How to make caramel without melting sugar


People are sometimes afraid of making caramel. It can be a fussy process: the sugar can crystallize, you can easily scorch it if you get distracted, and it’s really hot and will leave a nasty burn if it gets on your skin (or your lip – I learned the hard way not to rap my wooden spoon on the side of the pan). But a revolutionary method from Stella Parks of Serious Eats promises great caramel flavor without all the fuss.

If you think you must melt sugar in order to get caramel, Parks dispels that notion with a bit of science. In a nutshell, melting is a simple phase change (think ice cubes melting into water), but caramelization is a chemical reaction. “While it’s not a perfect analogy, imagine a pile of grass clippings releasing carbon dioxide as it turns to mulch in the sun-an irreversible process with variable results (i.e., no two handfuls of mulch are exactly alike, or composted to the same degree). Instead of occurring at a specific point, thermal decomposition occurs over a range of temperatures determined by the intensity and duration of heat,” she explains. 

Usually melting and caramelization go hand in hand, because the temperatures necessary to produce caramelization are achieved using high heat, where the sugar quickly melts. Parks’ method draws out the process, achieving the same result by using the more gentle heat of the oven. This allows the sugar to remain in its crystalline state while still undergoing the required chemical reactions that produce the delicious caramel flavor. Not only is the method easy, but you can substitute the finished product as-is in any recipe that calls for granulated sugar, from cakes to cookies to meringues to custard. And unlike molasses-rich brown sugar, the low-heat caramel sugar doesn’t change the pH of batters and doughs. 

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  • KarinaFrancis  on  May 17, 2016

    This is very exciting, I'm seeing some baking experiments on my horizon.

  • ellabee  on  May 18, 2016

    How has this gone undiscovered in centuries of cooking? Handy to know. Thinking about applying the technique for apple tartlets…

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