Homemade Caramel Sauce tastes a thousand times better than any version you’d buy at the store, and is simple to make. It only takes 15 minutes! Use it for dipping apple slices, or topping ice cream sundaes, cheesecake, banoffee pie, coffee drinks like caramel macchiato, and more. No thermometer needed!
“Fresher tastes better.” It’s something we all hear over and over again about food. Well, let me tell you…it’s SOOOOO true when it comes to caramel. Here we will use only four simple ingredients: sugar, cream, butter, and optional vanilla extract.
It’s easy to pick up a jar of caramel sauce from the grocery store, but it won’t taste nearly as good as your own caramel sauce, freshly homemade from scratch. And as much of a scary reputation that it has, it’s totally doable for cooks of all levels. There are a lot of comments below from people who have had success with this easy recipe, and you don’t even need a candy thermometer to make this homemade caramel sauce!
Tips for Best Results
Use a quality heavy-bottomed pan – Cookware varies wildly in quality. If you have a thin and cheap pan, the heat will be less consistent and the caramel will be more prone to problems. Use a heavy-bottomed saucepan.
Shake the sugar flat before adding the water – Once you add liquid to the sugar, you won’t want to touch or move anything, in order to prevent crystallization. So shake the sugar flat in the pan before adding the water, so it all moistens evenly.
Don’t touch the pan! – Until you add the cream, the pan should not be touched at all once the sugar has been moistened with the water. No stirring, no swirling, no movement at all. This prevents crystallization.
How to Avoid Crystallization
If you follow the below instructions precisely, you should not have any issues with crystallization. The biggest cause of crystallization is from stirring or swirling the pan. The pan should not be touched AT ALL once the water has been added, and until the cream is added to stop the cooking.
Why does caramel crystallize? It’s almost always triggered by some kind of early agitation before the sugar has been fortified with fat, like cream and butter. First you’ll get a few crystallized sugar spots on the sides of the pan, where water evaporated and the sugar granules turned into crystals again, and this sets off a chain reaction for the entire pan.
How do you keep caramel from crystallizing? If you properly shake the sugar to flatten in the pan, then do not touch or move the pan after adding the water, crystallization should not happen. However, if for whatever reason it does, use a wet pastry brush to wash down any sugar from the walls of the pan. An alternative is to put a lid on the pan for a minute or two when you see sugar crystals forming, which will use steam/condensation from the lid to wash down the sides. Another preventative option is to use a little bit of light corn syrup (2 tablespoons) to prevent crystallization. However, a lot of people don’t like to add corn syrup and you don’t need it to make caramel. Most importantly, never stir the caramel until you’ve added the cream.
Can you fix crystallized caramel? YES! You don’t need to start over or throw it away. Add 1/4 cup of water and bring the mixture back to a boil. Heating it up with the water should re-dissolve and moisten the crystals. Then you can proceed with the recipe and start getting some color on the sugar.
Step by Step Overview:
To get started, place a cup of granulated sugar in a medium saucepan, and give it a little shake so the sugar lays flat in an even layer. Then add 1/3 cup of water, which should moisten all of the sugar:
Turn the stove to medium heat and cook until the sugar dissolves into a clear syrup. Remember, do not stir, and do not touch!
Can you use brown sugar?
I do not recommend swapping brown sugar in here. First, know that using brown sugar will give you quite a different flavor from white sugar, due to its molasses content. But additionally, you are supposed to use less brown sugar, as they are not a 1:1 swap. If you want to use brown sugar, I recommend searching for a specific recipe designed for its use.
The sugar mixture will look cloudy at first, but eventually will give way to a clear, bubbling liquid. You can see some spots of cloudiness below where the sugar is dissolving, as well as some clear spots:
Continue to cook the caramel over medium-high heat, and watch as it begins to take on an amber color:
Pay close attention, do not leave the caramel’s side, and have 3/4 cup of heavy whipping cream standing by.
Once the hot caramel has developed a golden color, like honey, turn off the heat and immediately add the heavy cream:
This will stop the caramel from continuing to cook.
What temperature is needed?
A thermometer is not needed for this recipe, as I’ve found it very reliable to go off color, and a thermometer can risk crystallizing the sugar if it moves around too much. However, if you insist on measuring, a temperature between 338 and 350F is your target. Above 350F, you’ll start to smell (and later taste) a burned, bitter quality. Below 338, and you won’t have proper color and caramelization.
