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I have two recipes for making caramel. One I use for caramel corn, the other for caramel apples and caramel we dip in chocolate. They seem the same to me but my mother and wife insist they are different. One of them includes corn syrup as well. Here is the recipe for candy and apples.

sugar
butter
white Karo syrup
cans of evaporated milk

Here is the recipe for caramel corn.

brown sugar
white sugar
Evaporated milk
whipping cream
butter

Please help me understand the difference. I admit I've never cooked them side by side to see if they taste or perform differently.

3 Answers 3

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Karo seems to be a manufacturer, not a product. They appear to make corn syrups of various sorts. All I can find in the UK appears to be on US import. It's not something I've ever seem personally.

Evaporated milk is … ah, and here we have a slight problem…

Wikipedia says 'Evaporated milk, known in some countries as "unsweetened condensed milk"'
and that may be a problem.

In the UK, they are very different products. Both come from the austerity years, when people were having to scrape by. They are both milk boiled to remove excess water, but they taste & behave very differently.

To an older Brit, 'evaporated milk' [or as it was known in past times 'evap'] tends not to be used in cooking. It was used as a cheap alternative to real fresh cream & poured over puddings, canned fruits etc to try imitate thin fresh cream. It pours quite easily, being around the same consistency as actual pouring cream.

'Condensed milk' on the other hand - used widely across many continents, from the Caribbean to India - is a thick, almost gelatinous semi-solid. It will pour, but it's really in no hurry. The taste is also very different to 'evap'. It is almost like a sugar syrup. It has hints of the flavour of UHT milk, but the consistency of heavy syrup or light molasses.

I would have to guess that your recipe is asking for what I would know as condensed milk, not evaporated - but only the recipe author will know for sure. I know of recipes using condensed milk & real cream to make fudge in the UK. I don't know of anything that uses 'evap' in a similar manner.
If their recipes are illustrated with a lucky picture of it actually being poured, I could tell likely tell by sight which is which. Or a product label may give it away.

btw, 'heavy cream' [UK equivalent 'double cream'] is a fresh dairy product, found in the refrigerators near the fresh milk. US heavy cream seems to be about 40% fat, UK double up to 50%. Whipping cream has slightly lower fat content, approx 30%.

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    I would not expect much further sugar in a recipe that calls for condensed milk. I'm pretty sure the OP's recipes both actually call for evaporated milk, not condensed milk. (Or, to put it another way, people sometimes say "condensed" when they mean "evaporated", but not the other way around.)
    – Marti
    Feb 14, 2023 at 18:07
  • @Marti - right from the horse's mouth - fudge recipe from Carnation - the condensed milk maker - fudge with condensed & sugar [more sugar than condensed, btw]. carnation.co.uk/recipes/ultimate-fudge-recipe
    – Tetsujin
    Feb 14, 2023 at 18:11
  • Evaporated milk and condensed milk are each (respectively) pretty much the same between the US and the UK.
    – Sneftel
    Feb 14, 2023 at 20:09
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Summary: cream is higher in fat than evaporated milk. Molasses has a strong flavor.

Without the amounts or the techniques, it’s difficult to tell, but there are definitely differences in these two recipes for caramel coating.

Karo is a brand of syrup. White Karo is their light corn syrup.

Brown sugar is sugar with molasses. Nowadays, it is usually white sugar with molasses added back in, but it can be sugar before the molasses is removed depending on the brand.

If you replace the ingredients with what they are, you have:

Candy apples

  • sugar
  • light corn syrup
  • butter
  • evaporated milk

Caramel corn

  • sugar
  • molasses
  • butter
  • evaporated milk
  • whipping cream

Evaporated milk and cream are often used interchangeably, especially in older recipes; however, cream has a much higher fat content than evaporated milk. Evaporated milk has no less than 6.5% milkfat, where whipping cream has no less than 30-36% milk fat, depending on whether you use light or heavy whipping cream. (From the International Dairy Foods Association; also, more detailed requirements from the United States Code of Federal Regulations.)

