University of Florida. Where we may grow tired of most foods and flavours, salted caramel’s sweet-yet-savoury complexity means each mouthful tastes slightly different and is compelling – which triggers what the boffins observing our salted caramel binges refer to as ‘hedonic escalation’, or the desire to eat more and more of the stuff with every bite we take.
What Nigella Lawson once called a ‘class-A foodstuff’ is, it seems, as close as it gets to an addictive flavour. Could that spell gastronomic disaster? You could argue it already has.
Read more articles by Tony Naylor
10 big foodie don'ts for 2019
10 ways to support your local restaurant
10 processed foods we secretly love
For eats' sake, stop the music
Tony Naylor writes for Restaurant magazine and The Guardian.