Now add two tablespoons of salted butter. Or, you may use unsalted butter, and season to taste with sea salt. I recommend starting with 1/8 teaspoon, and adding more if desired. I would not add more than 1 teaspoon of kosher salt or 1/2 teaspoon of regular table salt. Those amounts will turn this into more of a salted caramel sauce, so be mindful of that.
Continue stirring until the caramel has an even texture.
What if the mixture seizes?
If the caramel sauce seizes up when you add the cream and butter, do not worry! This is normal and there is nothing wrong. It should smooth out with more stirring and residual heat, in about a minute or two. If for whatever reason it doesn’t, turn the heat back to medium low and stir for a couple minutes more.
The caramel sauce will look foamy upon adding the cream and butter, like this:
Eventually as the heat dissipates, the caramel will settle down:
It needs to cool to thicken
Right now while the mixture is hot, it will look very thin and runny, but the sauce will thicken as the caramel cools. I find the caramel has the best drizzling consistency at room temperature. If you refrigerate it, it may become too thick to drizzle, and you’ll need to warm it slightly. You can do this gently in the microwave or in a saucepan on the stove.
To keep your delicious caramel sauce from absorbing off flavors from the fridge, make sure to store your finished sauce in an airtight glass container or mason jar.
Suggestions for Serving
Caramel is a great topping or finishing ingredient for elevating all of your favorite desserts, but it can also be mixed into lots of different recipes.
Drizzle over cheesecake like Mini Cheesecakes with Gingersnap Crust and Raspberry Sauce, or your favorite ice cream (try my Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream Without An Ice Cream Machine).
Tips and FAQ
It will keep in the refrigerator for at least one month. Store in an airtight container so it does not absorb any off odors from the fridge.
Yes, for up to 3 months. Store in an airtight container so it does not absorb any off odors from the freezer. Thaw it in the fridge overnight or in a water bath before serving.
Yes! The cream, butter, and sugar all need refrigeration. It will get very thick as it cools, so reheat as necessary to achieve a drizzling consistency again.
In a microwave-safe container, microwave in 15 second intervals until warm and able to be drizzled. Or, heat over medium low heat in a saucepan on the stove, until warm. Heating the caramel makes the consistency thinner and runnier.
Do not stir, swirl, or even touch the pan once you’ve added the water. If you run into crystallization somehow, use a wet pastry brush to wash down the sugar from the walls of the pan. An alternative is to put a lid on the pan for a minute or two when you see crystals forming, which will use steam/condensation from the lid to wash down the sides. Another preventative option is to use a little bit of corn syrup (2 tablespoons) to prevent crystallization. However, a lot of people don’t like to add corn syrup and you don’t need it to make caramel. Most importantly, never stir the caramel until you’ve added the cream.
Yes, you don’t need to start over or throw it away. Add 1/4 cup of water and bring the sugar back to a boil. Heating it up with the water should re-dissolve and moisten the crystals. Then you can proceed with the recipe and start getting some color on the sugar.
No, this will not work, as it’s not thick enough. This is too much of a fluid and creamy caramel sauce for that. I recommend looking up caramel recipes that are specifically designed for dipping whole apples.
Homemade Caramel Sauce
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1/3 cup water
- 3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
- 2 tbsp salted butter*
- 1 tsp vanilla extract optional
- Add the sugar to a heavy bottomed saucepan, then shake it so it lies in an even, flat layer.
- Add the water to fully moisten the sugar. Do not stir or agitate the sugar in any way once the water has been added. It's okay if a few spots didn't moisten, don't touch it.
- Place the pot over medium heat and cook until the sugar dissolves and turns clear, a few minutes.
- Raise the heat to medium high, and cook the caramel until it turns amber colored**, about 10 minutes.
- Turn the heat off and immediately add the heavy cream. It's okay (and expected) if the caramel seizes up when adding the cream.
- Add the butter and stir everything together until the caramel smooths out. If it's still clumpy, turn the heat back on to low, and gently stir for a few minutes until it's smooth. When finished cooking, add vanilla extract, if desired.
- Let the caramel sauce cool to room temperature, then transfer to a jar and refrigerate.
Nutrition is estimated using a food database and is only intended to be used as a guideline for informational purposes.
Post updated from the archives with new photos, new text, and more tips in August 2018. Originally published March 2012.