That is, whipping cream has about five times more fat than evaporated milk. So, depending on the amounts (including the amount of butter, which is almost all fat) and the techniques (how hot you cook each syrup, for example, will have a major effect), your caramel coating for apples has much more fat in it than your candy coating for corn. I would expect your candy apples to be crunchier than your caramel corn although this will heavily depend on technique.

Corn syrup is often used to decrease the chance of crystallization, which may make your candy apple recipe easier than your caramel corn recipe but that will depend a lot on the techniques and the amounts.

The caramel for your apples may also stay dippable longer than the caramel for your popcorn would, due to the syrup, but the amount of fat in the caramel corn recipe may offset this.

Molasses will also impart a different flavor to your popcorn that your candy apples do not have. I would expect the caramel for your popcorn to add a more robust flavor.

Depending on how (or whether) you caramelize the caramel in either recipe, the caramel for your popcorn is meant to add to the flavor of your popcorn. The caramel for your apples is meant to enhance the sweetness of the apples.

Popcorn is naturally less sweet than apples. Popcorn is less than 1% sugar, whereas apples run from about 11% to 13% sugar for common varieties, and probably more for especially sweet varieties.

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In the US, there are recipes with either evaporated milk or heavy cream, and they so taste subtly different. Evaporated milk, as you likely know, has a bit more of a 'cooked' almost subtle umami hint to it. Some desire that for caramels. I would say, having made both types, that you taste the dairy a bit more than you do with heavy cream.

Counter to a previous comment, I have never seen a caramel recipe with sweetened condensed milk used; though it would be possible, I would not substitute it in the recipes you referred to or I have made, as it would be overly sugary, weaken the brown or browned sugar taste, and lacking in the dairy/milk/cream taste, which is a big factor in loving caramels flavor.

With the heavy cream caramels, I think more of the sugar and butter taste comes out. It is hard to explain unless you taste them side by side and then how long the cooking and if the 'milk byproduct' doesn't curdle (not happened to me, but I have had some with this effect), the evaporated milk and even corn syrup can help counter this.

Corn syrup is often used to encourage the sugar crystals to dissolve so the outcome isn't gritty, as in fudge where it wasn't cooked properly. One crystal and the whole batch of fudge can turn granular, including caramel fudge or what is often called blonde or white fudge or penuche.

A lot of recipes are done with 'what is in the larder', and so evaporated milk was likely substituted during times of limitation such as the Depression, Dirty Thirties, wars, etc., and even if the household budget required. I even keep a can or two on the shelf in case I run out of cream. And evaporated milk in a creamed soup taste very different than when heavy cream is added. Again, you can taste the cooking in the evaporation process. The same with substituting evaporated milk for regular milk when baking bread. That 'cooked milk' taste comes forward.

I would say that caramels are delicious in and of themselves as it is the melding of brown or browned sugar, butter, and cream (or evaporated milk) so I wouldn't worry about it. Since cream often shouldn't be cooked at higher temps or for very long, or it will separate or curdle (but not as much in cooking as most tout), I would say that evaporated milk is a safer choice for success as in less chance of curdling. If I was to choose, I guess I would prefer the one with heavy cream. Additionally, about cooked milks, some I have known like to add sweetened condensed milk to their coffee instead of half 'n half or cream with sugar. I don't care for the cooked taste of the sweetened condensed milk in that either as it is quite pronounced, but I do use that product for many other things and with great aplomb.

If simplified creamy goodness is desired, then I would use heavy cream, though it all comes to a certain degree of subjectiveness, personal preference, and even a palate that may be slanted with what one is used to.

But note that with cream, that boiling pot must be watched, proverbially speaking. So I guess the discussion has come full circle to perhaps making both and tasting, or just what you like, or it may not even matter to you at all...

:D Elation

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