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A lot of cooking involves caramelization, and I want to get a better understanding it. Does caramelization happen instantly when each sugar molecule reaches the correct temperature, or does the sugar need to maintain that temperature for a specific amount of time?

If it needs to maintain temperature, is there any way to estimate the amount of time needed before cooking?

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Caramelization occurs at the melting point of sugar. When a sugar molecule hits the appropriate temperature, it melts. This is similar to ice turning to water above 32 F (0 C). It will take some time for all of a given amount of sugar to melt, but this is relatively insignificant compared to ice melting due primarily to the vast amount of heat involved to melt sugar. Once melted there is no need to maintain it at a specific temperature.

However, time is a factor in achieving the desired temperature for your melted sugar.

For sucrose:

  • At 356 F (180 C) you have light caramel - it's a pale amber to golden brown in hue
  • From 356 F to 370 F (180 C to 188 C) you have medium caramel - this is a golden brown to chestnut brown hue.
  • From 370 F to 400 F (188 C to 204 C) you have dark caramel - this is very dark, bitter, and smells a little burned - this is used for coloring only
  • At 410 F (210 C) you have monkey's blood - it tastes like burning and the sugar breaks down to carbon

Another thing to be aware of is that caramelization is often mistakenly attributed to the browning of meats, nuts, or bread crust. This is actually an entirely different process called the maillard reaction which requires specific enzymes to be present, and occurs at different temperatures than caramelization.

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Caveat: Wikipedia actually states that meat is browned via another process. This is the first I've heard of it. I was always told it was the Maillard reaction, but it's likely just a repeated misnomer. –  hobodave Aug 3 '10 at 2:01
    
I was thinking of things like sauces and onions, not meat. I guess the long time it takes is more related to getting all the water boiled off first. –  Tim Gilbert Aug 3 '10 at 2:25
    
Well, onions aren't truly caramelized. :) They are yet another maillard reaction. "Caramelization" occurs during the browning of sugar in the absence of a protein. When sugars or starches occur with proteins the browning is due primarily to the Maillard reaction, not caramelization. –  hobodave Aug 3 '10 at 2:44
    
But yes, the maillard reaction requires a low moisture and high heat. –  hobodave Aug 3 '10 at 2:48

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