Overview

May we have a show of hands: Who thinks chocolate is the best flavor in the dessert world? Now, who thinks caramel is the best? Not as many hands in the air, but mine is one of them. While chocolate is perfectly nice — and we’ll be seeing plenty of it during this sentimental season — caramel is the truly sensual treat.

Tawny-gold and glossy (why is “The Girl From Ipanema” suddenly playing in my head?), a good caramel sauce starts sweet and finishes just short of bitter. For me, bitterness is the key. That edge prevents caramel from being cloyingly sweet, which is a common hazard, as it’s pretty much pure sugar, and it seduces you into taking just one more taste.

Beyond the luscious factor, another brilliant aspect of caramel is its simplicity. Anyone can make it anywhere, because for the most basic sauce, all you need is sugar, heat and a final liquid. And while I do add salt and vanilla extract … and, okay, a few chunks of butter, caramel’s complexity comes from chemistry.

Let’s look at the basic process: boiling, melting, burning (almost), enriching.

Boiling involves evaporating all the water in the sugar to yield pure sucrose that can get hot enough to melt. Paradoxically though, when I make caramel, I begin by adding water to the sugar. This method, called a “wet” caramel, takes a few minutes longer but ensures a more even caramelization. For the “dry” caramel method, you simply heat the sugar in an empty pan until melted and caramelized. It’s quick and direct, but the risk is that some parts of the sugar melt faster than others, and can burn before the rest has made it even to light amber. The way to make the dry method work is to swirl the melting sugar gently and strategically for a uniform result.

[Make the recipe: Oh My Darling Clementine Caramel Sauce]

For either method, choose a pot with a heavy base to help prevent hot spots and one whose sides are high enough to contain the caramel sauce as it bubbles during cooking. Please be aware that caramel at all stages is sticky and beyond hot, so be super careful as you go. Make sure your shoelaces are tied.

Melting. During this phase, you’ll be jousting with the forces of crystallization. As the sugar liquefies, a crystal can reform at any moment and begin a domino effect which, before you know it, will produce a chunky mess.

You may discover many techniques for avoiding crystallization, including cooking with the lid on to create steam to dissolve sugar crystals; sluicing the inside walls of the pot with a water-soaked pastry brush to wash down any crystals; and never letting a spoon come close to the initial sugar syrup.

I’ve tried all the tricks, and while crystallization is rare with any sugar method, it occasionally happens no matter. Hence, I don’t stress about it. If you see that your sugar syrup is starting to look like a pond covering over with ice, don’t worry. Keep cooking it. Those new crystals will eventually melt again and start behaving.

Burning/not burning. Once the melting begins, good things occur. Your granulated sugar, or sucrose, breaks down into glucose and fructose, which then recombine to form hundreds of new compounds including three called caramelan, caramelen and caramelin, and I find that oddly charming. A sister act! All the newly developed molecules contribute specific flavor notes to the complex caramel profile, including nutty furans, buttery diacetyl and toasty maltol. Toffee,anyone?

Once it starts, the caramelization process moves very fast and is irreversible. If you cross the line into truly bitter, you can’t go back. This just means you need to have your liquid-enriching ingredient, which will cool down the sugar, measured and ready to deploy. And you must pay attention as you cook, using both sight and smell as your guides.

You may not achieve your personal caramel perfection the first time you make the sauce, because, unfortunately, you can’t taste for doneness (do NOT be tempted to swipe your finger through the hot caramel for an exploratory lick). So perhaps err on the lighter side until you’re comfortable with finding that edge. If you decide that your finished caramel sauce is too sweet, you can always cook another 1/4 cup of sugar to a darker stage and whisk your sauce into it, for a boost of bitter.

[Make the recipe: Chocolate Caramel Sauce]

Visually, you should strive for a very deep amber color, like that of strong iced tea. The aroma will go from cotton-candy sugary to nutty with a tiny bit of burnt sugar; the latter is the moment to stop the temperature climb by adding liquid.

Enriching. Most caramel sauces and confections use cream for this, but there’s no law saying dairy has to be involved. I make a citrus-juice caramel sauce that is truly scrummy, as Mary Berry likes to say, though the flavor’s more Jolly Rancher than Sugar Daddy.

Once you’ve got your liquid caramel, it’s time to enrich and customize the flavor. The classic additions are cream, vanilla and salt (yes, even before “salted caramel” became a thing, most of us were adding salt to our caramel). But creme fraiche instead of cream, a splash of dark rum and a drop of almond extract, are all delicious options.

I like to finish my caramel sauce with butter, to lock in the most unctuous, satiny texture. And if unctuous and satiny aren’t good Valentine’s Day words, I’m not sure which ones are.

Caramel sauce keeps quite well in the refrigerator, for up to a month, and it freezes just fine in a zip-top freezer bag for about three months. So go all-in on this easy and impressive sauce and the two others, with plenty to give to your loved one(s) for Valentine’s Day and enough left over for yourself and a pint of ice cream on any day.


Ingredients

1 cup sugar

1/4 cup water

3/4 cup heavy cream (may substitute creme fraiche; see OVERVIEW)

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or more as needed

1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract, or more as needed

1 teaspoon cold unsalted butter


Steps

Step 1

Combine the sugar and water in a heavy-bottomed, medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir a lot at first, in order to dissolve the sugar. Once it has dissolved, cook, undisturbed, until it begins to turn light golden. At this point, the water has cooked off and the sugar is starting to caramelize.

Step 2


Continue cooking, carefully swirling the pan a bit so the caramelizing stays even, until the syrup is a deep amber color; this should take between 8 and 12 minutes. You might see the tiniest wisps of smoke coming from the syrup, too.

Step 3

Remove from the heat. Immediately add about 1/4 cup of the cream and stir for a few seconds. The mixture is going to bubble and create a lot of steam. The caramel might seize up; this is all okay.

Step 4

Add the remaining heavy cream or creme fraiche. Return the pan to the stove top, over medium-low heat; cook for 3 or 4 minutes, stirring with a whisk or heatproof flexible spatula until smooth and slightly thickened.

Step 5

Add the salt and vanilla extract; taste a cooled-off sample, and adjust with more salt or vanilla extract as needed.

Step 6

Finish by whisking in the butter until it has melted and the caramel sauce is shiny. Serve warm or at room temperature; the sauce thickens as it cools, so to make it more pourable, just warm it up a bit.

Holmberg is the author of “Modern Sauces” (Chronicle, 2012) and co-author with Joshua McFadden of “Six Seasons: A New Way to Cook Vegetables” (Artisan, 2017).

Tested by Ali Sharman; email questions to voraciously@washpost.com.

Scale and get a printer-friendly version of the recipe here.

The nutritional analysis is based on a 2-tablespoon serving.

More from Voraciously:

How to take care of your cast-iron cookware and make it last forever

We tried 20 store-bought mac and cheese brands to find out which is the best (and which is the absolute worst)

Nutrition

Calories: 190; Total Fat: 10 g; Saturated Fat: 6 g; Cholesterol: 35 mg; Sodium: 80 mg; Carbohydrates: 26 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugars: 26 g; Protein: 0 g.