Fall is the season for caramel! It goes so perfectly on just about every fall dessert, from apple slices to pies to crisps to cobblers. And while there are lots of options at the store, there's really no replacement for a homemade caramel sauce. I've been making this one for years and am so excited to finally be sharing it here!
Make sure to bookmark this one, since I bet you'll find yourself coming back to it again and again. I make it at least several times each fall. It's a great make-ahead item, especially for the busy holiday season; I like to make a batch and then keep it tucked away in the fridge for when we have friends over. Although we use this caramel sauce in infinite ways all season long, my favorite way to use it is on a dessert board with apple slices and gingerbread cookies; it's perfect for dunking!
Is Making Caramel Hard?
A lot of people feel intimidated to try homemade caramel, and I can understand why. It's a little tricky! But I promise that nothing about this recipe is hard; you just need a little patience and a keen eye to decide exactly when the caramel is done. From beginning to end this won't take more than 15-20 minutes, but be forewarned that you really need to pay attention during this time; it's definitely not a recipe that you can walk away from.
Making caramel sauce (not the same thing as chewy caramel candies) involves a few basic steps. First, you'll dissolve the sugar in water; dissolving the sugar first helps keep the caramel crystal-free. Then you'll boil the sugar until deeply caramelized, stopping just barely before it goes too far. Finally, you'll stir in some cream, rum, and salt.
The only tricky bit is the second piece: boiling and caramelizing the sugar. As you caramelize the sugar, it will turn color, going from clear to yellow to amber to deep amber. The key is to stop it at exactly the right point! If you don't cook it enough, your caramel won't have much flavor; conversely, if you cook it too much, the caramel will taste burnt and bitter. You'll get the hang of it, I promise! I like to cook mine until the liquid is deep amber in color, with a really prevalent toasty, caramelized (but not bitter!) smell. Don't be discouraged if it takes you a couple batches to get right.
A Decadent Treat (+ Variations)
Although I generally make desserts with vegan ingredients, natural sweeteners, and nourishing flour alternatives, this caramel is an exception. While it's possible to make a better-for-the-body caramel, the end result just isn't as perfect as a traditional caramel. So in my opinion, this is a very special treat that we make a few times a year during the holidays and really savor. That said, if you want to try some alternatives, you can.
For both of the items below, keep in mind that altering the sugar and the cream will change not only the texture but also the flavor. Coconut sugar and coconut milk, for example, will both empart a lot of their own flavor, which at least partially obscures the pure caramel taste. If you try any of these variations, please leave a comment below, I'd love to hear what you try and how it goes!
Can I make caramel sauce with unrefined sugar?
I've tried this recipe with brown sugar and even coconut sugar and it works well. The challenge isn't that the recipe won't work with a less refined sugar, rather it's that you can't see what's happening! If you use a dark-colored sugar (e.g., coconut), you lose the ability to see the color development of the sugar as it caramelizes. I've made this recipe so many times that I can smell when it's ready, so if I use a darker sugar I judge its doneness more by smell than by color. My suggestion? Make this a few times with white sugar to get the hang of it before you start trying to work with anything darker-colored.
Can I make vegan caramel sauce?
Yes, with some qualifications. I've played around a lot with this, and my best results have come from using full-fat coconut milk. You definitely want to use something with a very high fat content, similar to heavy cream. Keep in mind that your final result will be tasty, but slightly thinner and slightly more muddled in terms of its flavors than the classic.
Let's Talk Ingredients
Here's what you'll need for this recipe, as well as some thoughts, tips, and possible substitutions. If you make any substitutions, I'd love to hear about it in the comments section below.
White granulated sugar. The classic really works best here, but see the section above for some ideas about using other sugar options, including unrefined sugars.
Heavy cream. Same as above, this recipe is most successful with the real thing, but see the section above for a coconut milk option.
Spiced rum. This makes those caramel flavors really sing! I love this recipe most with Koloa Rum's amber-colored spiced rum, it's pure magic.
Flaky sea salt. Fleur de sel works beautifully. The salt is a very important flavor component here, so don't leave it out. If you don't have a flaky sea salt, regular salt is fine (just a little less interesting). DO NOT use a coarse-grained sea salt since it won't dissolve fully and you'll have gross salt blobs at the bottom of your caramel.
One of the best things about this caramel is that it's so make-ahead friendly. It can sit happily in the fridge for a couple weeks. I always include this in my Thanksgiving menu whenever I host since it goes so beautifully on all seasonal desserts and it's something I can have completed an entire week ahead of time. It also makes for a great potluck item, hostess gift, or holiday gift (just remind whoever you gift it to that it needs to be kept in the fridge).
If you've been intimated by homemade caramel sauce before, please give this a try! This is such a special treat during the fall and over the holidays. There's really nothing like the first taste of this sweet and salty caramel while it's still warm. Pure magic!
It makes me so happy to hear from you and see your creations! Please leave a comment below and let me know what you think about this recipe. If you post a photo on Instagram, hashtag #TheRogueBrusselSprout and tag me (@TheRogueBrusselSprout) in the post text so that I'm sure to see it.
Disclosure: This recipe has been developed through a paid partnership with Koloa Rum. However, all opinions and thoughts are my own. Thank you for supporting the brands that keep The Rogue Brussel Sprout running.
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0.25 tsp fleur de sel or other flavorful, flaky sea salt
In a light-colored pot (it will make the color development much easier to see!) with tall sides, combine the water and sugar.
Over low-medium heat, melt the sugar until fully dissolved.
Increase the heat to medium or medium-high, until the mixture is boiling consistently but controllably. DO NOT STIR IT since stirring will cause crystals to develop.
Continue boiling the sugar. You will see it transform from clear to pale yellow to amber. Keep a very close eye on it during this time, adjusting the heat as necessary. If you see any smoke, turn the heat down. If one side of the pot seems to be caramelizing more rapidly, slide the pot over rather than stirring.
Watch for the magical moment! You want to take the sugar to deep caramelization, just shy of burning. Look for a deep, rich amber color. It will smell like caramel, with the slightest bitter hint. As soon as you reach this point, turn the heat off.
Working very quickly, add the heavy cream and begin stirring. The caramel will bubble up aggressively, so make sure to use a spoon or spatula with a long handle. Add the rum and salt after the heavy cream, continuing to stir. Keep stirring until the bubbling subsides, which will take only a few minutes.
Let the caramel cool until it is warm but not yet room temperature, then pour it into a glass jar.
Store the sealed caramel in the fridge for up to two weeks. When ready to use, reheat it uncapped in the microwave or by setting the jar in a pot full of simmering water.
Drizzle it over apple pie, pumpkin pie, baked apples, apple crisp, and all your other favorite fall desserts!